Classy Cavanagh inspires Tyrone to set up Armagh battle
Tyrone 1-11 Antrim 0-7
Although much is made of Tyrone's aversion to challenge matches, this was as close as they will get to one under Mickey Harte as they strolled to a seven-point victory.
Their reward for claiming a 100 per cent record in the group stages is a return to the Athletic Grounds on Wednesday night to play Armagh after the Orchard County won the coin toss.
With the snowbound Healy Park pitch preventing the original fixture taking place last Wednesday and the rearranged game eventually being housed in Clones, only 716 souls turned up to see this encounter.
Those who did witnessed a game featuring only one yellow card, and an Antrim challenge that utterly flagged once Sean McVeigh was replaced at half time.
With CJ McGourty picking passes in a deep-lying role, Antrim had been in contention from the start. Two thumping first-half points from Owen Gallagher kept them in touch, but they also benefited from Chris Kerr's excellence in goal.
On eight minutes, the St Gall's netminder got down smartly to smother a Kyle Coney effort, and they managed to scramble Mark Donnelly's rebound away.
Midway through the half, Emmet McKenna put Sean Cavanagh through and Kerr narrowed the angle before pushing the shot wide. Tyrone's pressure was also demonstrated by four 45s in the first half, of which goalkeeper Niall Morgan converted one, and dropped the other three short.
The half-time scoreline of 0-7 to 0-4 in Tyrone's favour was narrowed by Niall O'Neill in the first blow of the second half. Soon after, a Cavanagh shot that dropped short was fumbled by Kerr and the ball fell kindly to Coney, who made no mistake with his finish.
From then on, the Antrim challenge waned. As the target man up front, Michael Pollock battled and gained primary possession as they relieved the pressure at the back, but the lack of support was a constant frustration.
A series of shots dropped short added further to their frustration, with manager Frankie Fitzsimons explaining: "It's about being more clinical but a lot of those boys haven't had a lot of football. We only had the three games and honestly, we have only had about eight pitch sessions so far this year. Some of those teams have had a lot more pitch sessions than us. That's a big, big difference."
Asked to sum up the three group games, the Lamh Dearg man quipped: "Terrible!" before adding: "The first half last week was good against Armagh. Then they scored a goal and we went into that old syndrome again of feeling sorry for ourselves.
"But when the goal was scored today we could have done the same but I thought the boys played well."
Tyrone rattled off four more points after their goal but the contest was never in question.
Most of the time, Harte can be hard to please in the early months of the year and he was no different here as he was requested to analyse the Red Hands display.
"The result is okay, but the performance wasn't fantastic. You can't take it all away from Antrim, they performed well to make it difficult for us and I think that they will ask a lot of questions in the league in the division they are in if they play with that kind of tenacity," he said.
"I think Antrim will take more out of today's game than we will."
Harte continued: "There was a lot of good performances in spells, but in the overall picture, our performance wouldn't be rated very highly. Our conversion rate from shots taken - without going into detail - wouldn't be good."
They now head into Wednesday night's semi-final against old foes Armagh, with Harte insisting that their familiarity is not breeding the contempt on display back on January 4.
"It really doesn't matter," Harte commented.
"We prefer to be in the semi-final and whoever happens to be against us, we are happy to be there.
"We are looking to be in the final as well, so we will not be going there just to play a game, we will be looking to try and win the game and I am sure Armagh will be trying to do the same.
"I am sure that anybody who looks at this would like to have more competitive games as we approach the National League."
It might be cold outside, but the last fiery meeting of Tyrone and Armagh attracted almost a dozen times the attendance yesterday in Clones. More Ulster fire and brimstone is on its way.
TYRONE: N Morgan 0-1, '45'; A McCrory, Justin McMahon, D Quinn; T McCann, R McNabb, B Tierney; E McKenna, P McNulty; M Donnelly, S Cavanagh 0-4, 2f, P Kane 0-1; D McCurry 0-2, 1f, K Coney 1-1, C McAliskey 0-2
Subs: R McKenna for Quinn (Half-time), C McShane for E McKenna, PJ Lavery for Kane (51), S McGuigan and N McKenna for Donnelly and Coney (61), P Harte for Tierney (70)
ANTRIM: C Kerr; T Scullion, C Burke, J Carron; P McAleer, D Lynch, E Killough; B Hasson, S McVeigh 0-1; N O'Neill 0-1, O Gallagher 0-2, R Scott; CJ McGourty 0-2, 1f, M Pollock 0-1, C Fleming
Subs: M Sweeney for McAleer (30), J Laverty for McVeigh (Half-time), C Murray for Scott (43), T McCann for Pollock (49), J Crozier for Lynch (55)
Yellow cards: Gallagher (23)
Referee: Paul Faloon (Down).