The Red Hands struggled to get to grips with a battling Limerick side in yesterday’s All-Ireland SFC Qualifier Round 1B tie at Healy Park.
While they got there comfortably in the end, many questions remain over their ability to become a top-tier side again.
Limerick emerged with considerable credit from their visit to the Sperrins, and had Gearóid Hegarty’s goal-bound effort not come back off a post in the second half, they may well have pushed their opponents to a nervy finish.
Tyrone’s six-week lay-off led to a certain degree of rustiness, but, even as the game progressed, there was no sign of the momentum and flow that should have carried them home with plenty to spare.
Tom Lee, Hegarty, Danny Neville and Stephen Cahill all enhanced their reputations with passionate and confident displays as Limerick were not overawed by the task. Peter Harte had an excellent game around the middle for the home side, while attacker Mark Bradley made a massive impact when introduced, but too many others were off-message.
Limerick attacker Peter Nash could find no consolation in an honourable defeat.
“We’re proud enough of the performance, but there’s nothing to be taken from a moral victory,” he said. “We came up to win the game, we set up to win the game. We’re going to be disappointed with the loss.”
And he felt the outcome could have been different had Hegarty not been denied a goal by the woodwork in the second half. “Goals turn games, and that would have made a huge difference..”
Meanwhile, Tyrone boss Mickey Harte admitted he was frustrated by his side’s struggle to get to grips with the contest.
“We were very disjointed, we just weren’t ourselves for 50, 55 minutes of that game, and I suppose it’s good to be able to work through an uncomfortable period of the game against a team who had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and we still stuck in there,” said Harte.
“The scoreline flattered us, there’s no doubt about that, but I don’t care about being flattered by the scoreline. The main thing is we won.”
Tyrone had gone two points ahead through Mattie Donnelly and Sean Cavanagh, from a free, when Limerick lost centre-back Cillian Fahy to a black card after just five minutes.
However, the Treaty men defended with discipline to repel a series of Tyrone attacks, although they breathed a sigh of relief when Peter Harte made a surging run through the middle before off-loading to Connor McAliskey, who pulled his shot wide.
Goalkeeper Brian Scanlon was off target with a couple of long range frees as the Munster men fell three behind to an excellent McAliskey effort, and the eventually got off the mark in the 15th minute when Hegarty curled over a morale-boosting point.
Cathal McCarron thought he had scored his first Tyrone goal, but the corner-back’s fisted effort was ruled out for a square ball infringement, after he had netted from Darren McCurry’s cross to the far post, the product of another driving incursion from Harte.
McAliskey’s free restored the three-point cushion, but the visitors were growing in confidence, with Tom Lee and Danny Neville getting their hands on plenty of ball around midfield.
They narrowed the gap to a single point, with Ian Ryan and corner-back Robert Browne, from a free, hitting the target.
McAliskey’s third sent the Red Hands in with a 0-6 to 0-4 advantage, and once they got the wind and rain in their backs, there was more conviction about their approach.
Ronan O’Neill and Tiernan McCann had points, and McAliskey clipped over another couple of frees.
Limerick went 23 minutes without a score, but Hegarty did come close to pulling back a goal when his punched effort came back off a post.
Ryan and substitute Kevin Moore converted frees, and the margin was a manageable five points going into the final five minutes.
But Tyrone turned up the heat, with substitute Bradley using his pace and speed of thought to create and execute scores. And Tiernan McCann crossed for Harte to palm home a stoppage-time goal.
P Harte (1-0), M Donnelly (0-1), R O’Neill (0-1), T McCann (0-1), R Brennan (0-1), D McCurry (0-1, f), S Cavanagh (0-2, 1f), C McAliskey (0-6, 4f).
B Scanlon (0-1, ’45), R Browne (0-1, f), C Sheehan (0-1), S Buckley (0-1), G Hegarty (0-1), I Ryan (0-2, 1f).
M O’Neill, A McCrory, R McNamee, C McCarron, R McNabb, Justin McMahon, R Brennan, C Cavanagh, P Harte, M Donnelly, R O’Neill, T McCann, D McCurry, S Cavanagh, C McAliskey.
M Bradley (0-1) for McCurry (32), Joe McMahon for McNabb (62), D McBride for C Cavanagh (65), R Donnelly for Justin McMahon (69).
B Scanlon, J McCarthy, S O’Dea, R Browne, I Corbett, C Fahy, S Cahill, T Lee, D Neville, D Treacy, C Sheehan, S Buckley, P Nash, G Hegarty, I Ryan.
B Fanning for Fahy (BC 5), M Brosnan for Treacy (BC 36), P Rannahan for Lee (54), K Moore (0-1, f) for Nash (56), C Phair for Neville (67), G Noonan for Cahill (69).
P Neilan (Roscommon).