Turning down squad invite from Mickey Harte, a broken leg on 21st birthday and a Tyrone breakthrough at 24

YOU HAVE TO hand it to a certain breed of Tyrone footballer.

When Mickey Harte comes calling, few refuse the offer. In Tyrone, there is no higher calling than being a county player.

And yet when you look through their team and pick out some of their more aggressive performers, the eye is drawn to, say, captain Matthew Donnelly, Kieran McGeary and Niall Sludden.

The trio have one thing in common. Harte made an approach to all of them in their teens. And they all made the decision to stick with their clubs and universities, feeling their way into senior football and getting as many games as possible.

Take Sludden in particular. In 2010, he was part of an All-Ireland winning minor team. Harte made his play shortly after.

“Physically the demands of the game over the last number of years had gone up and I felt I was not doing that,” the Dromore man reflects on his decision.

“I was at St Mary’s College so I was very lucky I was under Paddy Tally and I have been under a number of great trainers; Ryan Porter, the Monaghan trainer, was with my club Dromore. As I went along I felt the time was right when I was about 24.”

Niall Sludden (left) celebrates Tyrone’s 2010 All-Ireland minor title win with Padraig McNulty.Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Still, he felt the catch in his throat as he explained his reasoning to Harte. He had to be careful not to leave an inter-county career behind him.

“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.

“So when the phone call came I had to be very careful in making sure that when I was talking to him of not giving the impression I was coming across as 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.”

Such is his confidence and long-sightedness though, that he remained confident he would come back into the frame.

“I was always of the belief that if I kept performing well for the club Mickey would give me the call,” he says.

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“I suppose in the back of your mind you are thinking that he has forgotten about me because in Tyrone there is so much youth coming through from under-21 teams, you can start thinking that he is looking at those players.

“But, no, I always had the ambition I would be here and that one day I would be playing at the highest level so I was hoping Mickey would give me the call and I remember when he gave me that call it was a great feeling.”

Niall Sludden at Tyrone’s All-Ireland football media event.Source: Declan Roughan/INPHO

Only himself, Ronan O’Neill, Hugh Pat McGeary and Richie Donnelly survive from that minor crop in 2010.

“A lot of the team have had opportunities or been around this squad but there has been only a few that have been there,” he explains.

“Tyrone won the minor All-Ireland in 2008 as well and there is only Mattie Donnelly, Ronan McNabb and Peter Harte. But from that team you would have had players around the fringes of the squad as well.”

His progress was derailed with an awful leg break during a league match against Cookstown on a miserable wet night. Whatever you were doing on your 21st birthday it had to be better than Sludden who spent his on the operating slab of Altnagelvin Hospital.

When he came to, the nurses in the ward presented him with a birthday cake.

The doubts he held at that stage, he used as fuel and a tool for keeping his perspective.

“At that stage you are thinking if you will come back from it. It was definitely a key moment in my life,” he adds.

In 2016, he made his debut in the Dr McKenna Cup at 24. He retained his place for the Championship, debuting against Derry. Over the next two seasons he won two Ulster titles and was included on the nominations list for All-Stars.

This summer, they failed to collect a third consecutive Ulster title. The vultures surrounded this team and their manager. But here they are; Tyrone, back in an All-Ireland final and united behind their manager.

Niall Sludden celebrates Tyrone’s semi-final victory over Monaghan.Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Of course, the players are all behind Mickey. It is like everything else, sport is very fickle and being an Arsenal fan I know that best,” he says.

“Mickey is brilliant and when I was coming into the squad it was great to have a man of that experience there. You have to remember that he has been there and done that and the fact that we are in an All-Ireland final and we have been there before for our younger players that is a massive thing to have, to be imparting that knowledge.”

His goal against Monaghan, a loose ball planted into the roof of Rory Beggan’s net earned this Arsenal supporter the nickname ‘Bergkamp.’

What a finish from Tyrone's Niall Sludden! Rattles the net! pic.twitter.com/DQNgGUDPm0

— The GAA (@officialgaa) August 12, 2018

When they run out against Dublin this Sunday, he will have Eoin Murchan for company, just as he did in Omagh for their Super 8s game. He is at that level now, a player that must be curtailed.

“Teams look at certain players they want to stop and defect and they did a very good job that day. Hindsight is a wonderful thing as well and we have another opportunity now to come back,” he reflects.

“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. We’ve got plenty of other players that can step up too.”

If Tyrone can get their scampering attacker on the ball and lacing those outside of the boot efforts over the bar, they will be on the first step to victory.

Who would bet against him?

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