Tyrone’s All-Ireland title defence ends with defeat to arch rivals Armagh

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This may not qualify as a total shock, but it still leaves a seismic imprint on the 2022 race for Sam Maguire.

yrone, such impressive All-Ireland champions last September, have lasted just three games in tenuous defence of their title before being out of their misery at the Athletic Grounds this afternoon by a resurgent Armagh.

Cheered on by the natives in a crowd of 16,292, the Orchard men totally dismantled arch-rivals who have been a pallid imitation of their peak 2021 version.

This was, by a distance, the most significant championship win of Kieran McGeeney’s eight-year tenure. The Armagh boss had heroes in every line, no one more so than wandering ‘keeper Ethan Rafferty whose regular outfield forays were rewarded with two superb points from play, one in either half.

As if to underline Tyrone’s disintegration this season, only one of their players – Conor McKenna with a misleading early goal – tallied more from play. Too often Darren McCurry was forced to plough a lone furrow up front, with two of his seven points coming from play.

Three Armagh players chipped in with 0-2 from play, including Man of the Match Stefan Campbell who roamed every inch of the pitch and was involved in several lightning counter-attacks from the hosts.

The only negative for Armagh was a potentially serious injury for sub Connaire Mackin, who had to be stretchered off after a shuddering collision with Tyrone’s Michael McKernan, who was already booked but avoided any further censure.

This resulted in nine minutes of stoppage-time, but Armagh actually outscored their opponents in this period, Andrew Murnin’s brace eclipsing Conn Kilpatrick’s earlier point which briefly reduced the margin to four.

The nervous anticipation around this fixture was palpable beforehand – little wonder given each team’s abject exit from Ulster and the gnawing fear of their summer being over on the first Sunday of June.

Kieran McGeeney made five changes from the team that floundered against Donegal in Ballybofey, with call-ups for Conor O’Neill, Stephen Sheridan, Stefan Campbell, Aidan Nugent and 11th hour inclusion Paddy Burns at the expense of Niall Grimley, Connaire Mackin, Tiernan Kelly, Conor Turbitt and Jemar Hall.

McGeeney’s midfield options had been badly compromised by the recent injury in training shipped by Grimley, compounding the loss of Ciaran Mackin, already ruled out for the season with an eye socket injury.

But Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher had their own problems to mull over in the aftermath of Tyrone’s Derry debacle, not just at midfield (with Brian Kennedy suspended) but in terms of an alarming downturn in form from last year’s All-Ireland highs.

This was reflected in their team selection, with reigning Footballer of the Year Kieran McGeary and 2019 All-Star Cathal McShane dropping to the bench. Into the team replacing this duo and Kennedy were Peter Teague, Michael O’Neill and former captain Mattie Donnelly.

And the reigning All-Ireland champions couldn’t have asked for a more promising start, Conor McKenna burying a third minute goal chance, picking up the pieces after Michael McKernan’s initial attempt was blocked by ‘keeper Ethan Rafferty.

Michael O’Neill’s flick-on from an undercooked Rory Brennan point attempt almost threatened a second goal but, as the game settled, this was to prove a false dawn for the visitors.

Armagh were playing with far more vim, applying pressure on Niall Morgan’s kickout and cutting open the Tyrone defence with surprising ease. Rafferty frequently sallied far from goal and underlined his outfield credentials with a sublime outside-of-the-boot point from play on 13 minutes, cutting Armagh’s deficit to just a point.

Within two minutes they were ahead, Aidan Nugent skipping in along the endline, leaving the struggling Teague in his wake, and squeezing in a low left-footed shot past Morgan at the near post.

It would get worse before it got better for Tyrone. Riain O’Neil and the livewire Nugent combined for a Jason Duffy point, and there followed two pivotal goal chances that – crucially – only yielded 0-1.

Firstly, Rafferty’s soaring kickout and a Ben Crealey flick-on left Stefan Campbell bursting into open prairie as he bore down on goal, but his attempted pass for Nugent was brilliantly cut out by Morgan.

Soon after, Crealey, Rory Grugan and James Morgan combined to release Stephen Sheridan, but the midfielder blazed over when a goal beckoned.

That still left them four clear but, relieved and reprised, Tyrone rediscovered some equilibrium late in the half and landed four of the last five points – three of those from Darren McCurry and another from Peter Harte.

The first of those McCurry points came from a free, just as a round of applause broke out on 27 minutes in a show of solidarity with the McAreavey and Harte families.

Trailing by the minimum, 1-6 to 1-5, Tyrone must have felt blessed to be so close. But, initially at least, their fortunes took another nosedive during a scrappy start to the second half, conceding three of the next four points in the midst of losing half-time sub Richie Donnelly to a black card.

By the time Donnelly rejoined the fray, in the 50th minute, his team trailed by three – but Armagh duly hit them for the next three points, via Rafferty, Campbell and Rian O’Neill, to effectively put the game beyond Tyrone’s reach.

Scorers – Armagh: R O’Neill 0-4 (3f), A Nugent 1-1, E Rafferty, S Campbell, A Murnin 0-2 each, C O’Neill, S Sheridan, J Duffy, R Grugan, C Turbitt 0-1 each. Tyrone: D McCurry 0-7 (4f, 1m), C McKenna 1-0, P Harte, R Donnelly, C Kilpatrick 0-1 each.

Armagh: N Rafferty; J Morgan, A Forker, P Burns; A McKay, G McCabe, J Burns; S Sheridan, B Crealey; C O’Neill, S Campbell, R Grugan; A Nugent, R O’Neill, J Duffy. Subs: C Mackin for P Burns (33), C Turbitt for O’Neill (ht), A Murnin for Nugent (59), J Hall for Duffy (59), M Shields for Mackin (inj, temp 68), R McQuillan for Sheridan (74).

Tyrone: N Morgan; P Teague, R McNamee, P Hampsey; M McKernan, P Harte, R Brennan; C Kilpatrick, F Burns; C Meyler, M O’Neill, N Sludden; D McCurry, M Donnelly, C McKenna. Subs: K McGeary for Teague (31), R Donnelly for Sludden (ht), D Canavan for Burns (50), C McShane for M Donnelly (55), M McGleenan for O’Neill (74).

Referee: D Coldrick (Meath).

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