It was tough, tense and taxing but champions Tyrone eventually surmounted a gallant Antrim who yesterday formed the first hurdle in their bid to retain the Ulster senior football championship title.
But the Red Hands know that much bigger challenges lie on the horizon and manager Mickey Harte has now been served a reminder that even more intensive work will be required on the training ground if real progress is to be made.
And while the Red Hands begin to focus on an Ulster semi-final, the Saffrons are again left to sift through the debris of a defeat that was particularly hard to stomach — a further helping of the heartbreak they experienced in last year’s Ulster final against the same opponents.
Yet the feelgood factor generated by the scorching sun and the glowing memory of their sparkling Championship odyssey last year appeared to have evaporated long before half-time. By then it was abundantly clear that the Red Hands had put their National League travails firmly behind them and were intent on sending out an altogether different message.
But for all their first-half flamboyance they were forced to dig deep into their more earthy virtues after the break to atone for an increasingly anaemic effort at midfield and some uncharacteristically loose defending
In a searing finish it was once again Sean Cavanagh who ushered Tyrone home with two late points while manager Harte’s raft of substitutes provided the impetus to help contain Antrim’s surprisingly resilient staying power.
It had been rather different in the first-half, though. When man-of-the-match Kevin Hughes stabbed in Tyrone’s first goal in the fifth minute it proved the catalyst for a sustained spell of pressure that was only relieved when Antrim, laboured and disjointed, managed to mount spasmodic raids that invariably floundered on a wall of red and white shirts.
With Colm Cavanagh providing invaluable assistance to Hughes in the middle, the Tyrone attack thrived on a liberal supply of quality possession and points flowed from the accurate Sean Cavanagh, Stephen O’Neill and even full-back Justin McMahon.
Michael McCann offered a frisson of hope for the Saffrons by complementing earlier points from his brother Thomas and Paddy Cunningham but any real hint of a full-scale revival at that point was effectively crushed when Owen Mulligan dispossessed Antrim skipper Colin Brady, sold a trademark dummy and thundered a diagonal drive to the Tyrone net in the 28th minute.
Ill-luck was rapidly morphing into embarrassment for Liam Bradley’s side and if substitute CJ McGourty and Cunningham slightly eased their plight with points it was patently obvious that the reborn Tyrone outfit had laid down a firm marker that they were back with a bang when they led by 2-6 to 0-5 at the half-way stage.
Indeed, they might well have disappeared over the horizon in scoring terms had referee Pat McEnaney not disallowed a Sean Cavanagh goal prior to sounding the interval whistle.
But if Antrim erred on the side of generosity in the first period, then they were much more frugal after the break although at 2-10 to 0-10 by the 46th they were still clearly adrift.
However, when Kevin Niblock trundled in their only goal in the 56th minute and CJ McGourty produced further evidence as to why he is one of the jewels in Ulster’s crown of talent, the Red Hands were suddenly in the danger zone.
And when the ubiquitous McGourty reduced the deficit to three points at 2-12 to 1-12 with four minutes of normal time remaining Tyrone’s tension was obvious.
But Sean Cavanagh (2) and substitute Tommy McGuigan whipped over the points that kept them on track to become kings of Ulster — again.
ANTRIM: J Finucane; C Brady, A Douglas, K O’Boyle; T Scullion (0-1), J Crozier, S Kelly; B Herron, A Gallagher; T O’Neill, K Niblock (1-1), J Loughrey; P Cunningham (0-5, 0-4 frees), M McCann (0-1), T McCann (0-1, free). Substitutes: C J McGourty (0-4) for Kelly (17),G O’Boyle for O’Neill (41), Kevin McGourty for Herron (41), K Brady for T McCann (53). Yellow cards: Douglas (36), Cunningham (39)
TYRONE: P McConnell; M Swift, Justin McMahon (0-1), D Carlin; D Harte, R McMenami’, P Jordan (0-1); K Hughes (1-1), C Cavanagh; B Dooher (0-1), S Cavanagh (0-4, 0-3 frees), Joe McMahon; M Penrose (0-2, both frees), S O’Neill (0-3, 0-1 free), O Mulligan (1-0). Substitutes: P Harte for Dooher (50 mins), S O’Neill for McMenamin (50), C McCarron for D Harte (56), T McGuigan (0-1) for Hughes (66), B McGuigan for Mulligan (71). Yellow cards: C Cavanagh (15 mins), Joe McMahon (4 1mins)
Referee: Pat McEnaney (Monaghan)
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.