GAA Football

All-Ireland champions Tyrone face Division One pacesetters Armagh in Athletic Grounds battle

Rian O'Neill fires home Armagh's first goal against Dublin at Croke Park. Pic Philip Walsh.
Andy Watters

Allianz National Football League Division One: Armagh v Tyrone (tomorrow, the Athletic Grounds, 2pm, deferred coverage on TG4)

MEN who hadn’t been seen since the Covid pandemic reached these shores two years ago resurfaced this week to make enquiries about “tickets for Sunday”.

Bar winning this derby, nothing sparks interest in the fortunes of either county like beating the Dubs and, after Armagh began their season with a statement of intent at Croke Park, the Orchard drums began to beat loudly.

The volume will go up another notch if they come out on top against their auld enemy tomorrow but Tyrone will hope to silence them.

Revisionism began after the dust settled on Armagh’s five-point win in Dublin. The Dubs were, it must be said, a pale shadow of the all-conquering blue machine of a couple of years’ ago and the Armagh management did have weeks to plan for the game.

Armagh could only beat what was put in front of them of course and they did so brilliantly and ruthlessly with tactics that worked like a dream.

Questions were asked of their defence but they answered them in emphatic style by playing with a line across their 45 with cover behind it and man-markers picking up Dublin’s inside forwards.

The Dubs had plenty of possession but lacked the confidence to shoot from distance (a mistake Tyrone can’t make tomorrow) and Armagh’s aggressive tackling turned the ball over and the Ulstermen ripped the Dubs to shreds on the counter. Rian O’Neill was excellent at full-forward but the supply he received from Rory Grugan and Aidan Nugent was top drawer.

Armagh sparkled on Jones’s Road but Tyrone had to grind it out against Monaghan at Healy Park were conditions were a nightmare for football. A howling gale blew sheet of rain down the field and players on both sides had to battle the elements as well as each other.

There was no way Tyrone were going to reach anywhere near the heights they managed last summer but it was a decent start and they would have beaten Monaghan if Paul Donaghy’s late shot been a couple of feet higher.

Rory Beggan was fouled as the ball scraped over the bar and the game ended in a draw, as did Donegal-Mayo and Kildare-Kerry. One thing was clear from last Sunday’s fixtures: every result in the top flight will be hard-earned.

“The bottom line is that it’s such a competition division – as they all are – that everybody is targeting each other,” said Tyrone joint-manager Feargal Logan.

“Armagh have stepped forward bravely and now the challenge is laid down to everybody to try and reach their standard. That’s the way it is.”

The Orchardmen already hold a McKenna Cup victory over Tyrone this year and winning in Croke Park will have given Kieran McGeeney’s men huge confidence. McGeeney told his players after their five-point win: “You should have scored more” which may seem a little harsh but he has to keep their feet on the ground and he’ll know that although Tyrone began this year with so-so results and a series of retirements that has diluted their strength-in-depth, they are a formidable outfit.

The Red Hands are building towards the Championship and still short of full strength. The strength of full-back Ronan McNamee will be a huge loss tomorrow as will the pace and athleticism of Eglish forward Conor McKenna.

In McNamee’s absence, Padraig Hampsey will pick up O’Neill and Michael McKernan could be the man sent to track Jason Duffy. But cutting the supply line is crucial, so who will pick up Grugan? Tyrone have candidates in their half-back line in Conor Meyler, Kieran McGeary, Frank Burns and Peter Harte and they’ll need to be switched on because Grugan is capable of doing damage right from the throw-in?

Cathal McShane scored two points against Monaghan and looked sharp and he’ll ask questions of the Armagh defence as will Darren McCurry and Niall Sludden and Tyrone will look to get the ball up to them quickly and pull their hosts’ defence out of shape.

Blaine Hughes was accurate from short kick-outs last week but didn’t have the same joy when Dublin got their press right and Tyrone eyes will have spotted that. Expect a high press and an intriguing battle in midfield where Brian Kennedy could return for the Red Hands.

The All-Ireland champions versus the Division One leaders… It’s top quality stuff and there shouldn’t be much in it but Armagh look a bit further down the road than Tyrone at this stage of the year so they get the nod to win on their home patch.

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