There was a palpable sense of relief all round after Tyrone withstood a defiant late rally from Antrim at sun-kissed Casement Park yesterday.
Mickey Harte’s men now move onto next month’s Ulster semi- final meeting with Down or Donegal on Saturday, June 19 while the Saffrons have to be content with taking the backdoor route.
The Tyrone boss was warm and genuine in his praise of the losers’ brave but ultimately losing effort.
“Antrim impressed me hugely especially in the second half,” said Harte.
“We began well and took a decent lead which we had hoped to build on, but instead we were hanging on by our fingernails at the finish.
“All credit to Antrim. They have been making statements about their determination to move to a different level.
“Here in Casement Park they made a massive statement and I’m quite certain nobody will fancy running up against them in the qualifiers.
“Even in defeat they can take an awful lot from this match.”
Tyrone 2003 All Ireland winning captain Peter Canavan’s first reaction at the finish was one of huge relief.
“There were no guarantees going into this game and Tyrone fans had every right to be fearful,” said Canavan. “The general feeling was that Antrim had closed the gap while Tyrone were no longer the team of last summer.”
Kevin Hughes, one of two Tyrone goal scorers, was typically modest as he reflected on the two first half strikes that provided the catalyst for Tyrone’s hard earned victory.
“In the first half the heat was really blistering,” said Hughes.
“I can never quite recall anything like it in a championship match. We played some good football though at times we possibly overplayed it. We played well in spells without being competitive for the entire half which would suffice in an Ulster semi-final.
“It was a tricky enough assignment so we are just relieved to have scraped though. I think the whole of Casement Park saw Owen Mulligan’s goal coming so I’ll have to give him the credit for that one.
“In fairness the man’s got class and he knew exactly what he was doing and the goal couldn’t have come at a better time.
“As for my goal I just threw my leg at it and it went in, but they all count and that’s the important thing.”
Tyrone centre half forward Sean Cavanagh said afterwards that there was quite a significant breeze, which favoured Tyrone in the first half.
“We began well in the first half but for whatever reason, possibly we allowed them back into the match and almost paid a heavy penalty,” he said.
“In a sense it was almost like last year’s Ulster final in that we allowed them to close the gap in the second half.
“We spoke about it at half-time, determined that it wouldn’t happen, but we’ll always take a victory like that and move into the semi finals.
“Anyone who saw Antrim play in 2009 will know what they are about.
“Don’t forget they ran All Ireland champions Kerry to three points in the qualifiers last year.”
Antrim manager Liam Bradley may have completed preparations for yesterday’s Championship clash with Tyrone against the backdrop of a cushion of optimism in balmy weather, but by the time referee Pat McEnaney sounded the final whistle a bitingly cold wind of reality had enveloped Casement Park.