Duracell bunny Sludden fully charged for All-Ireland Final
By John Harrington
Niall Sludden is the perfect poster-boy for how Tyrone have been reenergised by the management of Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan.
His effort for the county’s cause never wavered, but those extra few volts of electricity that always marked him out as something special weren’t quite there for a couple of seasons.
His batteries are very definitely fully charged again though. The Dromore man’s searing pace, jinking body-swerves, clever distribution, and all-round work ethic is a big reason why Tyrone are so good at transitioning from defence to attack.
A confident Niall Sludden is a very dangerous footballer, and there’s no shortage of self-belief running his veins right now.
“Definitely, I'm enjoying my football,” says Sludden. “Back at it again. And I don't know what it was, sometimes you try too hard, sometimes some other things.
“We're humans at the end of the day, and people. And things happen in our lives. Maybe sometimes you do try too hard. But I feel good. I'm really looking forward to this opportunity as well.
“But I know at training, it's so competitive and you can't take your eye off the ball or you'll be sitting on the bench or you'll be off the panel.
“So I'm starting to get to the twilight of my career, so you really have to make the most of it.”
Earlier this year, he was seriously wondering whether his face fitted in the new Tyrone set-up because he didn’t start a match at all in the League.
But even if he was beginning to doubt whether Dooher and Logan had any faith in him, he never sulked. Instead he kept grafting behind the scenes at training and in the end he was rewarded for his positive attitude.
“I think, aye you are always doubting yourself,” says Sludden. “I think that comes with a player, but then you know what, I would always have great self belief in myself.
“I know what I can do. I know what I can bring to the team too as well.
“I suppose I was thinking, ‘This is going to be a short year. Am I going to get a chance here at all?’
“I knew I was getting game time, and then I was thinking to myself there are boys not even getting game time too as well.
“It really was just a job of being patient and waiting for my chance, and lucky enough it came along and here we are.
“I just kept going at training. Next thing I know I was getting drafted in and sent into the Cavan game.
“I was just like, ‘I am ready for this,’ and just felt that buzz again too as well. Yeah, it’s been great, just that extra buzz and there’s been that bit of probably more professionalism to the set-up and that’s nothing on the last set-up.
“Every corner is being got at. Just lucky, like, privileged to be in the position. We have got everything we want.
“Again, going into an All-Ireland final, I know we will be going back to training and there will be boys pushing for places in the 26 and the team so there is no certainty at the minute and I am just trying to do my best at training again to impress, impress, impress, impress.
“Especially with Brian and Feargal, that’s what they are looking out for.”
In the modern game, your half-forwards must be as comfortable defending as they are attacking, but few do it as well as Tyrone’s trio of Sludden, Kieran McGeary, and Michael O’Neill.
What marks them out as something special is that they seem to operate with a hive mind where each one knows where they should be in relation to the other at all times on the pitch.
“Yeah, I think we work in a tangent,” says Sludden. “A lot of those boys have been playing well for a number of years. We know our own games, we know our strengths and different things.
“Yeah, a lot of similar things. You could find yourself in the half forward and next thing you could be in half back, and we trust each other to know that, ‘right if you are in half forward, I am going to stay down in half back.’
“You can stay there and maybe press for a kickout or something like that. It comes from that trust and playing with each other for a long time as well.”
As well as Tyrone played in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry, they’re still a team that’s evolving before our eyes as they implement the more attack-minded vision that Dooher and Logan have laid out for them.
Presumably this means there’s still significant room for further improvement in Saturday’s All-Ireland Final against Mayo?
“Definitely we do,” says Sludden. “This team, we have been about a long time, but I suppose under the new management you are still finding those kind of things to gel.
“I think there is still more in us. We need more in us for the next day too against Mayo. It’s been a gradual kind of build up. We probably know that’s not going to do against Mayo as well.
“We kicked the ball away. We missed a good few. Kerry broke through us a few times and maybe on another day...it was just fine margins as well.
“We went five up and we didn’t realise…we could have done better in controlling the game. We got there and that’s the main thing.”
Whatever else they still need to fine-tune, there was nothing wrong with the intensity Tyrone brought to bear on the game without the ball.
They forced 35 turnovers against Kerry thanks to an insatiable appetite for work, and that physical battle against Mayo is likely to be as decisive as it will be fascinating.
The Connacht champions also pride themselves on making life really uncomfortable for the opposition with their hunger for tackling and turnovers, so something will have to give on Saturday.
“Oh yeah, they feed on that, and we do too as well,” says Sludden.
“Everybody is saying what a great win it was against Kerry, but when we do look at it, there was a lot of things that we have to work on and improve on. We didn't win a single kick-out off Kerry.
“We wanted to go for a press so we can't be doing that. The turnover game, giving ball away, it was fine margins, Kerry didn't perform to their best of course, and I don't think we did. But we just did enough to get over the line.
“It was probably more grit and determination and a real defensive display. But it's not going to do for the final. It definitely won't do for the final. Even the black cards. They're going to be big moments, turning points in games.
“So there's a lot of learning to do, go back to the pitch, and you've only got a week and a half. But it's always good to have learning. So we've a lot of things to work on.”
Sludden hopes the experience of playing in the 2018 All-Ireland Final against Dublin will stand to him.
He knew going into that match he was going to be targeted and, sure enough, he was.
Three years later he’s an older and wiser player, and feels like he better knows how to prosper in the most pressurised occasion of all.
“Just enjoy it,” he says. “Make the most of it. Don't get carried away. Focus on the game, however hard that is, but enjoy the build-up, enjoy the hype and the buzz because these things don't happen very often.
“That would probably be the main message. There's only so much you can tell these players. Experience, as we always say, to get get experience you have to go through it.
“Those would be the main points that the older boys on the panel would be saying. But also to look forward to it as well, because you need that rawness with the younger lads.”