GAA Football

Old Sperrin rivalry not in the same league as club beefs

TYRONE and Derry might be crossing swords in Healy Park, but tonight's game has failed to generate much excitement on either side of the Sperrins.

Around Tyrone this week it was the draw for the county championship which got the tongues wagging. Ever the traditionalists in the O'Neill County, they have a retained an old-school approach to their championship. It's the old-fashioned do-or-die format. And for real fervour and excitement, nothing quite matches a straight knockout competition.

Tonight's fixture in Healy Park was largely glossed over in favour of discussing the news that last year's finalists, Omagh and Carrickmore, are set to lock horns in the first round. Dromore and Ardboe is another mouthwatering prospect, while perhaps the daddy of them all is the parish feud between Clonoe and Coalisland.

In Tyrone, the visit of Derry was very much the secondary topic on the GAA conversation list. Likewise, in Derry, the auld rivalry hasn't provoked much chat.

Slaughtneil's progress to an All-Ireland final, and Glen's annexing of the Ulster minor and U21 titles has focused more attention. Can Slaughtneil upset the odds? Will Glen be able to transfer their success in the minor and U21 grades to senior level? Those are the issues which were being discussed in Derry this week.

As for Tyrone and Derry, yes, the game has been talked about, but it's telling that this fixture has been pushed into the background by club matters.

There was a time not so long ago when Tyrone and Derry was a fixture of national significance. It started with the National League final in 1992. Thereafter, this derby commanded headlines. Even when one county was riding high there was always a strong chance that they could be ambushed by their neighbours.

The Sperrin derby no longer holds the same appeal. Now that both counties have slipped down the rankings, it's widely regarded as a local spat.

Tonight's game certainly fits into that bracket. The uncomfortable truth for both counties to digest is that this derby is largely being viewed within the context of relegation. If Derry lose, their fate will be all but sealed. If Tyrone lose, their future remains cloaked in uncertainty.

Derry's prospects look particularly gloomy. The defeat to Kerry in Celtic Park was a particularly sobering experience. The All-Ireland champions travelled to Derry city without James O'Donoghue, Colm Cooper, and Kieran Donaghy - and they still won comfortably.

What would have happened if Kerry had come with a full team?

Admittedly, Derry weren't at full strength either, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that a significant gulf exists between the Oak Leafers and the elite outfits like Kerry and Dublin.

While Tyrone are no longer are a top three team, they should still have too much in their locker for Derry.

Eoin Bradley's return to Derry's starting team has been offset by the absence of captain Mark Lynch, who sits out the game due to a one-match suspension.

While Bradley is a talented forward, Derry have seen on repeated occasions how a Mickey Harte team can totally nullify the threat of one key individual.

In the likely event that Tyrone put a battalion of players around Bradley, it's extremely difficult to see where Derry's scores are going to come from.

Extract Lynch and Bradley from the equation, and Derry's top scorers in the past two games were Ciaran McFaul (0-2) and Daniel Heavron (0-2), neither of whom will start tonight.

It's worth pointing out that Tyrone's forwards aren't exactly setting the world on fire either though.

A glance at Tyrone's recent results shows that the Red Hands have now entered a very new phase.

Back in the day, a 10-minute spell of brilliance from Peter Canavan, Stephen O'Neill or Owen Mulligan could have turned an otherwise workmanlike performance into a satisfactory victory. Those days are gone.

In the McKenna Cup final, Tyrone's top scorer was Niall McKenna. He bagged a goal. Against Monaghan, the Red Hands kicked 0-9 and their best marksman was Peter Hughes who scored 0-2. Even though Tyrone beat Mayo, a similar trend emerged. A goal from Peter Harte made him their top scorer from play.

There remains a possibility that a role can be developed for Sean Cavanagh which will allow him to chip in with two or three points per game. So far, though, that hasn't happened.

If Fergal Doherty and James Kielt had been named in Derry's starting team it would have been easier to make a case for an away win. Even though Brian McIver might announce a few changes before the throw-in, the hosts still look like the safer bet.

While Tyrone don't have a consistent scorer from play, they should still be able to mine more points from the other departments of their team.

Tyrone's bench also holds more scores. And if Tyrone stop Eoin Bradley, which they probably will, then they'll stop Derry.

TEAMS

Tyrone: N Morgan; A McCrory, R McNamee,

C McCarron; R McNabb, Justin McMahon, P Harte; C Cavanagh, P McNulty; T McCann, M Donnelly; D McCurry, S Cavanagh,

C McShane. Subs: M O'Neill, M Bradley,

R Brennan, PJ Lavery, C McAliskey, C McCann, S McGuigan, E McKenna, R McKenna,

R O'Neill, B Tierney.

Derry: E McNicholl; O Duffy, N Holly,

D McBride; D McAlary, K Johnston,

SL McGoldrick; B Og McGilligan, M Craig;

C McWilliams, B Heron, E Lynn; D McKinless, E Bradley, B McGoldrick.

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