Tyrone have the zip and variety to fell Down
Down’s attacking verve has gained many fans but Tyrone will have their number
Tyrone’s Darren McCurry and manager Mickey Harte celebrate their semifinal win. Photograph: Inpho/James Crombie
Having walloped Derry and Donegal, Tyrone take the final step towards the Ulster title, as they step into the ring against surprise contenders Down. For a county with such an unpredictably glorious history, the challengers don’t appear to be generating boundless optimism among the public at large. That is probably because Down people are realists, which makes them dangerous when they have a good team and circumspect otherwise.
Tyrone are a work in progress but improvement has been steady and on the evidence to date – none of it admittedly, indisputable – they look ready to be contenders.
Down have rebounded exceptionally well for a team that until a few months ago hadn’t won a match in two years but there was a sense that they were riding their luck in the semi-final against a haplessly out-of-sorts Monaghan.
There was more to the famous victory than that but manager Eamonn Burns will know that the same approach is unlikely to yield results on Sunday. Connaire Harrison’s exceptional display against Monaghan will be hard to replicate given Tyrone’s defensive structure and the role of Colm Cavanagh in standing sentry in front of the full-back line.
No-one can take away from the challengers the relentlessness of their workrate and the resilience they showed when the match looked to be swinging against them in the second half, nor the quality of players like Kevin McKernan, Caolan Mooney – whose terrific counterattacks put Monaghan on the back foot – and the reliable place-kicking of Darragh O’Hanlon, but can they dictate play in the same manner they managed in the semi-final?
Tyrone are longer on the road and, as defending champions, have already met their first big championship target. They are a Division One side, playing a county that barely survived in Division Two.
On the field they have registered key improvements. Niall Morgan has developed impressively in goal, commands his area and pulled out of the hat a dazzling array of re-starts against Donegal, including clearing the packed centrefield ramparts to set up speedy attacks, based on quick ball and support runners flooding through.
If one area has been particularly impressive, it is the forwards. Huge victories against Derry and Donegal, averaging double-digit wins on the scoreboard and single-digit wides totals, have featured more of a willingness to let the ball go quickly into the attack.
Mark Bradley caused mayhem but it was also remarkable how easily Tyrone managed to penetrate the Donegal defence by simply running hard at a defence that a couple of years ago would have ushered the soloist into a cul de sac or an ambulance.
It won’t be as straightforward in Clones this weekend, as Down can use physicality and commitment to hit hard, but the zip and variety of Tyrone’s counter-attacking game can be expected to impose itself sooner or later on the final and Down, at a different point in the development cycle, are unlikely to live with that.
Last meeting: 2014 Ulster preliminary round replay, Newry, Tyrone 3-11 Down 0-12.
Odds: Tyrone 2/11, Down 5/1, Draw 11/1.
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Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan)