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Red Hands ready to renew old rivalry

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Tyrone fans will flock to Croke Park on Saturday for another big step in the pursuit of the Sam Maguire Cup.

The Red Hands take on Ulster rivals Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter-final, a huge occasion for both counties, but the Red Hands go in as favourites to advance to the last four.

It was at this stage last year that Mickey Harte's side came unstuck, losing out by a single point to Mayo in a controversial tie.

This time, they aim to make no mistakes, and lessons learned from their last championship tie at GAA Headquarters will hopefully stand to them this weekend.

Tyrone certainly look well equipped to make a big challenge this year, having turned in eye-catching performances in an all-conquering run through Ulster, with convincing victories over Derry, Donegal and Down.

But another massive D-day awaits should they come through Saturday's clash, for their likely semi-final opponents will be All-Ireland champions Dublin.

As Tyrone captain Sean Cavanagh prepares to renew a famous rivalry against a fierce opponent, memories of huge derby games during the noughties come flooding back.

"It's a little bit nostalgic for me.

The younger members of the team have no issues or rivalries with Armagh whatsoever, but for me there is," he said.

"I know there was all the chat about the big rivalry through the noughties, but when it came to it, we had a ridiculous amount of respect for each other.

"I think deep down, Armagh and Tyrone have always respected one another, and will continue to do that.

"And no matter what happens on Saturday, that respect will remain. " The Armagh management team is made up of players who were direct opponents of Cavanagh in his early playing years with Tyrone, with manager Kieran McGeenely flanked by Paul McGrane, Paddy McKeever and John Toal.

"The younger members of our team probably don't remember all those battles, and it's a bit strange to look on at the Armagh games at the moment, and you're watching John Toal, McGeeney, McKeever and McGrane, guys like that standing on the sideline.

"And those are the guys that I had the direct battles with in the early 2000s and mid 2000s.

"So it's a bit strange for me to be still on the right side of the white line and they're on the other side.

"But they have that bit of focus and that bit of drive and obviously those guys from that successful team are driving the backbone of this new Armagh team.

"And having played against those guys, you do realise how driven they were, and how strong as individuals they were. And you can see their stamp on this new team.

"You can see their eagerness to win their own ball, their long diagonal kicking. They're kicking the ball much more out of defence.

"The trademark of that '02 to '05 team in particular are starting to show again, and probably the way football has evolved, it's starting to work again, in that teams are now trying to play a little bit more expansive.

"And Armagh have been brave, in that they played it in a couple of games in the league, and things went against them.

"They have stuck to it, and it's starting to come to fruition now, and you've got to give them credit.

"They have got some really good ball-winners inside and they have some really good kickers in the middle of the park, and they have tough, tough defenders.

"They're playing with that edge, they're playing with that toughness and it does remind me of some of those big personalities that they had through those teams that were very successful for them."

And Cavanagh will once again come up against his brother-in-law Charlie Vernon this weekend, and could possibly be a direct opponent for the Armagh full-back.

"At this stage we have crossed paths a few times, and this might be the last time I get to play against Armagh.

"There'll be nothing said on the pitch. At this stage, we obviously both know each other very well, we'll probably not be chatting to each other this week. There probably be a few quiet days next week, no matter what happens.

"But we're both professional people, and we know that whatever happens on the field on Saturday will stay on the field.

"Both of us would like to think that we're not the dirtiest of players, so I don't think we'll be leaving too much on each other. We have the utmost respect to for one another."

Meanwhile, former Tyrone captain Sean Teague believes there's a steely determination among the players to atone for last year's quarter-final defeat to Mayo.

"Especially the older hands, that hurt them. You know by the way they talk about it still, and they really want to get back to the quarter-final," he said.

Teague, who led the Red Hands to the 2001 Ulster title, has been impressed by the intensity and discipline displayed by the team this season.

"They play fast football, they play hard football. Tyrone's defending and tackling in the Ulster final against Down was as good as you would have seen anywhere in the country over this last number of years.

"It was very disciplined, they gave away very few frees. The discipline in that Tyrone team is very good, they have definitely learned on that score over the last couple of years.

"When they go to Croke Park, the bigger field, the bigger spaces, Tyrone could hold their own with any team now."

Missed opportunities in the closing stages of last year's quarter-final cost Tyrone dearly, with wrong options taken as the Connacht men survived, before going on to qualify for the All-Ireland final.

But Teague is not convinced that the decision-making of the Tyrone players has reached peak performance.

"We're still making some poor decisions on the last ball. Even in the Down game, in my opinion, there were men in a better position for that last pass, and maybe we could have scored another goal or two.

"But we still kept the scoreboard ticking over, which is a big thing too. I suppose that comes down to experience on the field - keep the scoreboard ticking over and the other team still has doubts."

The Greencastle man has been keeping a close eye on the progress of exciting young stars such as Padraig Hampsey, Niall Sludden and Kieran McGeary, all of whom have established themselves in the team and proven themselves as top class inter-county footballers.

"There's a lot of new men coming in and making an impact, and young Hampsey is the prime example of that.

"He has really come on, with two man of the match performances. He's a level-headed fellow, which is good to see, and blending well with the experienced players," said Teague.

"The likes of Sludden has cemented his place. You're not going to line out a Tyrone team without him. He's an excellent footballer, great carrier of the ball, he can get in behind the tackle, and he's a top player for Tyrone at the minute.

"Young McGeary has come in now and he's holding his place, and it's good to see it."

A second successive Ulster title has re-established Tyrone as the top team in the northern province, and they return to Croke Park this weekend with a high level of confidence.

"That's two Ulster titles in a row and you can still see what it means to the players and especially the supporters, if you witnessed the crowd on the field after the game," said the Greencastle man.

"An Ulster title means a lot to those players, a lot of them don't have too many, and for some of them it might have been only their first.

"That gives them confidence, they'll step on from that, and hopefully when they get back, they'll take it on from there."

But the level of opposition in this year's Ulster Championship has left some questions unanswered.

Tyrone coasted to a 15th title with comfortable wins over Derry, Donegal and Down, with none of their opponents offering serious resistance.

And Donegal's subsequent heavy Qualifier defeat at the hands of Galway has demanded some perspective.

"It's hard to measure where they're at. They beat the three D's and beat them all fairly comfortably," said Teague.

"Donegal were hammered by Galway, and a poor outfit they were in the first half. It's hard to judge Tyrone.

"But Tyrone has to get a fair amount of credit for that. They have played high tempo when it mattered, when it was needed, especially the second half against Down."

Teague famously collected the Anglo-Celt Cup one handed back in 2001, his right arm in a sling following a heavy collision in the fisrt half of the final against Cavan.

The Red Hands failed to go on to Sam Maguire success on that occasion, but many of the players he played alongside did achieve the ultimate triumph two years later, when Tyrone won the All-Ireland for the first time.

The game has changed dramatically since the early noughties, and Teague has been an interested observer of gaelic football's evolution.

"The game has got so fast, so pacey, you're not tied to one position now, you're expected to play wherever you're put and do that specific job, and you're expected to get up the field and get back down again. You can't stand still now.

"It's hard to know whether I'd have lasted too long in the present game.

"Especially at that top level, the top four or five teams in the country, when they're playing well, it's a real pleasure to watch."

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