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Tyrone prove too strong in thrilling test of endurance

Just when you least expect it, the Ulster football championship goes and produces a game like this.

Without a second thought it was the best match of a championship that is already four weekends old.

Tyrone won, and the suspicion from early on was that no matter what Armagh threw at them, they probably would have had a sufficient response anyway.

That's how it transpired down the home stretch as Armagh, reduced to 14 men when Kevin Dyas picked up two yellow cards within the space of 90 seconds midway through the second half, came storming back in the last quarter to draw level.

But Tyrone's ability to soak up that punishment and counter themselves with three unanswered points in a third of the time Armagh had taken to close that same gap was the mark of a team that knows its place.

Peter Harte, Martin Penrose from a free and Stephen O'Neill got the points to win it but it was the collective nature of the Tyrone effort which really stood out. They had no passengers.

In contrast, the responsibility to deliver up front for Armagh weighed heavily on the supremely gifted Jamie Clarke, and he didn't shirk it. Without him, this wouldn't have been a contest.

In the white heat of Ulster championship battle his slim build and boyish features look wholly out of place. Look at him in the company of bulkier defenders and you might actually fear for his well-being.

But Clarke has an almost magical awareness of space. In the tight confines of the Morgan Athletic Grounds he found it. Every time.

In the end, his five points, four from play, weren't enough but his contribution was hailed in the opposite camp.

"Quality players like Jamie can't be stopped, they can only be contained to a degree and that's what we tried to do. We did that in as positive a fashion as we possibly could," said Tyrone manager Mickey Harte.

"It wasn't a case of closing him out and sending two men or anything else. Jamie Clarke is that kind of talent that he doesn't need much space or much room."

The quality of the game was the perfect platform for Harte afterwards to continue to pick holes in the ongoing argument that Gaelic football needs a serious makeover and his unwavering contention that the provincial championships have a robust future on the calendar.

"I thought the people got serious value for money there too," suggested Harte.

"People talk about blanket defences and this, that and the other as if there is no right for a team to change what they do or experiment. The scoreline tells its own tale. It wasn't that it was very open.

"Football has more to offer than some of those narrow-minded pundits would have you believe."

There was much to enthuse about this. For a start, the amount of clean catches from kick-outs was a stand-out feature, perhaps because it's an art not witnessed very much any more.

Armagh's Kieran Toner was prolific in this respect, consistently rising to impressive heights to take down his own and Tyrone's restarts.

The tackling was of the highest order too, and referee Joe McQuillan played his part with a level of tolerance that was just right.

The fact that he noticed most of the more cynical jersey-pulls and off-the-ball blocking gave him control, though Harte was slightly critical afterwards even though the free count was very much in his team's favour.

"I would say again I would look at the consistency of the man in the middle. It might have had an impact on the game as well. Maybe I am looking at it through biased eyes but I did feel we had a little bit more difficulty getting a free and sometimes it went the other way," Harte observed.

But it was the general approach play of both teams which stood out.

Armagh's goal on nine minutes had its source in Ciaran McKeever's dispossession of Stephen O'Neill inside his own '45'. The next link in the chain after that was Clarke, only 50 metres from his own goal.

Dyas and Caolan Rafferty made the decisive plays later in the build-up as Aidan Forker nipped in and slipped a deft left-foot shot past Pascal McConnell for a 1-1 to 0-2 lead.

The benefits were short-lived, however, with Joe McMahon and Colm Cavanagh gaining an upper hand at midfield and Donnelly and Penrose orchestrating everything after that. Tyrone's 0-11 to 1-5 interval advantage was well merited.

Tyrone tweaked the system that had been so profitable for them in the league until the Division 2 final against Kildare and that saw Peter Harte back in a more conventional half-forward role. It took Harte a while to make an impact but when he did it was a most telling one in the last quarter.

Armagh can point to a number of factors that went against them. Aaron Kernan had to retire at the interval with a hamstring injury but his replacement -- Dyas dropped back to wing-back -- Gavin McParland chipped in with two inspiring points to close the gap to one point, 0-13 to 1-9, in the 48th minute.

Armagh manager Paddy O'Rourke felt the sending-off of Dyas was a turning point but in the subsequent 10 minutes they played some of their best football to gain parity at 1-12 to 0-15 with three unanswered points.

Curiously, Armagh introduced the towering John Kingham in the middle of this run -- the policy was to let the ball in quickly and directly to him in the hope that chaos would reign around him.

But Tyrone were comfortable with that tactic, with Joe McMahon, switched to full-back for the second half after brother Justin's forced withdrawal, reading the play well.

From five 'hit and hope' deliveries into Kingham, Armagh got just one point from Clarke at the end when the game was effectively gone.

O'Rourke conceded that the ploy hadn't worked.

"We've been working on both ways of playing and at that stage we were down a man and we felt that if he was in there it would leave us that we'd have less running to do because we could send it into him. Big John is an honest player, and Joe McMahon did well on him punching the ball away. But it didn't work," he said.

All of their other substitutes worked, however, even those that were forced upon them.

Harte sees incremental benefits in winning provincial matches of this nature.

"You want to be winning Ulster championship matches because if you don't do that, there is a degree of growth missing in the maturity of those players. Winning a game like that brings those players on more than anything else in the world," he said.

Scorers -- Tyrone: M Penrose 0-8 (5f), Stephen O'Neill, O Mulligan (1f), C Cavanagh, P Harte all 0-2 each, M Donnelly, Joe McMahon, D Carlin all 0-1 each. Armagh: J Clarke 0-5 (1f), A Forker 1-1 (1f), B Mallon 0-4 (4f), G McParland 0-2, K Dyas 0-1.

Tyrone -- P McConnell 8; A McRory 6, Justin McMahon 6, D Carlin 7; C McCarron 5, C Gormley 7, Sean O'Neill 7; Joe McMahon 8, C Cavanagh 7; R McNabb 6, M Donnelly 8, P Harte 7; M Penrose 8, Stephen O'Neill 7, O Mulligan 6. Subs: M Murphy 5 for Justin McMahon inj, N McKenna for Mulligan (65), R McMenamin for McCarron (67), P McNiece for Donnelly inj (72).

Armagh -- P McEvoy 7; D McKenna 4, B Donaghy 6, C McKeever 6; A Kernan 6, A Mallon 6, F Moriarty 5; K Toner 8, M Mackin 6; A Forker 6, K Dyas 7, A Duffy 5; J Clarke 9, B Mallon 7, C Rafferty 6. Subs: P Duffy 7 for McKenna (18), G McParland 8 for Kernan (h-t), J Hanratty 7 for Forker (47), C Vernon for Moriarty (54), J Kingham 5 for Mackin (57).

Ref -- J McQuillan (Cavan)

Irish Independent