The big question prior to yesterday’s throw-in was — could Antrim build on last year’s Championship heroics?
And this was complemented by a query in relation to Tyrone’s demeanour and appetite following their less than impressive National League campaign.
The answers to both posers were succinct and to the point. Yes, Tyrone will be a much different proposition in the Championship and confirmation has also been provided that even in defeat, Antrim have shown that they continue to make discernible strides forward.
Stephen O’Neill’s ability to play the lone inside forward role as only he can underpinned Tyrone’s early dominance but while other players also stood up to the mark the real plaudits must go to manager Mickey Harte.
Yesterday he used Joe McMahon as a sweeper but far from confining his duties to the defensive sphere the Omagh clubman foraged for possession everywhere.
In consequence, Tony Scullion remained anonymous playing as an unmarked wing-back — surely Antrim manager Liam Bradley should have reacted quickly and adjusted his pack. Perhaps, too, his players overall were not quite good enough against a free-flowing Tyrone side with Justin McMahon’s fine point from full-back underlining the Red Hands’ total football concept.
While Harte’s tactical astuteness ensured that Antrim found
themselves carrying the ball into heavy traffic for the most part, his strategy also embraced the creation of time and space up front and this was never better illustrated than when Tyrone’s two goals emanated from a strong work ethic and the ability to maximise chances.
Antrim were transformed in the second half, their greater urgency and higher intensity levels imposing considerable pressure on a tiring Tyrone.
The Red Hands may well have thought they were out of sight at one stage but in the last quarter they needed all their experience and craft to see them through to a semi-final meeting with either Down or Donegal.
The Saffrons certainly have solid foundations on which to build further and can anticipate a potentially lucrative voyage through the qualifiers — but they must come out of the starting blocks much more quickly.
And Tyrone, assuming they can replicate their first-half exploits, could yet nose into the frame as All Ireland challengers.