Niall Sludden continues to deliver for Tyrone
By Orla Bannon
When Mickey Harte came calling to invite the younger version of Niall Sludden into his Tyrone squad, the 19-year-old knew he had to choose his words carefully.
The 2010 All-Ireland minor winner didn't feel he was physically ready for the demands of senior inter-county football at that stage, so Sludden had the courage of his convictions - and turned him down.
Although current Tyrone captain Mattie Donnelly also politely declined an opportunity earlier in his career, it was a high-risk strategy that could easily have back-fired on the Dromore playmaker.
“I was young back then and speaking to Mickey Harte, you were very much in awe of the man and of what he had done," Sludden says.
“So when the phone call came, I had to make sure when I was talking to him not to give the impression I was saying ‘hold on now Mickey, I don’t want to be part of your squad and I don’t care about the Tyrone team.’
“I was saying 'I am not ready, but if you give me the call and I keep playing well for my club, no doubt I will come back in'. I was leaving a reminder and thankfully he made that call again.
“I just wanted to wait. To be fair to Mickey, he respected that and said that he would still keep me in his thoughts.”
Sludden reckons that was around 2011 and he then watched on as former minor team-mates like Conor Clarke and Conan Grugan got senior opportunities, while Ronan O'Neill, Hugh Pat McGeary, Padraig McNulty and Richie Donnelly are still in the senior ranks.
When he broke his leg in 2013, spending his 21st birthday in Altnaglevin Hospital in Derry, it could have pushed Sludden so far down the pecking order that Harte could have forgotten about him.
However strong performances for his club helped and in 2016 he burst onto the scene looking like there was no need to serve an apprenticeship. Here was a ready-made, senior inter-county footballer.
He identifies the serious leg-break as a critical turning point in his development. “I came in at 24, not just to be part of the squad, but to come in to make a start,” he says.
“It (injury) was definitely a key moment in my life, but a lot of the boys in the squad and around football have had major issues, especially the cruciate.
“Look at Connor McAliskey there; he was only coming back from it last year and he is flying again this year.
“I had a good pre-season.A lot of people will say an injury like that in your career does stand to you so when Mickey did come with the call, I felt ready. "
“I had that confidence in myself from the injury and from playing a few bigger games with the club.”
Colm Cavanagh, Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte are the other men absolutely key to Tyrone's system of play, but when Dublin boss Jim Gavin sat down to make provisions for Tyrone's key men, Sludden will have been very high on his list of priorities.
Himself and Cavanagh were the only two to 'turn up' in last year's All-Ireland semi-final 'no show', and Gavin didn't forget it.
When the Dubs landed in Omagh for this year's All Ireland Quarter Final Group Phase clash, Sludden found himself a marked man and Dublin newcomer Eoin Murchan contained him well.
Although he has not had the same room to operate it, he can take heart from his superb finish which sank Monaghan in the All-Ireland semi-final, a strike which has earned the big Arsenal fan the nickname 'Bergkamp' within the squad.
Looking back to the game in Omagh, Sludden states: "Teams look at certain players they want to stop and they did a very good job that day on me”.
“That’s just part of the game now and every team will go out to stop the key threats. When you do that you go a long way to taking out any team. That’s just part and parcel of the game.
“I look at that as a good thing as well because they are concentrating on me as a threat so they are worried about me, but we’ve got plenty of other players that can step up too.”