What an occasion for Antrim and their remarkable fans!
The question was how would the Saffrons cope with the whole occasion — the build-up, the new gear, the chat, the media hype, the parade and meeting the president, never mind the invidious task of defeating the redoubtable All Ireland champions.
This match was as much about the mental approach of both teams rather than tactics or ability. The human mind is such a dangerous tool and for both teams the game was to be won or lost in their heads.
Would Antrim truly believe in their hype and progress to date? Dare they believe that it is 15 against 15 and the fact that we are all human? Or would Tyrone be complacent, take Antrim for granted and undo all the great work they have achieved over the last decade?
They probably have learned the lessons of Kerry over the last few weeks, but in reality, Mickey Harte’s teams don’t do charity! Charity certainly begins at home for this particular Tyrone outfit chasing the dream of their fourth All Ireland — and possible back-to-back titles.
Their preparation and mental state should never be questioned as they approached this match as if they were playing a Derry or Armagh. They, unlike other fancied teams who struggled in recent weeks , put the game to bed good and early with the critical score from the juggernaut that is Sean Cavanagh — a move of simplicity, but executed with great power and pace before a super-cool finish.
Tyrone’s movement was sublime with Cavanagh, McMenamin and McMahon all over the field giving numerous alternatives to the men in possession, always creating the overlap which means that the free player is allowed to deliver the quality pass to the inside forwards.
Their greatest strength is their desire for hard work. They tackle in packs and do not surrender easy scores always chasing back and putting their hand in in an attempt to get the all-important block. Even when Antrim put Tyrone under pressure after 50 minutes they were composed and resolute, riding the storm and driving forward from all areas, especially from midfield sector where they scored a remarkable 1-9.
They don’t give the ball away and are all comfortable on the ball seldom running into trouble and always taking the easiest and obvious options. They have the true belief that the ball moves much quicker than the man and that it makes sense to keep the pitch as wide as possible giving plenty of options and allowing for players supporting from all over.
They retain the ball so well that defenders in particular can leave their opponents and take up attacking positions in the knowledge that they won’t be leaving the defence at risk.
Antrim can take great pride from their performance. Apart from the initial period of the game, they competed well and created two great goal chances — the conversion of either could ostensibly have influenced the course of the game.
I firmly believe that if you are going to win games like this you need to take whatever chances come your way and feel strongly that Paddy Cunningham should have gone for goal to create momentum and give confidence to those around him.
To be fair the angles were tight and not straightforward and he was terrific throughout, causing a constant threat every time he had possession. However, he was not on his own with a sterling performance.
The Antrim full-back line of Colin Brady, Andrew McClean and Kevin O’Boyle was superb, O’Boyle in particular distinguishing himself.
The legacy of this game may be more important for Antrim football as this is the perfect tool for launching their new grassroots strategy. For all the great work going into the GAA in Antrim let’s hope that this team will be a shining example for unity and co-operation within the county.
Their achievement in reaching the Ulster final will help recruit new players and volunteers and generally lift the standard of play.