Time for local heroes

CERTAIN suggestions have solidified into accepted fact in Ulster in the last decade.

For years, as Armagh and Tyrone vied for dominance on the provincial and national stages, the talk was of envious glances being cast, all of them from the Orchard county’s direction.

While Kieran McGeeney and company found it impossible to add to that first, historic All-Ireland in 2002, Tyrone found the keys to regeneration, following up their own inaugural success with two in the seasons that followed.

They would hardly swap any of their Celtic Crosses for an Anglo-Celt Cup but, make no mistake, their failure to shine on the local scene hasn’t been lost on them in recent years.

While both counties have dominated up north, Tyrone have just four of the last 11 Ulster titles to Armagh’s seven and they have never claimed a back-to-back during Mickey Harte’s illustrious time in charge.

Armagh, lest we forget, claimed a hat-trick between 2004 and 2006.

“We certainly want to be in that final,” said Harte. “It is ‘1995-‘96 since Tyrone managed to win two in-a-row and, in fact, I don’t think we have even been in two in a row situation since that time. We are in a position to do that now and that is a challenge for us. Whoever comes through the far side won’t let us do that too easily but it is certainly good just to be there.”

It will be some surprise if Monaghan can’t account for Fermanagh in the second semi-final next weekend given their destruction of Armagh in the last eight but Tyrone will still deserve the mantle of favourites.

They glided through their opening championship game against Antrim with some degree of comfort but still found holes being picked in them after a powerful first-half gave way to a more muted second.

Questions were asked of their legs, in particular, but 30-year old Pascal McConnell believes Tyrone are still at that delicate stage where the miles travelled are a help rather than a hindrance.

“There was nothing between the teams there at all. We kept the ball pretty well and we managed to hold on.

“They were putting on a bit of pressure and we shouldn’t have been letting them do that in a sense. We held on well though. We showed good character to hold onto the lead at the end. People would say we have tired legs with our age but we showed we have plenty left in the tank.”

The reality is that their collective years are overstated. Four of Saturday’s starting 15 may have been 30 years of age or over but seven of their number were aged either 26 or less.

Peter Harte is just 19, Colm Cavanagh is not much older and a ‘veteran’ like Sean Cavanagh has three years to go before he celebrates his 30th birthday. Even Stephen O’Neill has yet to cross that threshold.

O’Neill, a man who retired and returned, is representative of a Tyrone team that continues to reinvent itself both individually and collectively. Brian McGuigan and Kevin Hughes are others from a similar mould.

So too is McConnell, a man who has had to fend off competition from John Devine and Jonathan Curran down the years and who was instrumental in taking his county to another Ulster final this summer.

“That’s what I am there for. There aren’t many saves to make because the 14 boys in front of me work so hard.”

Further history beckons.

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