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Tyrone and Down bosses unite ahead of vital Championship clash

By John Campbell

They may be in opposite corners on Sunday but Tyrone manager Mickey Harte and his Down counterpart James McCartan are united on one issue – the Ulster senior football championship is the most difficult of all competitions to win.

With just one championship match played so far – the largely inconsequential New York v Mayo tie last Sunday – it is abundantly clear that none of the other provinces will come anywhere close to Ulster in terms of providing skill, colour, drama and spectacle.

A glance at Leinster confirms that Dublin are just unbackable as they bid to retain their title, Mayo look set to extend their reign of dominance in Connacht and Cork should have the edge on Kerry in Munster – no other team from that province will be in the title hunt, that's for sure.

It's little wonder, then, that Harte and McCartan are primed for what will be one of the most important matches of the championship series when Ulster football is thrust straight into the shop window via the national media.

There may be championship matches in Leinster and Connacht this weekend but they pale into insignificance compared to the glamour, intrigue and sheer magnetism of the Healy Park, Omagh, showdown.

Anyone who has the slightest doubt as to what impact even a one-point victory in a match of this magnitude can mean to a county should listen to Down boss James McCartan.

"A win for us would be a massive boost for the team and the whole county. It would also help to further promote football at under-age level within the county and would certainly trigger a terrific feel-good factor," insists McCartan.

Tyrone boss Harte, on red alert in advance of Sunday's contest even though his side has won five Ulster titles since 2000 with Down having to go back to 1994 for their last triumph, offers the theory that the Ulster Championship has a special appeal all of its own.

"It is widely recognised that this is the most difficult competition of all to win," insists Harte.

"Everybody knows that there is hot competition in this province and the statistics prove that. If you look at the league, there will be four teams from the province in Division One next year and that tells its own story."

Harte is acutely aware of the problems which Down have presented to his side in the recent past.

"The only advantage we might have this weekend is that we are at home but we have had lots of tussles with Down over the years and they are a difficult side to beat. They will come expecting to win because ever since they first won the All-Ireland in 1960, Down have always carried a degree of confidence into the championship," asserts the Tyrone boss.

While Harte suggests that league form will go out the window on Sunday, nevertheless he admits that his team's reputation as slow starters is a worry.

"We can't afford to allow Down to build up a head of steam, otherwise we will make things very hard for ourselves," he points out.

"But we are still in a pretty good place. Lots of our players gained experience in the league at a high level and we won the McKenna Cup before that.

"There is no doubt, though, that while we believe we are in a good place, any progress we might make in the championship will take us to an even better place."

In recent years, Down have been forced to play their opening championship matches away from home because of unfavourable draws.

Yet, as McCartan points out, they have not suffered unduly because of this.

In the past five years, they have experienced just one opening round defeat and that was to Armagh in 2011.

"We have managed to win away to Fermanagh, Donegal and Derry in recent years and then we beat Tyrone at Newry after drawing with them in Omagh in 2008. So we are not too badly off in terms of results. But to get a win on Sunday and then a first round proper tie would be quite something and would certainly give the GAA within Down a great shot in the arm," adds McCartan.

The winners of Sunday's game will face reigning Ulster champions Monaghan in the quarter-finals at a venue to be decided on June 15.

The first of the semi-finals will take place on Sunday June 22 and will see Derry or Donegal face Fermanagh or Antrim while the second 'semi' has been pencilled in for Saturday June 28 with Armagh or Cavan taking on the team that emerges from the Monaghan/Tyrone/Down match-ups.

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