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Tyrone's second four-in-a-row McKenna Cup bid now in full swing


Tyrone’s Connor McAliskey under pressure from Armagh’s Ciaran McKeever at the Athletic Grounds

Tyrone’s Connor McAliskey under pressure from Armagh’s Ciaran McKeever at the Athletic Grounds

Tyrone’s Connor McAliskey under pressure from Armagh’s Ciaran McKeever at the Athletic Grounds

Tyrone have made it to the Dr McKenna Cup final once again, and remain on course to win the pre-season tournament for the fourth consecutive year for a second time under Mickey Harte after a surprisingly timid challenge from Armagh.

As a result of Fermanagh's dead-ball specialist Sean Quigley's late botched free in the other semi-final, Cavan make up the opposition in a repeat of last year's final.

If we were to venture a general observation of this game, it must be said that the practice of laying down a marker can be a curious one. Prior to their first meeting in this competition earlier this year, Tyrone and Armagh had traded barbs across the Blackwater at each other in a variety of guises.

When they did meet, a tinderbox atmosphere prevailed and the game produced 19 cards and some frankly ugly and unnecessary scenes.

Here, with a final at stake, Armagh never brought their customary aggression and until Matthew Donnelly and Charlie Vernon were booked for a spot of wrestling deep in injury time, we only had two cards - a yellow for PJ Lavery and a black for Michael Murray.

After five minutes, Tyrone had a goal, a point and three wides to their name. Sean Cavanagh had opened their account after combining with Connor McAliskey.

The goal arrived after Armagh custodian Philip McEvoy went for a short kickout and McAliskey was alive to it, collected the ball and sent supporting runner Lavery through on goal, who thumped home.

There were glimmers of threat from Armagh, but it was all too sporadic during this period. Aaron Findon was holding his own in the first half, winning four breaks from kickouts and catching two cleanly.

Stefan Campbell set up Micheál McKenna for an impressive point and Findon nudged Jamie Clarke through on the quarter-hour. However, Michael O'Neill was smartly off his line and although there was forceful contact made, the Clonoe man denied Clarke.

Tyrone's second goal arrived on 24 minutes. A ball was played in towards Cavanagh and he quickly transferred to Lavery, who then switched to Shea McGuigan.

Although the Ardboe man had to extend his leg and only scuffed his shot, McEvoy had gone to ground early and the ball trickled home.

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney persevered with Clarke as a sweeper for as long as decency would allow before sending on Sean Connell to fill a defensive spot and Clarke ambled upfield.

In the next play, Clarke put the marauding Campbell through to crash his shot into the net, only Armagh's second score in 29 minutes.

We only had to wait another few minutes before another major arrived. McGuigan passed inside to McAliskey and he managed to hold off Murray and Mark Shields before unleashing a rasping shot that McEvoy could not hold. Cavanagh was on hand to drill it high into the net.

After Clarke wriggled into space to kick a point and Campbell followed it up with another, Peter Hughes got his first point when he followed in a Cavanagh Hail Mary shot to fist over and leave Tyrone comfortably ahead at half-time, 3-5 to 1-4.

You might have expected Armagh to bring something more to the table in the second period, but they hit a second-half wide tally of seven, 10 in total, and until Aidan Forker's successful free on 65 minutes, failed to score from the dead ball.

That included a '45' from Tony Kernan which was lumped horribly short of the goal and some surprising misses from Clarke when you might expect him to do better.

The star of the second half was McAliskey, who decorated the game with three points from play. The score of the day came on 54 minutes when he teased Ciaran McKeever on the same wing of the main stand before catching a left foot drive and sending it soaring over the bar.

It was to be his last action as he was being prepared to come off for Darren McCurry.

PJ Lavery pinged a point from the opposite wing and McCurry chalked up a free as Tyrone sent on some experienced figures such as the McMahon brothers and Ronan McNabb.

Ciaron O'Hanlon and another youngster in Sean Connell got their first inter-county points, but the lack of competitive cut and thrust from Armagh was rather puzzling.

In the meantime, we are back in the Athletic Grounds on Saturday night for the final. You take what you want out of January, and Tyrone evidently want more than most.

ARMAGH: P McEvoy; M Shields, B Donaghy, M Murray; J Clarke 0-1, F Moriarty, C McKeever (C); A Findon, S Campbell 1-1; S Forker, M McKenna 0-2, E McVerry; T Kernan 0-1, O MacÍomhair, N McConville. Subs: S Connell 0-1, for MacÍomhair (28), C O'Hanlon 0-1 for McConville (h-time), A Forker 0-1, 1f, for S Forker (42), S Harold for Kernan (51)

Yellow cards: Vernon (72)

Black card: Murray (60 - replaced by C Vernon) Red cards: 0

TYRONE: M O'Neill; D Quinn, R McNamee, R McKenna; R Brennan, Mattie Donnelly, P Harte; C Cavanagh, C McCann 0-1; PJ Lavery 1-1, R O'Neill, P Hughes 0-1; S McGuigan 1-0, S Cavanagh (C) 1-3, 2f, C McAliskey 0-3. Subs: Joe McMahon for Hughes, R McNabb for Brennan (51), D McCurry 0-1, 1f, for McAliskey (54), T McCann for Quinn (57), P McNulty for C Cavanagh (61), Justin McMahon for R McKenna (65)

Yellow cards: Lavery (53), Donnelly (72)

Black card: 0

Red cards: 0

Referee: Ciaran Branagan (Down)

Attendance: 7,552



Belfast Telegraph