The poker faces are already set after one of the most thrilling McKenna Cup campaigns in years.
More than 12,000 witnessed two superb contests between Damian Barton’s Derry and Mickey Harte’s Tyrone. It was old school stuff. Long kick passing, big men at full forward, man-to-man marking and some superb scores.
But now we can take everything we think we’ve learned and consign it to the bin. It will mean nothing on May 22nd.
Once you get past the brilliant spectacle of the two games which Tyrone just about won against their Oak Leaf championship rivals, the question of which county took most from the matches is less clear.
Two big psychological boosts for the Red Hands? Hardly, given their recent record of success.
An invaluable insight into the working and tactics of championship opposition? Not likely, given Derry especially will probably be unrecognisable by the time May rolls in.
New talent unearthed? Probably the biggest plus for both managers with some encouraging displays from fringe or new players.
To the victor the spoils and all that but the closer you look, the more it appears Barton and Derry took most away from the two memorable encounters.
As a new county manager, there was always more to learn for the Oak Leaf boss than for Harte, but Barton has been clever in forging a club-like atmosphere amid a large panel of players.
And, given the incredibly harsh red card for Emmet McGuckin in Owenbeg and Tiarnan McCann’s shocking challenge on Brendan Rogers at the throw-in at the Athletic Grounds, Tyrone had already handed over the moral high ground even before the fracas that saw Ronan McNamee and Cathal McCarron red carded.
Of course, the Derry boss should not have got involved but this is HIS team and, while it’s not a politically correct thing to say these days, it will not have done Barton any harm with his own players. When they see what lengths their manager is prepared to go to for them, there can be no question of what he expects from them.
The down side of the competition for Derry can be summed up in two words: Enda Lynn.
The loss of the Greenlough schemer is a huge blow. Lynn’s performance before the injury was symptomatic of a player who has become critical to his county.
The new willingness to mix the short and long game has worked well and brought an extra benefit to players like Lynn. The big Derry forward line (or just the threat of it) means defences were caught between dropping deeper or pressing the areas in which Lynn likes to operate.
That fact he was causing Tyrone so much trouble on Saturday highlights the loss which is likely to see him sidelined for two months and playing catch up when he returns.
The match itself had everything and, as assistant manager Tony Scullion admitted afterwards, it was more valuable than a thousand January training sessions.
“You can train seven days a week but the level of intensity you saw in that game will beat any training session 10 times over,” explained the Oak Leaf All Ireland winner. “Absolutely brilliant competition but, as I said, I am just disappointed with our injuries. We’ll need everybody available for us for the National League and those are two or three great lads who will be missed - but that’s where you need the depth of the panel so, hopefully, we will have cover.”
Derry had the game won going into injury time with a two point lead and an extra man following the double Tyrone dimissal and a second yellow for Daniel McKinless.
Tyrone owned extra-time but the previous 70 minutes were excellent for Derry for whom Conor McAtamney was superb after replacing the stricken Rogers who was taken to A&E after the first minute clash with McCann which brought not even a booking.
Derry started slowly against the wind but gradually grew into the game with Eoghan Rua’s Ciaran Mullan another excellent addition to a strong running Oak Leaf half-back line.
And those big No. 14s continue to give Derry an added dimension. Whether it was Cailean O’Boyle, who was wearing the shirt, or Ryan Bell, who often joined him up top, the Tyrone backs had resorted to man handling even before the first half penalty that brought Bell his fifth spot kick of the competition, albeit at the second attempt
The half-time lead of 1-05 to 0-04 was fully justified.
Conor McAliskey and, in particular, Conor Meyler’s introduction at half-time transformed Harte’s team but Derry matched them and with a little more nous (or ‘game management’ as the pundits like to label it) in injury time, the game would have been over.
Derry, undoubtedly, tired in extra-time but, by that stage, it was a very young Oak Leaf team they were playing. There was never five points between the teams and both managers will have been satisfied with what they got from the competition.
“The pre-season matches and McKenna Cup is a worthwhile competition but, at the end of the day, the National League and the Championship, they are what counts,” added Scullion. “As Mickey Harte said the other day, the Championship game takes care of itself. It’s a one off occasion. Whatever happens beforehand means nothing to those 70 minutes.
“Out National League game in Omagh is going to be vital, too, though because both Derry and Tyrone will be looking to try to push on from Division Two but we know we have to hold our own to begin with.”
So that’s the ‘sparring’ over with. There were doubts the final could match the excitement of the McKenna Group game but it surpassed even that which has only proved to whet the appetite further for the summer.
Battle lines have been drawn.
Derry: Thomas Mallon; Ciaran Mullan, Chrissy McKaigue, Karl McKaigue; Gareth McKinless, Mark Craig, Danny Heavron; Brendan Rogers, Emmet Bradley (0-2); Enda Lynn (0-3), James Kielt (0-3, 2f), Benny Heron; Shane Heavron, Cailean O’Boyle (0-1, 1f), Ryan Bell (1-1, 1f). (Subs) Conor McAtamney (0-1) for B Rogers (inj) 1min; Christopher Bradley (0-1) for S Heavron, 31mins; Oisin Duffy (0-1) for M Craig, 40mins; Conor Kearns (0-2) for B Heron, 48mins; Daniel McKinless for R Bell, 52mins; Neil Forester (0-1) for G McKinless, 57mins; Gavin McWilliams (0-1, 1f) for J Kielt, 8mins (ET); Peter Quinn for D Heavron, 11mins (ET); Shane Mulgrew for C Kearns, 13mins (ET).
Tyrone: Niall Morgan; Cathal McCarron, Ronan McNamee, Hugh Pat McGeary (0-1); Tiarnan McCann (0-1), Justin McMahon, Barry Tierney; Colm Cavangh, Conor Clarke; Harry Og Conlon, Mattie Donnelly, Cathal McShane (0-3); Lee Brennan (0-4, 2f), Ronan O’Neill (0-1), Patrick Quinn. (Subs) Conor McAliskey (0-3, 3f) for H Conlan, H/T; Padraig McNulty for C Clarke, H/T; Conor Meyler (0-3) for P Quinn, H/T; Darren McCurry (1-2, 1f, 1pen) for R O’Neill. 46mins; Niall Sludden (0-2) for J McMahon, 50mins; Jonathan Monroe (0-1) for C McShane, 64mins; Padraig Hampsey for B Tierney, 2mins (ET); Cathal McShane for HP McGeary.
Referee: Noel Mooney (Cavan).