Sunday 25 February 2018

Canavan provides late twist

TYRONE 1-13 ARMAGH 1-12 All-Ireland SFC Semi-final A DECADE earlier, referee Paddy Russell broke Tyrone hearts by disallowing what would have been the levelling point against Dublin in the All-Ireland final but they were the thankful beneficiaries of a crucial stoppage time call in yesterday's All-Ireland semi-final which presented Peter Canavan with the chance to slot over the winning point.

Russell adjudged that Ciarán McKeever had fouled Stephen O'Neill as Tyrone burrowed deep into Armagh territory, whereupon Canavan steeled his nerve before calming angling the ball over the bar from 25 metres. Armagh had no time to recover as the final whistle sounded seconds later, prompting a massive Croke Park invasion by joyous Tyrone fans in the crowd of 65,858.

It was as if they had won the All-Ireland final, rather than qualifying for it, but the jubilation was perfectly understandable as Tyrone's season had taken so many twists that there was huge sense of relief at booking a place in the final for the second time in three seasons.

Armagh, who led by 1-12 to 1-10 after 64 minutes, were disconsolate as they appeared to have timed their run with split-second precision after spending much of day chasing Tyrone. Armagh's capacity to close out games in the closing minutes is well documented so their supporters must have thought that yesterday would be another of those occasions when the team's grinding resolve would impose its will on the opposition.

It wasn't to be. Tyrone out-grinded the grinders in the closing minutes, with points from Seán Cavanagh and Shane Sweeney bringing them level before Canavan made yet another critical intervention. Owen Mulligan and O'Neill had shared the free-taking duties up to then but when it comes to match-winning kicks, nobody does it better than Canavan, who had come on for Enda McGinley at half-time.

"It's not the first time, he's done that sort of thing," grinned Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, who must be eternally grateful that Canavan is still aboard the squad after battling with so may injury problems in recent seasons. He tends not to start games these days but he is the ultimate super-sub, the charismatic reference point that provides the glue for his colleagues' resolve while chipping away at the opposition's confidence.

For all that, Canavan's influence wouldn't have been anywhere nearly as significant if Armagh had managed a marginally higher investment on their possession investments in the second-half. They shot six wides in that period, some from relatively easy positions and - equally significantly - spilled quite a lot of ball going forward.

Armagh's ball retention is usually first class but they were uncharacteristically sloppy yesterday and ultimately paid the heaviest price possible as Tyrone nudged past them to line up a final clash with defending champions Kerry on September 25.

They also gained revenge for the controversial Ulster final defeat by Armagh who will be furious with themselves for failing to tighten their security over the closing minutes. But then maybe it was one of those days when the gods had decided that Tyrone's application for a final place was the more appealing.

Certainly, Tyrone got a seriously lucky break just before half-time when Armagh's Aidan O'Rourke went down injured as he chased the ball near his own endline. It left a gaping hole gap in the defence and created a goal opportunity for O'Neill who was fouled in the square by Paddy McKeever. O'Neill's expertise as a penalty taker was again underlined as he blasted an unstoppable shot past Paul Hearty to put Tyrone three points clear, 1-4 to 0-4. Kieran McGeeney responded with wonderful point to cut the margin to two at the break (1-4 to 0-5).

The intensity right throughout the first half had been fierce, a pattern that continued in an absorbing second half, where either side prospered in explosive bursts before surrendering the initiative. Armagh kicked three points in four minutes to draw level in the 47th minute before Tyrone pressed the enterprise button to score three points in two minutes to lead by 1-8 to 0-8 after 53 minutes.

They led by two points after 58 minutes but were rocked back a minute later when McDonnell manoeuvred himself into a good position under a Paddy McKeever free, won possession and squeezed the ball to the Tyrone net from the narrowest of angles. It was a vintage McDonnell finish and looked as if it might be the catalyst for another victory. However, Tyrone's resolve never weakened, even when they faced a two-point deficit after 64 minutes. Cavanagh, who had been an immense presence for long periods, pointed to launch a revival package which was continued by Sweeney before Peter The Great grabbed the winner.

It was an immensely satisfying performance by Tyrone in a championship campaign that has taken in nine games. Cavanagh, McMenamin, McMahon, Dooher, McGuigan, O'Neill, Mulligan and Canavan all contributed hugely on an individual basis while the overall work ethic was as pronounced as at any time during the 2003 All-Ireland run.

Armagh didn't shirk responsibility either but, unfortunately for them, it was a day when the marginal breaks went against them them. Unbeaten since losing to Wexford in the first round of the League last February, they just couldn't close the deal when the chance presented itself after Kernan and Clarke had put them two points clear later on.

But then they were up against one of the very few sides who possess the conviction and the know-how to extricate themselves from the trickiest situations and who have, in Peter Canavan, a man who thrives under the most intense pressure.

It doesn't get any more demanding than facing up to a free from a fairly acute angle to win an All-Ireland semi-final but Canavan made the kick look routine.

SCORERS - Tyrone: S O'Neill 1-4 (1-0 pen, 3f); O Mulligan 0-3 (2f); S Cavanagh, P Canavan (1f) 0-2 each; R McMenamin, S Sweeney 0-1 each. Armagh: S McDonnell 1-3; O McConville 0-3f; A Kernan 0-2f; B Mallon, K McGeeney, J McEntee, R Clarke 0-1 each.

TYRONE - P McConnell 7; R McMenamin 8, J McMahon 7, M McGee 7; D Harte 7, C Gormley 7, P Jordan 7; B Meenan 5, S Cavanagh 9; B Dooher 7, B McGuigan 7, E McGinley 6; R Mellon 6, S O'Neill 7, O Mulligan 7. Subs: P Canavan 8 for McGinley (ht), C Holmes 7 for Meenan (53), C Lawn for Jordan (65), S Sweeney for Harte (66). Yellow card: O Mulligan (34).

ARMAGH - P Hearty 7; F Bellew 7, C McKeever 7, A Mallon 7; A Kernan 8, K McGeeney 7, A O'Rourke 7; P Loughran 6, P McGrane 7; P McKeever 6, B Mallon 6, M O'Rourke 6; S McDonnell 8, R Clarke 6, O McConville 7. Subs: T McEntee 7 for Loughran (33), J McEntee 7 for Mallon (ht), E McNulty for McGeeney (63), A McCann for A O'Rourke (70). Yellow card: F Bellew (30).

REF - P Russell (Tipperary)

Martin Breheny

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