“As individuals, we have the best players in the country,” declared Jamie Clarke last Saturday.
Much to the guffaws from some quarters in Tyrone.
“Great player. Even better wind-up merchant,” reacted Tommy McGuigan on Twitter. On Facebook, another former Tyrone player also questioned Clarke’s assessment but later deleted the post.
Joe McMahon wouldn’t be dismissing Armagh as readily but he articulates the optimism permeating through Tyrone at the moment.
Their opponents this afternoon are at a lower rung of the ladder in terms of development.
So while the week-long rush of reminiscence about the counties’ famous battles has been quaint he feels it’s also been a tad wishful.
“Ultimately, it’s neighbours that are playing and it was always going to bring that bit of nostalgia because of the rivalry’s history, but you have to be realistic here: That was a number of years ago. It’s nice to be remembering but at present Tyrone are more experienced at playing these games and have more quality throughout their team.
“With the way Kieran McGeeney is setting his team up and the players Armagh have, the rivalry could come again within Ulster and beyond at a higher level.
“Armagh have such connections in their backroom team with (John) Toal, (Paul) McGrane) and (Paddy) McKeever with the rivalry that they’ll look to dig up the history but at the same time that’ll just be reminding the players what it is to play for Armagh. I feel behind it all it’s nice to dress it up the way we are but Tyrone, in their whole set-up and given their performances this year so far, are ahead.”
McMahon, who retired from inter-county football at the start of the championship, read with some amusement this week quotes from former Mayo star David Brady that Tyrone aren’t a top-three team.
“I know it’s been said they haven’t been tested but they’ve got the job done and won convincingly in games. I know Brady had a bit of a pop about Tyrone not being in the top three and Ulster not being at the level they think it’s at but then you look at Tyrone sweeping aside Derry and then Mayo struggling against Derry and lucky to come through after extra-time. As for Ulster, there were three teams in the quarter-finals and one is guaranteed to be in the semi-final.”
So while he might sound like a party-popper in predicting a good win for his native county, he insists he is reflecting reality.
Tyrone will turn up in big numbers in expectation while he doubts the same can be said about Armagh’s legions.
“I feel Tyrone have been targeting beyond the All-Ireland quarter-final stage whereas Armagh are in bonus territory, which they probably feel beneath it all is where they are. People talk about a process and I’m sure McGeeney is looking towards that and getting Armagh back to this level.”
The slouchiest thing to do this week would dredge up the heated history Tyrone and Armagh have shared when, for a start, only six of each team are likely to start from the 2014 qualifier game, which started with a melee. Then there’s the fact Tyrone since last year have been impressive in the low number of frees scored against them, an average of just over three in 2016 and a little over four now. Armagh’s record is slightly poorer, conceding over five per game, but it’s not a bad return.
“Mickey (Harte) likes to highlight that there’s no point in having this system and getting men behind the ball to then make a lazy tackle. Dublin and Armagh have household name free-takers who will punish you if you do that. Tyrone are coached to tackle hard and tackle fair and do anything they can to win the ball back within the rules of the game. That’s something they pride themselves on.”
Drawing parallels between this return to Croke Park and the counties’ last championship battle there in that epic 2015 All-Ireland semi-final is pointless, argues McMahon. “When you look back to the ’03 and ’05 games the word that keeps cropping up is intensity. There was no malice behind it, just two teams going to win the game. It’s only recently I started looking back at those games and, in particular, the ’05 games and the contrast to now where teams set up so systematically is huge. They’re more defensive nowadays.
“It’s going to be a completely different game to the ones back then. Tyrone will look to cut out the threat of Jamie Clarke and, for me, Gavin McParland as well.”
McMahon was beset by injuries last year but he found the path to a jersey made longer by a group of younger defenders desperate to hold onto what they had earned.
“I’m a Tyrone man and any man that is in there and doing a good job and you’re winning games you’re happy. Underneath it all, you always want to be playing and part of it but the fellas know the system and they work it well.
“To me, the man who makes it all tick is Colm Cavanagh. He keeps everybody in their place. Not that they know their positions but Colm’s ability to read a game is excellent. Say when the opposition have broken the line through the centre or out on the wing, Colm instantly pushes out and makes the next challenge and men are filtering in behind him when he does that.”
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