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Martin Breheny: Decline and fall with the demise of Tyrone and Armagh

SIX years ago this month, in what was a truly remarkable turnout for a pre-season game, a crowd of 19,631 paid into Casement Park to enjoy the latest episode in the Armagh v Tyrone saga which had adorned the first half of the decade.

On an overall scale, it wasn't a game of any great significance, but the Red Hand-Orchard rivalry was so intense at the time that it drew spectators from well beyond both counties for a Dr McKenna Cup semi-final.

Tyrone, the reigning All-Ireland champions, won by two points but, by the following July, Armagh were back as Ulster champions for a third successive season.

Two years later, Armagh won their seventh Ulster title in 10 seasons, while Tyrone did even better, skilfully negotiating the qualifier back-roads before powering to All-Ireland success.

At the start of every season, the neighbouring giants were high up the All-Ireland betting lists and, while Tyrone, who won the Ulster title in 2009 and 2010, remained there longer than Armagh, the scene has now changed fairly dramatically.

For the first season in a decade, neither Tyrone (18/1) nor Armagh (50/1) are in the top six on the fancied list. Tyrone have been overtaken by Donegal (16/1) as Ulster's leading contenders for the All-Ireland, while Down, Monaghan and Derry are all ahead of Armagh.

Changed times indeed, especially since both the Tyrone and Armagh underage conveyor belts were working very productively during the seniors' glory days. That was especially true of Tyrone, whose development model was held up as an example for everybody else.

It was generally assumed that the exciting young talent would gradually slot seamlessly into the senior scene, edging out the older brigade, without in any way weakening the overall structure which had been built so carefully in the pre-Mickey Harte days, before he took over and completed the impressive edifice.

It hasn't run so smoothly, however. Tyrone came up well short against Dublin in each of the last two All-Ireland championships and, having been relegated to Division 2 in 2010, they failed to make an immediate return last season.

Armagh retained Division 1 status (somewhat luckily it must be said) last year, but after beating Down in the championship they lost heavily to Derry in the Ulster semi-final and to Tyrone in the qualifiers.

All of which leaves Armagh and Tyrone -- who between them won all the Ulster titles between 1999 and 2010 in a 7-5 share-out -- facing into an uncertain period.

Tyrone appear better equipped to restore a winning momentum but it's by no means certain.

Pete McGrath, manager of the Down teams that won All-Ireland titles in '91 and '94 and an astute analyst of the football scene, is as intrigued as everybody else about how Tyrone and Armagh will go about restructuring themselves over the next few years.

Significantly, he believes that both are currently behind Donegal and Derry, and doesn't hold out any great hope of an Armagh surge this year.

Tyrone present a more intriguing scenario as they head into the new season without such outstanding warriors as Brian Dooher, Philip Jordan, Enda McGinley and Brian McGuigan, all of whom have retired.

"Tyrone are very much in transition. They have lost a lot of lads who were cast-iron stalwarts for so long, and you don't easily replace them, however good your underage scene might have been over previous years," said McGrath.

"Tyrone have lost four or five guys who were so important to the team for so long -- now change will come and it's a question of how good, how committed and how ready the younger players who will be slotted in really are."

At the end of 2009, after Tyrone had lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Cork, Harte announced that he was looking at six or seven of the successful 2008 minor team with a view to integrating them into the senior squad.

"If they make it, that means that a handful of current panellists are going to lose out. That sends out its own message to everyone," he wrote.

Clearly, quick development wasn't within the squad's capability range because, of the '08 minor team, only Peter Harte featured on the senior 20 who lost to Dublin in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final.

Mickey Harte was hoping to deploy some of the '08 minors in 2010 but, as events transpired, he wasn't even able to do so last year.

Tyrone enjoyed extensive success at underage level before and after '08 but few from those teams forced their way into the senior side.

Was it a case that they simply weren't good enough or a sign of intense loyalty from Harte to the players who had served him and Tyrone so well for so long?

"Maybe certain people were kept on out of loyalty. We've all fallen into the trap of staying with players who have done it before for you and who are still working as hard as ever. It's very hard to leave them off," said McGrath.

However, change is now inevitable, the impact of which will be watched very closely in Tyrone and beyond.

McGrath added: "The young lads have to step up now so it's a question of how good they are.

"Tyrone seem intent on taking the McKenna Cup very seriously which is a statement of intent.

"They are in Division 2 but I don't think that's any great disadvantage in terms of championship preparation as the standard in the second division is plenty good enough to get teams right for the summer."

However, if Tyrone are to prove that the transition is on track they need to win promotion, thus returning to the days when they were always consistently effective in the league.

"You'd never underestimate Mickey Harte or his ability to get the best out of the resources available to him. This is a new challenge for him and Tyrone but, at this stage, you'd have to say they are starting further down the pecking order than at any time for over a decade," said McGrath.

Despite being in Division 1, he believes Armagh are starting from even further back in championship terms.

Armagh will be without the Crossmaglen Rangers contingent for the start of the league, a situation which will extend to five rounds if Cross reach the All-Ireland club final. Unsurprisingly, that has left them joint favourites with Laois to be relegated.

"There seems to be a doubt over whether Steven McDonnell will come back at all but even if he does, he'll miss most of the league," said McGrath.

"Ronan Clarke's injury woes have been very frustrating for him and Armagh in recent years, and Kieran Toner has gone to Australia.

"I think Armagh could struggle in the league -- certainly early on -- and that would pile the pressure on management and everyone else. On top of that, they have to face Tyrone in the Ulster championship -- testing times ahead for Armagh"

The Armagh-Tyrone Ulster quarter-final on June 10 will, as ever, be a huge attraction, even if the aura which surrounded their epic battles at Croke Park in Ulster finals (draw and replay) and an All-Ireland semi-final in 2005 isn't quite there anymore.

McGrath rates Donegal and Derry ahead of Tyrone and Down in the Ulster rankings while acknowledging that the latter two are always capable of striking very quickly even when there are doubts about them.

"The big test for Tyrone and Down is whether the replacements they bring in for players who have departed the scene are good enough. It makes for some very interesting times ahead all around Ulster," he said.

Irish Independent