Expect early-season fireworks as Tyrone gun for revenge over Derry
MUCH has been made of a perceived North/South football divide this week, and that debate will rage on amid the fallout from Portlaoise.
If you were in any doubt about just how seriously they take their football in Ulster, you only had to visit the Morgan Athletics Grounds in Armagh last Sunday.
The group stages of the Power NI Dr McKenna Cup, many of them midweek, attracted 36,000 this month, and almost 9,000 turned up for the semi-finals, swelled by a second managerial head-to-head between Mickey Harte and Peter Canavan in five days.
But the Derry and Down curtain-raiser was just as serious, as demonstrated when rival managers John Brennan and James McCartan indulged in what Kieran McGeeney once memorably called a bit of 'belly-tickling' along the sideline. It was definitely hard to visualise the McGrath Cup or FBD League finals engendering similar passion.
Tonight's final between Derry and Tyrone is a re-match of last year's decider, which Tyrone lost by a point, 2-12 to 2-11.
Harte has fought a vociferous campaign to get all of his college players available this year -- not surprising, given that the Red Hands have suffered the retirement of a raft of household names.
As Harte points out: "We don't engage in challenge matches, so we better stay as competitive as possible in January otherwise we'd be kicking our heels."
With his side facing All-Ireland semi-finalists Kildare at Croke Park in the opening round of Division 2 in a week's time, having five competitive games since New Year is a godsend and it has provided Tyrone with the perfect trial system -- they have used 30 players to date.
Last year's final was postponed several times and not played until early March due to the terrible bereavements that the Harte family suffered. And yet it laid down a firm marker that Derry, in Brennan's first year in charge, were going to be a force to be reckoned with, and they'll want to underline that tonight.
Derry's James Conway suffered a knee injury in last year's final that cost him all of 2011 but he made an impressive comeback off the bench last week and starts at midfield.
Even without Conway, Derry went on to have a decent Division 2 campaign and reached their first Ulster final in 11 years.
They then lost to Donegal and Kildare, as both Bradley brothers -- Eoin and Paddy -- had freakishly, fallen victim to the cruciate curse. Paddy is back and showing good form. They'll also hope to use returned Aussie Rules player Chrissy McKaigue's height against a Tyrone side without Sean Cavanagh and Kevin Hughes.