THE last time Tyrone played Armagh in the Ulster U-20 championship was marred by one of those ‘won’t someone think of the children’ type brawls that we still end up watching on repeat when video footage is invariably uploaded on every social media website across the county.
Players spilled from both benches as mentors and were ere involved in a chaotic all-in melee before Armagh eventually emerged victorious – in footballing terms at least – after extra-time.
That was back in 2018, the first year that Antoin Fox was involved in the Tyrone U-20 set-up. A broken shoulder meant that the recently appointed Tyrone captain was staying well away from the argy bargy.
“I played against Monaghan in the first round but I broke my shoulder when playing for the club against Dungannon before the Armagh match. I wasn’t throwing many hands that day with my shoulder wrapped up.”
While it’s over-egging it to say that he’s been completely cursed by injuries, they seem to strike at the worst possible moment.
Fox broke his ankle less than ten minutes into last year’s ill-fated All-Ireland U-20 Championship semi-final against Cork, and that meant he missed out on Loughmacrory’s championship campaign as well.
Promotion via the play-offs softened the blow somewhat, and Fox received a major personal honour in the pre-season as well when he was named captain of the Tyrone U-20s.
“I’m only back from injury, I broke my ankle against Cork. What can you do, you get those injuries along the road.
“That day was a major disappointment to us. Things didn’t really go our way with Joe [Oguz] getting sent off and Cahir [Goodwin] getting black-carded. It was unfortunate but these things happen.”
Anyone who’s followed the fortunes of Tyrone’s underage teams in recent years won’t be surprised that Fox was handed the captain’s arm-band.. A teak-tough defender, he was key to their All-Ireland U-17 success back in 2017, and he says the system of bringing through young players from their early teens should be commended.
“There was an U-14 team at the time but the first time I got involved was at U-15 level. The first manager who called me up was Gerard Donnelly from Stewartstown, it all started then I suppose.”
On the aspiration of playing for Tyrone, he commented: “It’s easy to dream about, but actually managing it is a different matter.
“Looking back on it I’m really glad I got involved with the development squads. It’s basically a conveyor belt the whole way up. If you’re on those teams and you’re starting, it makes it a lot easier to get brought into the upper age grades as well.
“In saying that there’s new players who get involved as well. Sean Og McAleer was brilliant last year and he never played county. This year James McCann from Donaghmore has slotted in at corner-back for us and he hadn’t played on any county teams either.”
“Plenty of players from last year are still around so they bring a bit of experience to the whole thing and that has to be good for the new boys as well. Hopefully that’ll help bring us together as a team.”
While Tyrone had a forgettable Leo Murphy Cup campaign (a pre-season competition that isn’t taken particularly seriously), Fox says their championship preparations have gone swimmingly.
“We were away to Gweedore for a training weekend and had a few training sessions with Kevin Cassidy. He was a good week-in with a few in-house games. It was good leading into the championship, it was a bit different.
“It’s going to be all about who clicks in the championship. We didn’t have a real run in the league but we’ve been gelling well in the last few weeks and hopefully that’ll show itself against Armagh.”
Meanwhile, team boss Paul Devlin has given a positive update on Darragh Canavan (who needs no introduction) and Tiarnan Quinn (the team’s vice-captain), who missed out on the aforementioned league competition through injury.
Devlin also revealed that Stephen O’Neill and Fergal McCann have helped out with training the team in recent weeks as well.
“Darragh’s back training, he’s getting plenty of stuff fitted in. The wee break won’t do him any harm, he’s been running this last 3 or 4 weeks. Tiarnan’s training too, he’s ready to go.”