Red and White vs Red and Black! O’Neill Machine vs Mourne Marauders! Modern Day Goliath vs Traditional Powerhouse!
Yes it may lack the feistiness and barely concealed loathing of some of northern football’s rawer rivalries, but a Tyrone vs Down Ulster Senior Championship Final still has a magnetic appeal about it.
Despite the illustrious history of both counties, Sunday will only be the sixth occasion on which they have locked horns for the Anglo-Celt Cup (seven if you factor in the drawn final encounter of 2003).
In terms of Ulster SFC titles, Tyrone just shade the roll of honour, with fourteen to their name compared to a dozen for the Mourne men, though it speaks volumes for the contrasting fortunes of the combatants over the past two decades, that Tyrone have collected eight provincial crowns since Down’s last success in 1994.
That victory of course came at the Red Hands expense, when a swashbuckling Down side, managed by Pete McGrath and skippered by DJ Kane, were at their pomp and went on to annex the county’s fifth All-Ireland that Autumn.
Aside from a remarkable odyssey all the way to the national decider again in 2010 (and an appearance in the 2012 Ulster Final) there has been precious little to cheer about for the loyal red and black hordes since those halcyon days of the early nineties, as they have witnessed the likes of Tyrone, Armagh and Donegal usurp them as Ulster’s premier forces.
At the outset of this current Championship campaign few would have expected Eamonn Burns’ troops to be enjoying a Garda escort up the Clones hill on the third Sunday of July. Having reached their nadir in 2016, when they recorded one solitary competitive victory (against St Mary’s in the McKenna Cup) in the entire season and were thumped by nineteen points by Monaghan in the Championship, Down showed few signs of recovery in the early part of this season.
However a Houdini-esque escape from relegation courtesy of a last gasp draw away to Cork in Division Two, provided the springboard for a stunning renaissance.
Two epic Championship victories have followed against Armagh and Monaghan, with the likes of Gerard McGovern, Kevin McKernan, Niall Donnelly, Conaire Harrison and the Johnston brothers, summoning up the adventurous traits with which the county was always synonymous.
With everyone expecting another bruising, suffocating Tyrone vs Monaghan showdown, Burns’ belligerent troops had gatecrashed the party.
Many pre-competition forecasters were also of the impression that Tyrone likewise wouldn’t be handed an invite to this date either, as they look to make it back-to back Ulster SFC triumphs for the first time since 2009/10.
A litany of turgid and error-strewn displays at the backend of the league raised doubts over their claims to be regarded as legitimate contenders for top honours.
Inspite of a facile double scores success (0-22 to 0-11) against Derry in the first round, questions remained over the Red Hands ability to throw off the shackles and demonstrate a more creative attacking dimension in their game.
Such concerns though were quashed in emphatic manner as they annihilated a much touted, albeit inexperienced, Donegal side in the Ulster semi-final, the nine point winning margin barely doing justice to Tyrone’s overall supremacy.
PREVIEW SUPPLEMENT IN TODAY’S ULSTER HERALD
MARVELLOUS Marito Marcal grabbed a spectacular hat-trick as the Tyrone Juniors bounced back to defeat MS Select this afternoon