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Revitalised Justin McMahon is having a big impact on Tyrone

By Declan Bogue

Injury-free and raring to go for the beginning of a season for the first time in several years, Justin McMahon looks like a brand new defender for Tyrone.

It's hard to believe the Omagh schoolteacher is still only 27. Perhaps it was the signature performance in nullifying Kerry's Tommy Walsh in the 2008 All-Ireland final - only two years after captaining Tyrone to the Ulster under-21 title - that has us thinking of him having obtained 'grizzled veteran' status.

Sunday's win over Antrim was possibly the most low-key game he has ever played in with the Red Hands. For a start, the Antrim bus was forced into two diversions with traffic issues and arrived too late to St Tiernach's Park to shake the inertia from their legs following such a journey.

With Clones still displaying dapples of snow, most noticeably under the old dressing room, McMahon was in commanding form. He limited his marker Colm Fleming to a mere handful of possessions, rendering him scoreless.

After McMahon made a vital interception ahead of Fleming in the closing stages, he joined the attack. The ball was turned over rapidly and with McMahon stranded, the ball was worked to Fleming by a brilliant Mark Sweeney pass, but the O'Donovan Rossa youngster hit wide.

It might have been that incident McMahon had in mind when he assessed their afternoon's work.

"We aren't too impressed with the way we performed," he began.

"You would have to say Antrim looked the better team for a good part of the game. We missed a lot of chances, we have a lot of work to do."

Sometimes you just have to play what is in front of you and no doubt, Tyrone's wits will be sharpened by the prospect of facing Armagh tomorrow night in the semi-final (Athletic Grounds, throw-in 8pm), only a few weeks after their tempestuous meeting on January 4 which yielded 19 cards, four of them red.

"If the first game was anything to go by, it's going to be more of the same," McMahon warned.

"Armagh have another couple of games behind them. It makes for an interesting game."

He struggled for positives to take out of the win over Antrim, but added: "It was difficult but at the same time, our first touch wasn't great.

"But it gives us good practice for poor conditions. That's maybe all the positives you could take out of that game. I am sure from a spectators' point of view it wasn't the best game to watch. But we got the win, and that's that."

It's unusual to see McMahon out this early in the year, but as he insists he is not doing much different in his injury-prevention work, we have to take it that his dreadful luck with injuries is finally turning.

He points out that Omagh's progress this year to the Ulster club final might also have played a part: "The run with the club was a good opportunity last year. You are talking up to 10 games coming up to the end of the year.

"Who knows, you just try to put the work in as much as you can off the pitch and hope things go well for you in training and try to bring that into the match."

An ankle injury bothered him and ruled him out of the second half of the National League last year, after initially flaring up in 2013.

In 2012, it was the familiar hamstring trouble that ruled him out of their Championship match against Donegal in Clones, although they discovered after that game that Conor Clarke was a very able deputy.

He admits he has enjoyed not having to play catch-up.

"The way the game has gone you need to be hitting the ground early. You would like to think that the work that goes in now will keep you well prepared for the year," McMahon added.

"But you just do what you can and there are guys in the panel going well in training and pushing you on. It's the same with our club towards the end of last year, it was good to have a big panel and keep each other pushing on."

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