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Comment: When the Tyrone v Armagh kick off time was for real

By Peter Canavan

I didn't know it at the time but when I first got to see the Tyrone-Armagh rivalry up close and personal, I was only a few months away from my first start with the seniors.

It's 1989 and my Tyrone minor side are reigning Ulster champions. We're defending our title, playing Armagh in a championship match in Omagh. I'm marking a guy called Kieran McGeeney in that game and they beat us. We're disappointed but afterwards we head for the stand in Healy Park to find our seats with the senior game already underway.

It's hot and heavy from the start. Maybe it's because I'm young but the animosity in the game surprises me. The hits are ferocious and the mood is dark as the players head down the tunnel. There it all kicks off.

Tyrone corner-back John Lynch, who won an All Star a couple of years previously, gets a belt that closes his eye and means he can't come back out for the second half.

After that, all I can remember is John and Mark Grimley putting themselves about for Armagh. Eugene McKenna was dictating the physical stuff for Tyrone while Kevin McCabe was letting his football do the talking. McCabe was brilliant that day and Tyrone edged it and went on to win the Ulster title.

They lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Mayo later that year and the management changed. The new man, John Donnelly, brought in a load of new faces, including myself.

Back at that time the first few rounds of the national league were played before Christmas. And as part of the warm-up for that, we'd play in challenge games and the like. My first start for Tyrone was in a floodlit tournament the Castleblayney club ran and we were drawn against Armagh.

The mood from that summer's game still simmered beneath the surface and the game couldn't have been on 20 minutes when a huge row broke out. A total of 27 players got involved in it and it wasn't the normal scuffles that you'd see now, with fellas posturing and pushing and grabbing jerseys. These boys were taking lumps out of each other, settling scores from a few months earlier. It remains as ferocious a row as I have seen in football.

Anyway I can remember there were exactly 27 in the melee because it involved everyone on the pitch bar three and I was one of the three not in it.

Myself and my marker were never going to get involved because he was my cousin. Leo McGeary was picking me up that day. The other fella not involved was Armagh goalkeeper Benny Tierney, who I went to college with.

There were a few hundred people at the game as I remember and they were baying for blood. But Tierney being Tierney never misses a chance to mess about and even with the atmosphere so serious, he decided to make a joke of it and he started dancing around me, shadow boxing and calling me out.

It brought a bit of levity to the moment but the row was serious enough to see the match abandoned.

That was my introduction to the rivalry. And as both teams started picking up All-Ireland and Ulster titles in 2000s, what was a local spat took on a new level of significance on the national stage.

That Armagh team that won the All-Ireland in 2002 were tough, hard men. If they could beat you physically as well as beat you on the scoreboard, that'd suit them just fine. Men like McGeeney and Francie Bellew would always give you a clip if they got half a chance. We had fellas who would do the same and while we played in some of the biggest games imaginable, our rivalry didn't get as bitter as that afternoon in Omagh or that cold night in Castleblayney.

It might surprise people that there's none of that Armagh team that I wouldn't have a drink with. Players might have had their own running battles but I can't remember anything being said or done that went too far or left a bitter taste.

I remember the All Star tour in 2002. They were All-Ireland champions and they'd have known we were sore but they never rubbed our noses in it and I found myself gravitating towards them on that trip. I'd like to think we were the same when we beat them over the next couple of seasons.

The rivalry has dimmed a little over the last while with Armagh off the pace in Ulster. But all the signs are that they are making strides again.

After the Down game, they needed more work from their forwards in terms of their defensive duties and more composure when it came to seeing games out. And little by little we've seen that. There's examples of Andrew Murnin and Jamie Clarke chasing back and winning possession while they have seen out a few tight games now too.

Things were close down the home straight against Westmeath and they held their nerve. Similarly against Tipperary and Kildare when they showed they had the patience to wait for the right opportunity to present itself late on. And when it came, they took the right option. That's a sign of a team that is learning on the hoof. And in Clarke and Brendan Donaghy, they have leaders at either end of the field.

McGeeney will have loved watching them evolve. Everyone knows he's a serious character when it comes to his football but when he lets the hair down he is good company. His father, Pat, was the Bard of Armagh and there's a bit of that in Kieran when he gets going.

He has real reason to be optimistic about Armagh but as far as this season is concerned, Tyrone will be the best team they have faced by some distance.

Defensively they have a system they are very comfortable with. And they have the benefit of a strong bench too. I don't think anyone who Mickey Harte might introduce tomorrow will weaken the team. And given how they have performed so far, Tyrone are a side playing with confidence too.

So I think Tyrone are little bit ahead in their development and expect them to win by a few. But Armagh are on the rise and one of football's big rivalries looks to be on the way back.

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