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Simmering rivalry: Steven McDonnell desperate to halt Red Hands' momentum

STEVEN McDonnell will always remember Healy Park as the place where Armagh's All-Ireland honeymoon ended.

Tonight, he clings to the hope it can be the place that ignites their championship challenge.

All-Ireland champions of 2002, their maiden Sam Maguire success saw their confidence spill over into the early part of 2003, where they hit the ground running in the league.

But they were brought to a halt by a trip to Omagh for a clash with a new-look Tyrone managed by a new manager called Mickey Harte.

The tone was set before the ball was thrown in, with Tyrone opting not to form a guard of honour -- as is customary for the visit of the All-Ireland champions. By September, Harte and Tyrone had gone a step further and relieved Armagh of their All-Ireland title in a tense final.

If there was baggage surrounding Armagh's trip to Wicklow for the 'Battle of Aughrim' last weekend, Orchard captain McDonnell knows it's nothing compared to what awaits them in Omagh tonight.


"They were the first team to beat us up there after we won the All-Ireland. We had won four league games in a row and it wasn't too friendly on that occasion -- they were well pumped and they were the first team that didn't give us a standing ovation going out onto the pitch," he recalls.

"It'll be no different this time. Tyrone will be well pumped up and it's a game we'll look forward to, to see where we are as a team, and we'll be hoping we can go and put in a performance.

"Back then, ourselves and Tyrone were two of the top three teams in the country, along with Kerry, and we were dominating Ulster and regularly in All-Ireland semi-finals and finals; they were fantastic occasions. Any Armagh-Tyrone match is a big occasion."

Armagh played an important role in the emergence of Tyrone as a football force. It was on the GAA football All Star trip to San Diego in early January 2003 that Red Hand veterans Peter Canavan and Chris Lawn regarded the jubilant Armagh players with envious eyes.

Their early morning runs on the beaches of California were fuelled by a desire to emulate what Armagh had achieved and be even better.

Between Tyrone's desire to climb up and Armagh's determination to fulfil Joe Kernan's insistence that "a great team wins two All-Irelands", this duo gave us some of the most ferocious football battles of the last 10 years and forced the Ulster Council to switch their provincial final from Clones to Croke Park such was the demand for ringside seats for their battles.

The 2003 final and the three games they played between the Ulster and the All-Ireland semi-finals of 2005 were iconic moments. Joe didn't get his second Sam. If anything, their presence drove Tyrone to be the best they could be. But the reality is that things are different now.

Harte is struggling to keep a grip on a Tyrone team being ravaged by the march of time, which is physically and mentally wearing away at the stars of their three All-Irelands.

McDonnell, Andy Mallon and Paul Hearty are the only Armagh survivors from the 2003 All-Ireland final. Aaron Kernan admitted this week that the Orchard have long since slipped back into the chasing pack since the days where they were top contenders.

But 31-year-old McDonnell knows that Tyrone can still bring the best out of a team in Orange.

"Tyrone are still a top three or four team in the country and if you can go to Omagh and get a result, you'll have earned it," says the Killeavy hit man.

"Over the last 10 or 12 years, we've had a lot of ding-dong battles and I expect this Saturday night to be the same.

"I haven't seen much of them this year, but we know a lot of their players and what they are capable of doing. Tyrone have won two All-Irelands through the back-door system and they enjoy building up momentum and hopefully we can stop that momentum," he adds defiantly.

Things are different for the Armagh captain too. A brilliant inside-forward who is unmarkable on his day, since 2000 there have been only two summers (2004 and 2009) where McDonnell hasn't featured prominently in football's top-scorers' chart.

But in recent weeks he has been given a new role by Paddy O'Rourke at half-forward, with Malachy Mackin the target man inside for Jamie Clarke to feed off.

"Sometimes a move like that will spice things up a bit and I'm grateful to Paddy for giving me the opportunity to go out there. I feel I'm capable of doing a job, but that's not to say I won't be in the full-forward line the next day," says McDonnell. "Look at the Tipp hurlers -- they rotate a lot and they seem to get the benefits out of it and we are trying to take a leaf out of their book."

Armagh have stuttered and struggled for rhythm all year. Excellent against Down, poor and porous against Derry, they needed extra-time and a replay to see off Wicklow and O'Rourke is still looking for his best formation.

Tyrone would love nothing better than to finish off their rivals. But a new wave of Armagh players know nothing would rescue their season and serve notice of their own potential like a win over Harte's army in Omagh -- knowing a defeat could have equally catastrophic consequences for the Red Hand ranks.

For these neighbours, it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Irish Independent