While the stands emptied and Tyrone players disjointedly made their way to the dressing room, in the middle of the pitch, an Armagh squad stood with their arms wrapped around each other huddled tightly together listening to the man in the middle.
Kieran McGeeney is bringing closure to a performance and result that this Armagh team have been building towards.
In recent years, a Tyrone and Armagh championship match in early July could only mean an Ulster final, however yesterday in Healy Park while the intensity may have felt like those battles of the past, the standard on show was noticeably lower.
The quality of the football may not have been as high as previous years but it was as good a team performance as Armagh have delivered since Paul Grimley has taken the reigns.
The signs were there from early on, the game was only a few moments old when there was an altercation between Kevin Dyas and Mattie Donnelly. Every other outfield player ended up in the vicinity and while it appeared to be nothing more than pushing and shoving, it struck me that the Armagh players were quicker to help a team-mate. It set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
It has been well documented that Armagh suffered a tactical meltdown in last year’s Ulster championship defeat to Cavan and have adapted their system this year. From the early exchanges, they were the team dictating the shape of the play and the tempo.
We have been told that the adapted set-up Armagh are implementing is a defensive one. Yes, they were very solid at the back, and held Tyrone to 10 points, of which only two were from play, but it’s more of a team template of working hard to help the player beside you rather than a blanket defence.
On numerous occasions, Tyrone had midfielders and half-forwards filtering back to fill the space Darren McCurry and Connor McAliskey fed off but when Armagh turned them over, there was very clear communication between Orchard County players to attack in numbers.
These attacks came from deep, Ciarán McKeever from wing back and Andy Mallon at corner back repeatedly put their direct opponents on the back foot as Armagh broke at pace. McKeever was always an outlet and linked defence and attack brilliantly while Mallon showed leadership to drive forward for a crucial score in the second half at a stage where Tyrone had begun to show signs of life.
Armagh were confident enough to go short with the vast majority of their kickouts, they trusted Philip McEvoy to chip it to one of his full-back line and start moves from deep. This also took the Cavanagh brothers out of the game for Tyrone. Both Sean and Colm showed flashes but neither found any rhythm and with midfield being bypassed for much of the afternoon it was another example of Armagh dictating the terms of engagement.
At times, Armagh’s shot selection was very questionable and while Niall Morgan was excellent in goal for Tyrone they’ll be disappointed not to have finished any of the four clear goal opportunities they created.
Another thing that will please Grimley was the spread of scorers across the afternoon. Eight different Armagh players chipped in, and while Jamie Clarke is their talisman, the more help he gets in games from other forwards, the more he will be able to focus on doing just his job and not trying to take too much on.
At any opportunity during a break in play, you could see Armagh team-mates on every line of the pitch talking and communicating as to what they needed from each other. Rarely was there two Armagh players going for the same ball, two men committing to the same Tyrone attacker. Every player was clear as to what the guy beside him needed and they continued to make it easier for each other.
Since the parade incident with Cavan, the Armagh squad and management have refused to engage with the media or speak publicly. From the outside this might seem petty and unnecessary, but within the Armagh dressing room, this is helping forge their bond as a group, and they are using this siege mentality as a building block to produce better team performances.
This unity can hold a team together in hard-hitting rivalry games when pressure comes on.
The challenge now for Armagh will be to build on this team performance and see how long they can keep their silence going.
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