A youthful and exuberant Antrim side came calling to Clones yesterday, buoyed by two historic back-to-back Ulster championship victories and a sea of saffron that claimed ownership of the famous hill terrace at St Tiernach’s Park.
They needed a good start, one that would wash away the doubts and the nerves, but Tyrone had read their thoughts and knew that they could keep the genie in the bottle with a strong opening of their own.
With half an hour on the clock the All-Ireland champions were 1-8 to 0-2 to the good and the 32,632 souls packed into the stadium were hushed into a silence more typical of a funeral than a football match.
A brief flurry prior to half-time and again midway through the second-half kept the scoreline respectful and allowed Antrim kid themselves that glory was still on the table but the closing credits could have rolled after that first third.
As captain Paddy Cunningham said afterwards, too many of their top players had under-performed and this was a day when Antrim needed every man to exceed anything he had done before on a field.
Kevin Brady, Terry O’Neill and Niall McKeever – 11-year vet, man of the match against Donegal and Cavan, and lastly, rising star – were all called ashore long before the final act. It was that kind of day.
Cunningham was one of the few immune from prosecution. The corner-forward ended the afternoon with 11 points from play but seven were from frees and that in itself told a story of its own.
Still, it was a phenomenal effort from the 23-year old teacher and one that brought to mind the 11 points Frank McGuigan scored for Tyrone in an Ulster final – all of them from play – 25 years ago.
Antrim’s problem was that Michael McCann was the only other starting forward to score and even he was a converted midfielder moonlighting as an attacker who reverted to the position he knew best before the end.
Antrim were poor in every sector for far too long. Balls were directed over sidelines, forwards kicked bad wides from the wrong position and at the wrong time and possession was spilled under minimal pressure.
Credit to Tyrone. They have claimed a 12th provincial senior title for their county without having to stretch themselves against Armagh, Derry or Antrim. Whether that stands to them going forward is open to question.
As in their first two games, they won the tactical battle here and the ease with which they carved their opponents open was made evident by the fact that all but one point of their 1-18 came from play. As expected, Antrim pulled O’Neill back into the half-back line at every opportunity and yet the centre of their defence was still prised open like a tin can, attack after attack, with Cavanagh and Ryan McMenanim prominent.
The 13th minute goal was indicative of Antrim’s afternoon at the back. Stephen O’Neill accepted a routine line ball and played Cavanagh through what was suddenly a gaping hole. The finish was applied without distraction. Kevin Hughes and Tommy McGuigan spurned similar chances of a three-pointer in that opening 30 minutes but none of that seemed to matter, even when Antrim cut the deficit to two goals with three points before half-time.
That spurt allowed Antrim take to the tunnel with their spirits restored but Tyrone knew what was being planned across the corridor and they got their retaliation in first on the restart with the next three scores.
Fair play to Antrim, they never rolled over. Their response at that point was to embark on their best period of the game, one where they would dominate midfield and score four points on the trot.
Harte read the tea leaves and acted swiftly. Off came Tommy McGuigan to be replaced by the not fully fit Enda McGinley and, coincidence or not, Tyrone ceased to ship so much water at midfield.
Bradley was doing what he could as the game wore on, bringing McCann back to the centre and sending McKeever in to the full-forward line but it was merely enough to keep pace with Tyrone, not to reel them in.
There was a lovely moment two minutes from time when Bradley sent on 39-year-old goalkeeper Sean McGreevey for a run in recognition of the veteran’s 17-years of service with the county.
Even Tyrone couldn’t deny a fairytale like that but Antrim’s wait for a first Ulster title since 1951 goes on.
Scorers for Tyrone: S Cavanagh 1-4, O Mulligan 0-3, T McGuigan 0-3 (1f), K Hughes 0-2, Joe McMahon 0-2, R McMenamin 0-1, D Harte 0-1, P Jordan 0-1, B McGuigan 0-1.
Scorers for Antrim: P Cunningham 0-11 (8f), M McCann 0-2, A Gallagher 0-1, C Close 0-1.
Subs for Tyrone: E McGinley for T McGuigan (51), C Cavanagh for Dooher (55), C Gourley for McMenamin (67), C McCullagh for O’Neill (70), B McGuigan for Penrose (70).
Subs for Antrim: K Niblock for Brady (27), C Murray for Burke (44), C Close for McKeever (58), D O’Hagan for O’Neill (64), S McGreevey for Graham (68).
Referee: P Hughes (Armagh).