MCKENNA Cup holders Tyrone deservedly set up a semi-final meeting with Down this weekend after a thrilling 3-18 to 3-15 win over Armagh at the Athletic Grounds last night – a result that also sent the Orchard county crashing out of the competition.
The opening 10 minutes may have been level on the scoreboard but Tyrone were the side playing the better football, utilising the kick pass to expose an inexperienced Armagh full-back line.
A Rian O’Neill free moved the Orchard county ahead in the first minute but their only other first-quarter scores were two controversial Conor Turbitt marks – the first appearing to drop from his hands and the second delivered from Greg McCabe inside the 45-metre line.
Tyrone were dominant in those opening 15 minutes, even if it took them a while to show that on the scoreboard.
Frank Burns missed the simplest of frees to get them off the mark but Armagh spilled the ball coming out and Kyle Coney took advantage.
The struggling Orchard full-back line was being chopped and changed constantly and the returning Ronan O’Neill took advantage of a spill to grab a second score.
Ronan McHugh (free) and a fine Michael McKernan score between those two Turbitt marks gave Tyrone the slenderest of advantages at the end of the first quarter, but they their dominance was soon rewarded as Ronan O’Neill fired to the net after a piercing run through the heart of the Armagh defence from Niall Sludden.
Rian O’Neill responded with a fine effort at the other end before Frank Burns, so effective at full-forward, turned Stephen Sheridan inside out and put Tyrone 1-5 to 0-4 ahead after 17 minutes.
Another Turbitt mark created a golden goal chance for the hosts as he played in McCabe, but the defender saw his effort saved by Niall Morgan with Rian O’Neill converting the resulting ‘45’.
Conan Grugan was the latest Tyrone player to get on the scoresheet with a monster effort from out wide before Stefan Campbell bettered him with an outstanding effort from under the terrace to leave a goal between the teams.
Then came minute 28 – glorious for Tyrone and disastrous for Armagh,
Another spill in the full-back line allowed Kieran McGeary to push Tyrone four points clear and when Niall Brady messed up the resulting short kick-out, Ronan O’Neill showed a touch of class to lob the Collegeland ’keeper from 25 metres. Another poor kick-out saw Ronan McHugh launch over a booming effort and suddenly Tyrone were 2-8 to 0-6 ahead and cruising.
It was a fair reflection of the play to that point but Armagh kept their hopes alive with 1-1 in the lead up to the break.
Oisin O’Neill swerved over a beautiful effort and on the stroke of half-time, Rian O’Neill’s long-range free was dropped into the net by Ben McDonnell with Coney unable to prevent the ball from falling over the line. That left Tyrone 2-8 to 1-7 ahead at the break, and it should have been more.
The lead was cut to just two points at the start of the second half as Oisin O’Neill and Rory Grugan pointed, but then Sludden once again eased through the heart of the Armagh defence and fired past Brady to leave Tyrone 3-8 to 1-9 ahead.
Darren McCurry, Ronan O’Neill and Ronan McHugh (free) added points and suddenly the gap was eight points and Mickey Harte’s side were cruising.
A Campbell penalty, after Aidan Nugent was fouled, gave Armagh a lifeline and Jason Duffy’s point brought it back to four points once again but points from Sludden, McGeary and Liam Rafferty took the wind out of Armagh’s sails.
That left Tyrone 3-14 to 2-10 in front, but the game still had a spark as tensions started to rise.
Paul Hughes fired a half goal chance over the bar with McCurry responding at the other end.
A fine Grugan free and two Turbitt points kept Armagh in contention – and when Grugan hit the net a semi-final spot was possible for Armagh as the best runner-up if they kept the losing margin to two points or less.
A McCurry free put that out of their reach before Grugan free put potentially back into the last four. McCurry, however, had the final say to dump the home side out and keep Tyrone’s hopes of retaining the trophy alive.