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Tyrone in pole spot but it could be a Croker cracker

All-Ireland SFC Q-Final Tyrone v Armagh (Today, Live Sky Sports Arena, 4.0)


Tyrone Manager Mickey Harte. Photo: Sportsfile

Tyrone Manager Mickey Harte. Photo: Sportsfile

Tyrone Manager Mickey Harte. Photo: Sportsfile

Just like the olden times, eh? Just like the golden times ...

Four times over the course of two seismic championships, Tyrone and Armagh locked antlers in Croke Park.

They met in 2003, when the first all-Ulster All-Ireland final ended in a maiden Sam Maguire for Tyrone.

Then they collided three times in that epic summer of 2005 - a first Ulster decider at HQ; a controversial replay won by Armagh; and finally that bone-shuddering classic of a semi-final culminating in Red Hand revenge.

Back then there was no mistaking the Big Three: Tyrone, Kerry and Armagh. And now? Good question. Tyrone believe they are at that level again, capable of going the All-Ireland distance or (at the very least) pushing Dublin and Kerry to the brink. But first there's the not-so-minor detail of bursting Armagh's bubble.

The resurgent Orchard County remain a long way off Big Three status. Back in June, they weren't even Top 16.

But they're getting there: with each step through the 'back door' has come incremental improvement.

Fermanagh was more straight-forward than expected. They finished strongly against Westmeath and seemed to take confidence from that when facing a perilous position on their next road trip, trailing Tipperary by four points early in the second half.

Armagh's response that evening bespoke a hard-working unit that believes in itself and the game-plan of its previously embattled manager.

Their reaction to falling one behind Kildare, after 56 minutes, was even more instructive: with Jamie Clarke's sublime fourth point the catalyst, they landed five of the last six scores.

With each game, the standard of opposition has improved and Armagh keep rising to meet the bar. But now comes the biggest step-up of all, their prospects not helped by Andrew Murnin's hamstring injury last Saturday.

Tyrone's end-of-league blues were banished by an Ulster campaign that showcased a level of dominance rarely witnessed. They whipped Derry, Donegal and Down by a combined 28 points.

The defensive dogma of last season has been moderated.

Their kickouts are more direct and ambitious. They are scoring more freely and from multiple sources, going some way to counter their big perceived weakness - the absence of a marquee inside predator.

Seán Cavanagh, their veteran talisman, hardly qualifies as such given his roaming brief. Ronan O'Neill gave a timely reminder of his poaching gifts with that brilliant goal brace against Down - but he's still on the bench, if Tyrone's Thursday team is to be believed.

There are echoes of 2003 and '05: Mickey Harte is still in the Tyrone corner, Kieran McGeeney has swapped the Armagh armband for the bainisteoir's bib.

So long as both teams don't succumb to caution, this could be a cracker.

Odds: Tyrone 2/9 Draw 12/1 Armagh 4/1

Verdict: Tyrone