Friday 15 December 2017

Is this the day when Tyrone banish goal-shyness and make a big statement?

Tyrone Manager Mickey Harte. Photo: Sportsfile
Tyrone Manager Mickey Harte. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Is it really 14 years since Armagh and Tyrone turned All-Ireland final day into a private Ulster party?

Or 12 years since they attracted 158,858 spectators to Croke Park for the Ulster final (draw and replay) and the All-Ireland semi-final?

Armagh took Ulster in 2005 but Tyrone won the All-Ireland that year in the midst of their greatest period, which also yielded the top prize in 2003 and 2008.

Pickings have been more modest since then but they remained at the top table, whereas Armagh dropped down the ratings at such a rate that they even failed to escape from Division 3 this year.

And when Down, scarcely a force of nature at present, beat them in the Ulster quarter-final in June, it looked as if they were headed for another dismal championship season. Four games and four wins later, Armagh are in the last eight and daring to dream that a significant corner has been turned.

And while today's test is a considerable step up in class - all their qualifier victims spent last spring outside the top flight - the tribal nature of their duels with Tyrone makes the outcome less predictable than the odds suggest.

They know each other's mindset in minute detail, understanding how it works and how it can be disturbed. Indeed, we can expect enough 'disturbing' in today's game to make referee David Gough a central figure.

His authority will be tested early and often so hopefully he will get the calls right. He's big on off-the-ball tugging, as he showed in the Connacht final, but the question is, how can he keep an eye on the man in possession and also watch out for 'action' elsewhere?

Tyrone were untested in Ulster, which is unusual in a province that prides itself on competitiveness. They beat Derry, Donegal, both of whose managers later departed, and Down by an average of over nine points in an impressive march to retaining the title.

Their supporters will see today's game as a mere extension of the Ulster championship against opposition that, while improving, aren't quite in Tyrone's class. That's a dangerous assumption.

There was a resilience in Armagh's performances against Tipperary and Kildare, in particular, that suggested the squad is developing a real coherence.

Their approach is quicker and more direct than in recent years and as well as being easier on the eye, it also has the potential for further advancement.

They scored 1-17 against both Tipp and Kildare and while Tyrone's resistance will be meaner, the Armagh attack, where Jamie Clarke is prospering, is experiencing a confidence surge.

Tyrone scored an average of 1-20 in three Ulster games but can they bring that productivity to Croke Park?

Remarkably, they have failed to score a single goal in their last six All-Ireland quarter-finals, against Mayo (2016), Monaghan (2015, 2013), Dublin (2011, 2010) and Kildare (2009).

They won three of them but it's still very unusual to have played for seven hours in Croke Park without scoring a goal.

The law of averages suggests that sequence will end today while the law of high probability points to Tyrone booking a semi-final date with Dublin or Monaghan on August 27.

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