Joe Kernan: Armagh and Tyrone bring out the best in each other
For many years Armagh vs Down was regarded as one of the fiercest rivalries within the GAA. They may be neighbouring counties but there was never any love lost when they met particularly in an Ulster Championship encounter (the All Ireland Qualifiers were not even a blip on the horizon in those days).
I was involved in several tough clashes as a player against the Mournemen and they were invariably hard battles with no quarter asked or given.
Yet there was honesty and an enthusiasm about the play that always appealed to me and no matter who came out on top, the games were invariably enjoyable.
In more recent years that rivalry has been replaced by the Armagh v Tyrone ‘relationship’ which continues to hold special significance for the GAA.
Not only have matches between these counties brought intensity, passion, commitment and indeed controversy to much higher levels but they have generated massive finance for the Association and by extension served to boost the economy north and south of the border.
When the draw for this year’s Ulster Championship was made well before Christmas and the Armagh v Tyrone pairing surfaced (again!) it became one of the main talking points and has remained as such.
So when the teams take the field at the Morgan Athletic Grounds on Sunday they will do so against the backdrop of unprecedented hype, endless debate and ceaseless speculation.
Yet while the more high-profile rivalries within the GAA — Cork v Kerry, Dublin v Meath, Mayo v Galway — never fail to attract huge crowds and bring added spice to the Championship season, there is always an element of apprehension that things can boil over simply because familiarity can occasionally breed contempt.
Be that as it may, the Morgan Athletic Grounds will be packed to capacity for the first time on Sunday when Tyrone are the visitors.
And even the most ardent Armagh follower will agree — maybe with reluctance — that the Red Hands have certainly been one of football’s super powers since the dawn of the new millennium.
Three All-Ireland titles bear ample testimony to this as do three Ulster titles as well as a shoal of Allstars and other miscellaneous individual honours.
Time moves on though and both Armagh and Tyrone now find themselves undergoing a transition with established players having slipped into the shadows with fresh faces coming in.
I attended a Championship Forum in Cookstown last week and it was quite clear to me that the normally ebullient Tyrone followers are now in much more cautious mood as they approach Sunday’s game.
That is not to say that pessimism prevailed — far from it, in fact. But there is discernible realism in Tyrone — the folk there know that their new-look team faces a difficult task in its quest for provincial and All-Ireland honours.
Red Hands followers watched their side lose the Division Two league final to Kildare when players uncharacteristically carried the ball into heavy traffic and were dispossessed much too frequently.
But manager Mickey Harte and his assistant Tony Donnelly will certainly have been working on this flaw in training and I have no doubt that their players
will protect their possession much better come Sunday.
Tyrone may have undergone a makeover but they are still the most accomplished side in the country when it comes to breaking from deep, getting players up quickly in support of the front runners and whisking over scores, sometimes from very difficult angles.
The loss of Sean Cavanagh is undoubtedly a big blow to Tyrone because not only does he offer versatility — he can play at midfield or half-forward — but he can also be guaranteed to provide a couple of points from frees and play.
Similarly, the retirement of Stevie McDonnell robs Armagh of a prime source of scores. The Killeavy man is one of the greatest forwards ever to have emerged from Ulster and his experience would certainly have benefited the Orchard County on Sunday.
Instead they will have to lean on their young guns with Jamie Clarke perhaps the only seasoned player in their inside line.
But Clarke cannot do it all on his own, despite his many-sided qualities.
He will require support and in this respect I think that Caolan Rafferty could have a big impact.
The Granemore clubman is like a breath of fresh air within the Armagh side and I think he has the potential to cause problems for the Tyrone defence and pilfer points.
Championship football is all about getting a result on the day. It was Donegal manager Jim McGuinness who declared that his team were not in the business of entertaining people when they won the provincial crown last year.
While the many thousands who will throng the Morgan Athletic Grounds on Sunday will surely have no objection to a high-octane, riveting encounter embellished with flair you can take it from me that an ugly win will do well for followers of the team that comes out on top.