For some a tiered championship just can’t come soon enough

A dejected Patrick McCormick reflects on a heavy Antrim defeat at the hands of Tyrone in Saturday’s Ulster SFC quarter-final at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Picture: Inpho/Tommy Dickson

Tyrone 2-23 - 2-9 Antrim

The game itself was a walking, talking, advert for a tiered football championship, so when the competition on the pitch doesn’t scare you, you look for motivation elsewhere, and Richie Donnelly found it within his own dressing room.

The Tyrone forward has taken his excellent league form into the summer, impressing again in Saturday night’s pitiful 14-point demolition of Antrim in the Athletic Grounds.

The prospect of taking on another Division Four team in their second Ulster SFC outing of the year was probably underwhelming, but the sight of Connor McAliskey, Kyle Coney, and Darren McCurry coming on in a second-half triple substitution would put the frighteners on a lot of forwards.

All of the trio scored from play, hitting 1-4 between them, at the end of a week which began with another quality forward Lee Brennan quitting the panel due to a lack of game time.

The bottom line? Key men Niall Sludden and Peter Harte have still to find their top form, but others are standing up tall, proving Tyrone have the squad depth to challenge long into the summer again. 

And Donnelly knows all about the threats that lie within.

“We look at our own environment, the big focus was on competing against ourselves in training because there’s no jerseys handed out in this dressing room any more,” he said.

That keeps the competitive edge going; even though you might be going into games as favourites, you’re still focused on your own performance.

“You’re looking within yourself to see what you can improve on and strive to be better. If you don’t have that self awareness, you probably will be caught and your jersey will be given to someone else. 

"We’re very hungry. A lot of this group probably haven’t played in an Ulster final, but we have a huge challenge first in two weeks’ time.”

Fearful of how this one would go, only 5,409 turned up on Saturday night.

After a mixed showing against Derry in the preliminary round, Mickey Harte wanted his Tyrone team to send out a message.

And even allowing for the concession of two second-half goals, that message was received and understood in a clinical culling of the Saffrons.

“We were supposed to win the game, and if we didn’t win it comfortably, then people would be asking questions of where we are at,” admitted Harte.

We were in Division One, Antrim in Division Four, and after (another Division Four side) Derry put us to the pin of our collar with 10 minutes to go, we felt we needed to put that superiority on the scoreboard.

"We needed to win comprehensively. So I think that’s good that we were able to do that, but it’s just a job that had to be done, and there was not going to be a lot of thanks for us for winning the game.

“Because we won it by quite a bit, people will be saying that Antrim weren’t up to it, and I don’t think either of those things are right.

“I think Antrim put up a really solid performance, and they showed the country that they have some really good footballers even though the scoreboard was harsh on them at the end.”

While the Tyrone boss offered consoling words to the Saffrons, Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson pulled no punches.

He took some solace at ‘drawing’ the second half but the 1-16 to 0-5 half-time lead that Tyrone had, they held to the end.

“You’re always looking for some positives to take away and certainly in the second half, we took the game to Tyrone,” Harbinson said.

“We scored 2-4 to their 1-7 — but most of the damage had been done in the first half.

Antrim's Patrick Gallagher with Matthew Donnelly of Tyrone. Pic: ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Antrim's Patrick Gallagher with Matthew Donnelly of Tyrone. Pic: ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

“The gulf in class was there to see from Division One to Division Four and that’s not making excuses, it’s just the reality of the situation.”

Tyrone had 14 different scorers on the night and although Antrim made the most of some slack Tyrone defending in the second half, with two goals in a 10-minute spell from Patrick McCormick and Matthew Fitzpatrick, it wasn’t enough to raise the interest levels much above zero.

Brothers Richie and Mattie Donnelly and McShane scored seven points from play between them in the first half and Tyrone were already 0-10 to 0-3 ahead by the time Tiernan McCann hit the net with a spectacular finish in the 28th minute.

Peter Harte’s driving run through the middle set up the chance, he off-loaded to McCann who drilled a cracking finish inside the far post.

Antrim had a penalty appeal turned down when Ben McDonnell was black-carded for tripping Paddy McBride, the foul deemed to be just outside the square, and the raft of second-half changes saw the game drift along harmlessly. 

