GAA Football

Armagh have good chance of rare win against All-Ireland champions Tyrone

Armagh's Conor Turbitt and Tyrone's Niall Sludden in action during the Allianz Football League Division One clash between Tyrone and Donegal at Healy Park, Omagh in May last year Picture: Philip Walsh. 

Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup Section B, round three: Tyrone v Armagh (Healy Park, 1.30 pm today)

FOR all the talk about the 'Armagh-Tyrone rivalry', mostly focussed on the great battles in the first five years of the 2000s, it's actually been a rather one-sided affair recently.

Based on performances so far this year, this afternoon's encounter might be one-sided as well - but this time with the Orchardmen slapping aside the Red Hands.

Armagh haven't beaten Tyrone in senior football since 2014, although at least that was in Championship - All-Ireland qualifiers round 2B - and at today's venue of Healy Park to boot.

Yet that has been the only victory for the Orangemen over the red and whites in League or Championship in eight meetings since they controversially won the 2005 Ulster Final Replay - and even then Tyrone gained revenge in that year's All-Ireland semi-final.

Tyrone won four more Championship meetings since then, 2009, 2011, 2012, and then they wreaked terrible revenge for that 2014 loss in a 2017 All-Ireland quarter-final, when they humiliated Armagh at headquarters with an 18-point victory, 3-17 to 0-8.

However, even such a resounding triumph wouldn't be enough for progress tomorrow, given the 15-point beating they took from Cavan at Kingspan Breffni on Tuesday night. Tyrone need to win by at least 26 points to finish top on scoring difference, which I boldly predict will not happen.

Instead, only Armagh can realistically secure a semi-final slot from this showdown, which they'll do by avoiding defeat - although the visitors may well do more than that.

Kieran McGeeney's men got a point in Omagh in Division Two in 2016, one of just two recent league meetings, with Tyrone winning last year's encounter by five points. Even that 2016 draw came with the Red Hands already assured of promotion while Armagh were desperately trying - and ultimately failing - to avoid relegation.

Still, 'Geezer' has had Armagh on an upward curve since then, back in the League top flight last year and unlucky not to advance to the semi-finals from Division One North after beating Monaghan and drawing with Donegal after giving Tyrone a real battle in between.

They pushed Monaghan even harder before succumbing in an Ulster SFC semi-final thriller and will be keener than ever to deliver some silverware this year.

The McKenna Cup would be a start, and they began this competition well by beating Cavan in Breffni, 1-12 to 0-11. McGeeney has rung the changes from that line-up, with only five players retaining their starting places in the team announced: Ciaran Mackin, Jarly Og Burns, Aidan Nugent, Rian O'Neill, and Aidan Forker.

Yet such has been Armagh's squad-building in recent seasons that only Maghery's Ciaran Higgins at full-back is a newcomer.

Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher may still be seeking their first McKenna Cup win as Tyrone joint-bosses but the former said they're still likely to make a few alterations too:

"We probably will give some more game-time to younger lads, just to see how they are now. If it's beyond our reach in terms of going through, that would be an opportunity to do that.

"Again, the established players need to get back on-message too. It's always a delicate balance but…the redeeming feature is that Saturday comes quickly, we don't even have to wait a full week to get another game, so we have an opportunity to get it out of our system."

In one sense Logan appreciated the hammering handed out by Cavan, an early lesson that everyone will want to beat the reigning All-Ireland champions this year - especially Armagh:

"Yeah, you can say things, but until they're seen in real life - sometimes the reality of life is what's needed. Of course we all know that there's a target on our back. We got the experience of that in front of us, fair play to Cavan they went at it hard and they deserve credit for their victory."

Tyrone will want to put in a much better performance than they did midweek, when barely anyone played well, admittedly with senior stars only back from the team holiday in Florida and with six debutants in the starting line-up.

A few places will be up for grabs in the League opener at the end of the month against Monaghan, who are probably heading into a McKenna Cup semi-final after good displays against Derry and Fermanagh.

Logan knows that will be a tough test too, but his eyes are on Armagh today: "Monaghan are very much on the front foot, they're going very well - but we'll focus on Saturday and then start looking at Monaghan."

Tyrone: TBC

Armagh: S Magill; P Burns, C Higgins, A Forker; C O'Neill, N Rowland, J Og Burns; Ciaran Mackin, B Crealey; T Kelly, C O'Hanlon, R McQuillan; A Nugent, A Murnin, R O'Neill.
Referee: Paul Faloon (Down).

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GAA Football