TYRONE go into tomorrow’s Ulster Minor Football Championship semi final against Derry in Clones (2.45pm) as red hot favorites if the 2-18 to 1-09 hammering they dished out to the Oak Leafers 14 weeks ago is any barometer.
Yet minor football is unpredictable. While they came out of the right side of the result in their quarter-final with Armagh, Tyrone will know they cannot afford another half like the first 30 minutes against the Orchard.
The watching Derry minor management will have learned as much from that game as they have in their two previous clashes with Tyrone this season, the other being the Ulster League final, when things were a lot closer.
Mickey Donnelly’s team won that game in Clones by 1-10 to 0-08 but for their clash with Armagh, Tyrone had shown four changes in personnel and a couple of positional switches.
The real big change was the introduction of Mark Bradley to the full-forward line. Along with Sean Hackett, who captained the team to the league title, the two tormented Armagh. When Tyrone were really getting it tight in the first half, had it not been for the outlet provided by the inside duo they would have been dead and buried.
Bradley finished with 2-07 but you would suspect Derry will keep a much closer eye on him than Armagh did. Their marking in the full-back line was poor; they never really laid a hand on either Bradley or Hackett.
Declan Brown, who gave the watching Paul McIver the ultimate assurance of his ability by keeping a tight rein on Collie Devlin during Bellaghy’s league game with Ballinderry, will most likely pick up Bradley.
Clonoe’s Danny McNulty comes out from full-forward as a third midfielder for Tyrone and he picked up plenty of loose ball against Armagh. He is a strong runner and the big decision is whether to let him roam free around the middle and leave Michael Sweeney as a sweeper, or to send Sweeney into the middle and trust Brown and Gary Doyle to perform as well as they did against Donegal.
If Derry can avoid the concession of a goal, it will go a long way but no team has kept a clean sheet against Tyrone this season. In seven games, they have rattled the rigging 16 times, including four in their first championship outing.
Armagh had a lot of joy in a lot of key areas in the first half. Tyrone just weren’t at the races. What will give Derry great heart is how well the Orchard fared when they played a running game. Their midfield and half-forward line ran through Tyrone in waves and only for their wastefulness in front of goal in the opening ten minutes, they would have been well in front at the break. They had still hit 13 points by the interval but they only led by two.
In the second half, Tyrone tightened up considerably. Their full-back line got a lot tighter, they excelled in fact, and a couple of changes in the forward line made a big difference. Soccer starlet James McGahan only joined the panel ten days before the Armagh game but within five minutes of his half-time introduction, he had amassed 1-01. He is expected to start.
He could come in at centre-forward, with Conor Mallon switching back into the half-back line, where he started the Ulster League final.
Their midfield struggled in the Armagh game. They weren’t helped by the erratic kicking of goalkeeper Daire Martin, whose inconsistency with the boot gave the upper hand to Armagh. Diarmuid Carroll and Sean Molloy never knew where the ball was going to land from kickouts. As a consequence, Armagh dominated midfield throughout.
Derry are likely to make a change in this area from the Donegal game. Glen’s Ryan Dougan was a surprise absentee from the starting 15 against the Tír Chonaill men, though he was introduced early in the second half in place of Craigbane’s Ryan Moore. That change is likely to be replicated, with Dougan going to midfield and Peter Cassidy pushing into the half-forward line.
The three-quarters line is a strong one for Derry, one which could easily chop and change. You could envisage any of the three, Cassidy, Ciaran McFaul or James Kearney, playing in the centre.
Against Donegal, Kearney played very deep, more as an attacking wing-back than a defensive wing-forward. That allowed Ryan McDonnell to follow Ryan McHugh and he sickened Donegal’s star man. The one time in the game McHugh got free, McDonnell responded by scoring a point of his own 30 seconds later.
His detail for this one is likely to be Ruairi Sludden. He’s not the most stylish player on the Tyrone team, but he is very effective. He’s a good break-ball winner, he carries the ball well and he uses it well. He was involved in a lot of the attacks which brought them scores against Armagh and if Derry can limit his influence, that will go a long way towards winning the game.
The Oak Leafers’ attacking performance must improve if they are to win in Clones. While they kept the ball superbly, there were times when they struggled to make it stick in the final third.
In all, it promises to be a fascinating match. Fourteen weeks ago in Killyclogher, Tyrone looked untouchable. In the second half against Armagh, they looked ruthless but the gap has narrowed.
Derry may be undergogs but Paul McIver will have them primed and ready to cause an upset. You never know what might happen at Clones!