Tyrone dig deep to see off resilient Derry
Tyrone 1-19 Derry 1-13
A close run thing indeed for Tyrone!
The hindsight-aided experts can highlight the final scores and the quality that last year's All-Ireland finalists could roll off their bench throughout the second half, but no amount of their pre-match deliberations could have bargained for them containing Tyrone in the first half before staging an audacious smash-and-grab attempt that bumped them into the lead with eight minutes of normal time remaining.
And if they did, well then as one of their former managers was famous for saying, us boys know nothing about football.
Forgive us for lapsing into bookies' speak, but the spread here was seven points. Had Kyle Coney's late effort gone over it would have been bang on. But this game as a script is smudged with notes in the margins.
After Shane McGuigan's outstanding goal and Christopher Bradley's pointed free, the next move belonged to Tyrone.
Straight from the restart, Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan arrowed the delivery to Richard Donnelly. He played it along the main stand sideline to Frank Burns. Inside, Derry were suddenly outnumbered. Defender Paul McNeill was splitting markers but Burns' drilled pass inside to the unmarked substitute Darren McCurry was sensational.
McCurry could have taken a point, but instead committed McNeill and when he got a sight of Thomas Mallon's goal, squeezed in a shot into the corner and along the grass. Everything about the move screamed quality from Tyrone and gave a huge clue to how their game has come on; nobody panicked, the execution of skills were brilliant, the final action ruthless.
The goal put them two points up, but for Derry it felt like three goals. Their legs went. Tyrone ran in five of the last six points. Game over, on to Antrim in the quarter-final.
"I suppose it was a no-win situation for us," said Tyrone manager Mickey Harte (right).
"We were supposed to win the game and we believed we were good enough to win the game but we know there are always exceptions to the rule and those exceptions happen from time to time. We were eight or nine minutes away from that exception happening today.
"But the response that our team gave to respond to that goal and going one behind was something that, it's good to have that experience. If you didn't have that experience you wouldn't know if you could do it or not. So it said a lot about our players to come back with the underdogs to be in a class position - to stay in the game as long as they did and hit us with a sucker punch. It looked like the script was written and then we responded."
While various pre-game laments centred around Derry's fall from grace having spent their league in Division Four this year, man for man they have a proper team again.
But for the brilliant Enda Lynn having to go off they could have been even closer and when problems arose, their trouble-shooting was good.
When Mattie Donnelly impressed early on against Liam McGoldrick, Brendan Rogers was switched on to him, before Chrissy McKaigue took up the role in the second half. They have plenty of encouragement to take into the qualifiers.
"We maybe started a bit slow, which was disappointing, in terms of the energy and intensity that we wanted to bring - we actually only started to bring that about 15 minutes into the game and it was 6-1 at that stage," acknowledged Derry manager Damian McErlain afterwards.
"We got it back to 7-6 and after that, for a long period of the game, we were probably the better team, right up until they scored the goal. That was probably a killer blow - if we'd kept them out for another couple of minutes to get the whole thing settled again, that would have been a big thing for us."
The danger for Tyrone was that this was a thankless task. Win by an avalanche and the narrative would centre round poor oul' Derry. Squeeze through and alarm bells suddenly go off. This test will have been perfect for them.
Colm Cavanagh was an early replacement for injury victim Brian Kennedy, but was withdrawn himself, Harte deciding not to risk it after he was yellow carded.
Peter Harte was severely limited by Karl McKaigue and Niall Sludden blotted out by Paul McNeill. They have a chance to get some serious pace built up in their next test against Antrim in the Athletic Grounds in a fortnight.
As for Derry, if they can avoid a tranche of players looking to sample life in America, they can only make strides in the qualifiers.