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Friday 22 September 2017

Down are no longer out but Harte will have Red Hands forewarned

Ulster SFC Final: Tyrone v Down Clones, Tomorrow 2.0, live RTÉ2

Tyrone’s Tiernan McCann. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Tyrone’s Tiernan McCann. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

THE 2017 football championship is approaching that tantalising watershed when all four provincial championships are decided and just one round of qualifiers remains.

The midpoint review? Generally positive, facilitated by some gloriously unexpected shocks.

Roscommon, supposedly mired in crisis last summer, winter and spring only to conquer Connacht last Sunday, ranks right up there ... but in some respects, Down's progress is even more, well, shocking.

Eamonn Burns and his born-again Mourne men have no cup in the cabinet yet (unlike Roscommon) but they have already achieved wonders in restoring the good name of Down football.

Thirteen months ago, they were humiliated by Monaghan to the tune of 19 points. Back in February, a brace of early Division 2 defeats extended their league and championship losing streak to 14 games stretching back 22 months.

Crisis? What crisis!

They rallied and managed, just, to avoid relegation. Then they deservedly usurped Armagh, ending a 25-year summer hex against the Orchard men.

So far, so progressive.

But taking out Monaghan elevated Down's renaissance to something far more substantial.

They were good money for it too, even if forced to withstand a late onslaught that appeared unlikely when they led by seven early in the second half.

Down's aggression in the tackle and their voracious hunger got them so far, but there was also an intelligence to their game-plan, especially in the first half when early diagonal deliveries to target man Connaire Harrison yielded a rich bounty.

Harrison hobbled off midway through the second half, but the latest word is that he'll be fit to feature in St Tiernach's Park.

That represents a huge positive for Down: any player who can so thoroughly discommode Drew Wylie deserves a special place in the opposition's pre-match planning.

But that's the thing: Mickey Harte won't treat them lightly.

He has endured enough torrid moments against Down to be forewarned. Tyrone drew with them in their All-Ireland-winning years of 2003 and '08, and again in 2014; they even lost the '08 replay.

Fraught

Thus, the veteran boss knows the history of this fixture and its potential to turn fraught, even when his troops are raging favourites.

Harte will be even more on his guard after watching Harrison, Darragh O'Hanlon and the wonderfully enduring Kevin McKernan bring Monaghan crashing back to earth.

But there's a reason why the bookies have priced Tyrone at 1/6. Or rather, several reasons.

They are defending Ulster champions and, notwithstanding a nosediving second half to the league, the most likely northern challenger for Sam.

Optimism has been restored by the manner in which they have tackled this Ulster campaign, racking up 0-22 against Derry and 1-21 against Donegal. The latter display, especially, had their fans purring: this was a statement of intent.

They still lack an out-and-out inside predator of the highest order (a cloned version of Stephen O'Neill) that contenders crave once they get to Croker.

But, for the moment at least, they are compensating in other ways. Few rivals can match their ability to counter, at blinding pace and in numbers.

Their modified kickout strategy, going long more often to Colm Cavanagh & Co, has also reaped its reward.

In short, they look too far down the road to be halted now.

ODDS: Tyrone 1/6 Draw 12/1 Down 11/2

VERDICT: Tyrone

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