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Second four-in-a-row dream is driving Tyrone

By John Campbell

Four dismissals, 19 cards in all and a simmering undercurrent that prevailed after an initial explosion of fisticuffs.

The stark disciplinary statistics tend to paint a grim picture of the confrontation between deadly rivals Armagh and Tyrone - who have made 13 changes from Sunday for tonight's clash - earlier this month.

Yet they must not be allowed to cloud the fact that the match still offered a generous ration of silken skills, towering individual displays and a level of commitment that was never short of frenetic.

No wonder, then, that tonight's Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup semi-final between the sides at the Arthletic Grounds (8.00) acquired the status of a must-see event from the moment they were paired.

Tyrone, whose feisty late surge gained them a 1-12 to 1-10 victory in the opening day set-to, have remained in the box seat by stringing together three wins and illustrating their sharp appetite for a second four-in-a-row McKenna Cup coup since 2004.

Manager Mickey Harte's enthusiasm for what is often referred to as a 'subsidiary' trophy is as intense as ever.

"We'll not be going there just to play a game, we'll be going to try to win and I'm sure it will be the same for Armagh," he maintains.

"We like playing in the McKenna Cup. And we are getting a further competitive game which is good. Armagh will make it very hard for us, we know that."

Harte has caused a surprise by making 13 changes from the team that beat Antrim on Sunday with Sean Cavanagh and Dwayne Quinn the only players to retain their positions.

Mattie Donnelly and Ronan O'Neill return for the first time this year having helped UUJ in the earlier stages of the competition.

Their availability will boost the team and with Conal McCann making his debut at midfield alongside Colm Cavanagh, yet another new kid on the block gets the chance to impress in what will be demanding circumstances.

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney has watched his side beat Antrim convincingly but labour against St Mary's before eventually securing their last four slot as the best overall runners-up.

Like Harte, he has reason to be encouraged by the form of players who less than a month ago were virtual unknowns.

In this respect, Michael McKenna, Mark McConville, Oisín MacÍomhair, Sean Connell and Stephen Sheridan have stepped smartly up to the plate to complement the power and guile of players like Ciaran McKeever, Brendan Donaghy, Charlie Vernon and Jamie Clarke.

While Red Hands boss Harte suggests that experimentation will again be in vogue tonight, his own desire to see the trophy retained may persuade him to rely on his rather more seasoned brigade at some stage to deliver the McKenna prize.

With the Allianz League due to get under way on Saturday week when Monaghan will be Tyrone's opponents, Harte is keen to parade a line-up close to that which will take a bow in the second most important competition in the fixtures calendar.

And while McGeeney's eyes are firmly fixed on the second visit of the Red Hands within a month, the looming league opener against Tipperary will certainly influence his selection hand tonight.

However, if Tyrone can sustain their defensive resolve and assuming Sean Cavanagh can bring his influence to bear on proceedings, then Harte's second four-in-a-row dream should be taking a step closer to reality - even after the big shake-up.

TYRONE: M O'Neill; D Quinn, R McNamee, R McKenna, R Brennan, M Donnelly, P Harte; C Cavanagh, C McCann; P J Lavery, R O'Neill, P Hughes; S McGuigan, S Cavanagh, C McShane.

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