Tyrone were already thinking ahead to a semi-final with Donegal or Fermanagh when Paddy McCormick popped up from cornerback, got inside their full-back line and finished low superbly across Niall Morgan. 

Matthew Fitzpatrick followed it up with a fine second goal, but Tyrone were ruthless at the finish, McAliskey drilling the ball into the net from close range.

How they lined out

IT MATTERED

To nobody except those inside the Tyrone dressing-room.

Unconvincing against Derry, the Red Hands were ruthless this time against another Division Four opponent.

Mickey Harte wanted to send out a message to the outside world of their intent and while wins over Antrim won’t impress anyone, he will view it as a successful launchpad towards the heights they will have to reach to challenge later.

GOOD DAY

For those calling for a revamped and tiered All-Ireland football championships, look no further.

The events in Portlaoise and Armagh on Saturday evening were the latest proof, if proof were needed, of the need for a drastic overhaul to a structure no longer fit for purpose.

BAD DAY

For the sanctity of the provincial football championships and for Lee Brennan.

A precocious talent, the Trillick forward quit the Tyrone squad last week due to a lack of game time after failing to get a runout against Derry.

Given the quality forwards Mickey Harte brought on against Antrim, his loss may not be the huge blow it first appeared.

Tyrone fans will still rue his lack of patience.

PHYSIO ROOM

After making his debut against Derry, Tyrone midfielder Brian Kennedy missed out this time with a hamstring injury but his place went to Colm Cavanagh, who needed and got the full 70 minutes after missing most of the league with injury.

Antrim lost sub Eunan Walsh to a heavy knock late on but he was able to walk off despite a stretcher being called.

Antrim's Ricky Johnston with Cathal McShane. Pic: ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Antrim's Ricky Johnston with Cathal McShane. Pic: ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

SIDELINE SMARTS

Given the gulf in class between these teams, there was no tactical battle to be won here.

Antrim succeeded in keeping Niall Sludden and Peter Harte quiet but other defenders lost their individual battles big.

BEST ON SHOW

Richie Donnelly’s superb form of the spring is being backed up in the summer.

It wasn’t just his 0-3, which were all scores of high quality, but he’s developed a key leadership role up front and his ball-winning and eye for a score will be a real asset to Tyrone going forward.

MAN IN THE MIDDLE

Maurice Deegan thought long and hard before deciding not to award Antrim a penalty in the 23rd minute, feeling the foul occurred just outside the square.

He was more decisive over the black card for Ben McDonnell for a blatant trip.

Otherwise had little to do in a game of no intensity.

NEXT UP

Tyrone will play Donegal or Fermanagh in the Ulster SFC semi-final on June 8 at Kingspan Breffni Park.

Antrim will be in this morning’s draw for the first round All-Ireland SFC qualifiers, which take place on June 8.

Scorers for Antrim:

R Murray (0-6, 5f), M Fitzpatrick, P McCormick (1-0 each), P McBride (0-2), James McAuley (0-1).

Scorers for Tyrone:

C McShane (0-6, 4f), C McAliskey (1-2, 1f), T McCann (1-0), R Donnelly, M Donnelly (0-3 each), R McNamee, R Brennan, M Cassidy, N Sludden, F Burns, K Coney, D McCurry P Harte (f) (0-1 each), N Morgan (0-1 (a ‘45’).

ANTRIM:

P Nugent; P McCormick, R Johnston, P Gallagher; P McBride, D Lynch, N Delargy; C Duffin, S Beatty; J McAuley, M Fitzpatrick, K Quinn; R Murray, J Smith, O Eastwood.

Subs:

R McNulty for Smith (HT), E Walsh for Eastwood (45), R Scott for Quinn (52), M McCarry for Beatty (55), J Mallon for McAuley (63).

TYRONE:

N Morgan; HP McGeary, R McNamee, Padraig Hampsey; Tiernan McCann, R Brennan, M Cassidy; C Cavanagh, B McDonnell; M Donnelly, N Sludden, F Burns; C McShane, P Harte, R Donnelly.

Subs:

C Grugan for McDonnell (BC, 24), A McCrory for Hampsey (HT), Kyle Coney (0-1) for M Donnelly (42), D McCurry (0-1) for McShane (42), C McAliskey (1-2, 1f) for Harte (42), C McCann for Sludden (53).

Referee:

Maurice Deegan (Laois).

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