THE Ulster Gaelic Football Championship’s most awaited game takes place this weekend at the Athletic Grounds when Armagh face neighbours Tyrone in their provincial opener.
Although both sides are struggling somewhat to reach the dizzy heights of recent years when the Ulster giants between them dominated the province and, at times, the country, it would be difficult to diminish the importance a victory would mean to either side.
Tyrone boss Mickey Harte has captured a wealth of titles with the Red Hand county which includes three All-Ireland wins.
In stark contrast, Orchard manager Paddy O’Rourke has only a Division Two crown to show for his efforts with his adopted county.
There will be no hiding at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday and Armagh’s last three defeats against Ulster opposition in the Championship will all be recalled with apprehension by the county’s.
It remains to be seen how the county’s relegation to Division Two has affected the players, although eventually being defeated in the Division Two League Final by a good Kildare side, Tyrone had been previously unbeaten in all games.
Armagh face their first Championship game for many years without the services of Steven McDonnell and with Paul Hearty also stepping down this season, the questions can be asked as to whether potential goalkeepers Philip McEvoy and Niall Geoghan can cope with the pressure of Championship football and whether Armagh currently possess the fire-power to trouble a resolute Tyrone rearguard.
Mickey Harte’s outfit, however, have had their fare share of injuries to report this season with Kyle Coney and their talisman Sean Cavanagh being the most notable.
Orchard supporters are unsure as to which midfield pairing the management will select. James Lavery, Malachy Mackin, Charlie Vernon, Kieran Toner and Johnny Hanratty will all come into the reckoning for starting places on Sunday.
Although the game is being shown live on BBC, a full house is still expected on Sunday and in general attendances could be up this year considering the Ulster Council’s common sense approach to ticket pricing.
On the field of play, despite being seen as unlikely winners in some quarters, Armagh have a real chance of springing a surprise.
The county’s management team will be emphasising the fact that, despite their injuries, Tyrone will line out a side to be reckoned with but this Armagh side, many of whom came through the ranks during the time of Armagh and Tyrone’s titanic struggles, should need no extra motivation.
For the hosts, it can be taken for granted that both Aaron Kernan and Jamie Clarke will start. Clarke, however, failed to score against Tyrone last season and the Rangers man will be looking for a better performance this time around.
It would not be a surprise to see a half forward line of Aidan Forker, Brian Mallon and Granemore’s Caolan Rafferty whilst defensively Armagh should be able to cope well with many of their players having a wealth of experience between them.
Currently, Peter Harte is a huge cog in the Tyrone machine. He plays at centre half back and Brian Mallon could be given the task of stifling his runs from deep.
A tough semi-final against either Donegal or Derry awaits the winners and although Armagh showed glimpses in the National League that they had improved under the current management, the lack of consistency shown over the past number of seasons would be a worry for the fans.
Armagh have had a low key build up to Sunday’s game and would need to show real penetration up front against Tyrone.
Paddy O’Rourke’s side will possibly need to hit more than 15 points to beat Tyrone and if Jamie Clarke is held, the home side could struggle for scores.
On a positive note for the home side, Tyrone’s injuries may have an effect on their long term sustainability and on a good day, Paddy O’Rourke’s side have a chance of causing an upset. Tyrone, however, look more coordinated and balanced.
The big crowd should witness a struggle, served up by two former greats attempting to emulate past glories.