Losing the rag could ruin the summer for Ulster arch rivals

talking point

Frank Roche

Most All-Ireland SFC qualifiers are played on a Saturday, but Armagh/Tyrone is getting the full ‘Super Sunday’ treatment – the first leg of a televised double-header concluding with the Limerick/Clare Munster hurling final.

If RTÉ bosses expect skin and hair and splinters of ash to be flying in the latter, they are probably gearing up for something even more incendiary in the football curtain-raiser.

Not just because these implacable Ulster foes don’t particularly like each other. Or because their entire season is on the line at a juncture far too early for either’s liking.

All you need do is dig up the Montrose video archive from Sunday, February 6 last at the Athletic Grounds: same venue, same two counties … and five straight red cards from the same injury-time flashpoint.

Surely history won’t repeat itself?

Well, if Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan are serious about sustaining Tyrone’s Sam Maguire defence, or if Kieran McGeeney is desperate to finally eradicate Armagh’s underwhelming championship record on his watch, they would be well advised to remind their respective camps that indiscipline rarely if ever pays.

Perhaps no one knows this better, right now, than Tyrone who have shipped nine red cards – albeit one later rescinded – in nine league and championship matches this year.

Armagh, with one red card on the field, aren’t remotely at that ragged level … but any ‘choir boy’ inference is flatly countered by their involvement in two high-profile league melees, against Tyrone and Donegal.

Football at this level is a high-stakes game of crankiness, physicality, cynicism and swirling emotions. We get all that; that heady cocktail even helps to make occasions such as Sunday so anticipated in the first place.

But now, entering the last chance saloon, losing your rag is not just reckless; it could wreck the year for Tyrone or Armagh.

Wind back to their February fracas when referee David Gough, having calmly observed, brandished four reds to Tyrone (Michael McKernan, Pádraig Hampsey, Peter Harte and Kieran McGeary) plus one to Armagh’s Greg McCabe.

You could argue that this heavily weighted punishment did not materially affect Tyrone, who were already five down and destined for defeat. Then, even without their suspended quartet, they dug out a narrow league victory at home to Kildare.

However, taking their year in the round, you can’t escape the sense that fraying discipline has contributed to Tyrone’s erratic form.

McGeary went from Footballer of the Year to being sent off in back-to-back early league matches. Hampsey followed suit with his second dismissal in Tyrone’s fifth outing against Dublin. Following an earlier black, he then saw yellow (plus red) for pushing Cormac Costello onto the tarmac early in the second half.

Now, perhaps Hampsey’s petulant act was born of frustration, his team trailing by nine. But it also killed any remote comeback chance.

It’s no surprise that Tyrone’s rousing end to the league, yielding wins over Mayo and Kerry, was unaccompanied by any more card tricks.

But trouble resurfaced in Ulster; and even if Conor McKenna successfully contested his Fermanagh red card (cleared of the GAA’s infraction du jour, “contributing to a melee”) matters came to a head against Derry.

It’s entirely conceivable that a buoyant Derry would have won against 15 men. But losing Brian Kennedy in the 27th minute, already three down, rendered Tyrone’s task twice as difficult.

Moreover, the avoidable nature of it all will hurt the group: Kennedy had won a kickout but didn’t like the pestering attention of Gareth McKinless and swung a boot.

The game was long over when McKenna walked (again), a second yellow for throwing the ball at a Derry opponent.

It was a good sign this week when Michael McKernan publicly acknowledged that their red mist moments may have shown “a lack of focus as well as discipline. That’s one of the main things we’re looking at.”

Armagh would be well advised to heed the same advice.

The prevailing outside view was they took full advantage of the GAA’s labyrinthine appeals process to ensure three of their players were free to face Donegal in the Ulster SFC, despite being cited arising from their end-of-league melee against the same opponent.

Without getting into the minutiae, and the probability that Armagh had just procedural cause, Rian O’Neill was cleared of a proposed one-match ban by the Central Hearings Committee; then Stefan Campbell and Aidan Nugent overturned their one-match bans at the Central Appeals Committee (CAC). A fourth Armagh player, the injured Ciarán Mackin, didn’t press ahead with his CAC appeal.

Donegal had lost two players in the same saga and accepted their punishment. They won emphatically, in any event; some may call that karma.

But that’s past history, and both Armagh and Tyrone need to ensure that last February stays history too.

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