Tyrone v Armagh: An iconic rivalry losing its icons
WILL Ulster football ever see its likes again? Will the northern summers -- and indeed autumns -- ever again rock so heartily to the beat of the drums of Armagh and Tyrone as they did during a period in the first half of the last decade when a series of fiercely personal showdowns electrified Ulster, prior to moving on to Croke Park?
Both counties broke through frontiers where none of their predecessors had ventured, winning All-Ireland and League titles for the first time. Tyrone won three of the former and two of the latter while Armagh won one of each while also taking the Ulster title over three successive years, a feat not previously achieved since Down were successful in 1959-60-61.
Perhaps the most remarkable statistic of all emerged, not from Clones or Croke Park on big occasions but in Casement Park on a late January Sunday in 2006 when an attendance of 19,631 turned out for an Armagh-Tyrone Dr McKenna Cup semi-final.
At the start of 2006, Tyrone were All-Ireland champions and Armagh were their closest rivals, having beaten them in the previous year's Ulster final replay before losing in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Having made the All-Ireland breakthrough in 2002, a second All-Ireland title eluded Armagh, but Tyrone went on to win their third in six seasons in 2008. That was the last year in which Armagh won the Ulster title while Tyrone won two more in 2009 and 2010, completing a remarkable 12-season run (1999-2010) in which the counties shared the Ulster titles between them.
For quite a few seasons, Armagh and Tyrone were vying with Kerry as All-Ireland favourites, but times have changed. At 16/1, Tyrone are fifth favourites for this year's All-Ireland while Armagh are 11th at 40/1.
Tyrone are regarded as having more scope for development, yet will be extremely wary of a challenge which always brings out the best in Armagh.
"I'd be hopeful enough. Armagh players always believe in themselves, regardless of who they're playing. The lads will love taking on Tyrone. There's always something special about Armagh-Tyrone games and all the more so after the great battles we had over the last 10 years or so. Tyrone are favourites but if we're really positive and take the game to them, we can upset the odds. Home advantage will be a help to our lads too," said Joe Kernan, the man who presided over Armagh's golden era.
Former Down manager Peter McGrath agrees with Kernan that home advantage is a consideration that should not be undervalued.
"The Athletic Grounds pitch looks big, but it plays small. That will suit Armagh. If I were a Tyrone supporter, I'd be concerned over a few other things too. They lost a few leaders to retirement since last year and just as Kyle Coney was developing into the player we all knew he could be, he got injured. Sean Cavanagh would have been a crucial performer in this year's championship as a real leader among the new lads, but now he's out too.
"Mickey (Harte) restored Brian McGuigan to the panel and while there's no doubt Brian is a terrific footballer, you wonder can he slot back after just a few weeks' training," said McGrath.
Steven McDonnell's retirement goes some way to balancing the losses, leaving Armagh looking for new leaders to step forward in attack.
"Jamie Clarke will be under pressure to take big responsibility. Is he ready? We'll find out on Sunday," said McGrath.
Harte takes Tyrone into the championship for a 10th successive year after a spring campaign where they had promotion to Division 1 secured after winning their first five games. They also won the next two in an impressive sequence which sent their stock soaring.
Defeat by Kildare in the Division 2 final raised questions about whether Tyrone's advance had been as significant as it looked, although after dropping five points in the group games, the Lilywhites' need to make a big statement was greater than their opponents' in the final at Croke Park.
While Tyrone were negotiating a return to Division 1, Armagh were on their way to Division 2 after picking up only five of 14 points. At face value, it suggests that Tyrone's confidence levels should be higher, but McGrath is not convinced by that argument.
"Teams dropping out of Division 1 have their backs to the wall and often react positively in the championship. Also, Armagh had seven games against the top sides whereas Tyrone had some fairly easy games. You wouldn't want to think that just because one team is relegated and another goes up, all the advantage rests with the promoted side.
"I saw Armagh the night they beat Down in the league at the Athletic Grounds and they looked a strong, committed side. They certainly won't be found wanting in the physical exchanges. Tyrone are strong physically too, so this will be one fierce battle. I've always felt that whereas there's a friendly element to Down-Armagh rivalry, Armagh v Tyrone is a bit different. It's more frenzied," said McGrath.
That was certainly the case in those exciting encounters of the 2002-2005 era, a period when, Kernan argues, they produced some of the best games of modern times.
"People can say what they like, but they were quality games. There was so little between the teams that if we played every Sunday for six months, half the games would probably finish level and the rest would be won by a point or two either way," he said.
The margins could be just as tight again on Sunday, even if the quality of play is unlikely to be as high.
And the winners? "Tyrone have lost a lot of leaders. It could give Armagh the edge," said McGrath.