Tyrone made the perfect start to 2015 with a hard fought two point win over Armagh in the opeing round of the Dr McKenna Cup.
The match was delayed by 30 minutes to allow for the huge crowd to make their way into the Atletic Ground.
Played before an attendance estimated at 8,500, Tyrone rallied in the final minutes with injury time points from debutant Cathal McShane and Darren McCurry sealing the win.
Armagh finished with just 12 players on the field while Tyrone had 14 at the final whistle.
Even before Sunday’s 20-15 Dr McKenna Cup opening tie between Tyrone and Armagh, the big derby game was not short of storylines.
It was the first meeting between the teams since Armagh dumped Tyrone out of the 2014 Championship in Healy Park, a game brought back into focus by Dominic McCaughey’s comments in the recent Tyrone Convention report, and Ciaran McKeever’s subsequent response.
The game also marked Kieran McGeeney’s first game in charge of his native county.
Even before events got under way on the field, events off it saw the game twice delayed by fifteen minutes due to crowd congestion. The match eventually started at 2.30pm rather than the scheduled 2pm.
When the 8,463 paying spectators eventually found their way inside the Athletic Grounds, they were treated to some spicy fare in the opening half.
In total four men saw red cards, three Armagh players and one from Tyrone. On top of that there were also a rash of yellow cards as referee Noel Mooney from Down dished them out liberally.
Tyrone made just one change to their named line-up with PJ Lavery replaced in the starting 15 by Emmet McKenna, while Armagh brought in Stephen Sheridan and Niall McConville to their starting line-up.
The absence of Brendan Donaghy in the Armagh rear-guard meant that a reshuffle was in order and Aaron Findon, named at midfield, took up position at full-back marking Sean Cavanagh.
It was Tyrone who opened the scoring, Cavanagh converting a free himself after Findon had fouled him.
Armagh responded almost immediately with centre half forward Micheal McKenna and Gavin McParland both slotting between the posts to put their side back into the lead.
Findon had fouled Cavanagh on two more occasions before the game boiled over. After a wayward Tyrone free kick, Findon and Cavanagh came together near the fencing behind the Armagh goal. Within seconds a melee had developed, Ciaran McKeever notably making a dash towards Cavanagh.
When referee Mooney eventually settled the situation down, McKeever and Colm Cavanagh received straight reds, while Sean Cavanagh and Findon saw yellow.
When play resumed it settled into a similar pattern, with Sean Cavanagh bringing the sides level in the 11th minute with a straight forward free.
With Colm Cavanagh’s presence missing in the midfield and the Tyrone half forward line struggling to impose themselves on the game, Armagh dominated the middle third and soon took advantage.
Eugene McVerry fired over a free for his side after a foul on Stephen Sheridan.
Sean Cavanagh again responded for Tyrone, curled over from an acute angle, to bring the sides level, before Ryan McKenna was sent to the line for a black card in the 16th minute.
Armagh converted the subsequent free, Ethan Rafferty on target this time, before they extended their lead with a Eugene McVerry point.
Tyrone were struggling and Micheal McKenna kicked his second point of the day from play to leave them three adrift after 22 minutes.
The Red Hands might well have hit the net when Padraig McNulty was set free in the Armagh defence his effort excellently saved Niall Geoghegan in the Orchard County’s goal.
Tyrone close to within a point at the break when Darren McCurry pointed from play after a smartly worked 45’.
Shortly after Sean Cavanagh got the last score of the half with a point from a free to bring Mickey Harte’s men back within a point of their rivals.
The Red Hands again began the second half slowly with Armagh kicking the opening score from play, Maghery man Stefan Forker finding his range.
Armagh were reduced to 13 shortly after however as Finian Moriarty got his marching orders after a second yellow card.
Despite playing with a man advantage, Tyrone struggled to get any fluency in their playing, constantly losing out to Armagh in the physical exchanges.
The sides traded scores however with Sean Cavanagh and Micheal McKenna both finding the target for their respective sides.
A Darren McCurry free was cancelled out soon after by a fine Tony Kernan strike from play as Armagh continued to give Tyrone trouble.
The Red Hands eventually moved into the lead in the 53rd minute when Sean Cavanagh linked up with corner back Aidan McCrory, the Errigal Ciaran man cooly finishing to the Armagh net.
A pointed free from Eugene McVerry brought the sides level again, before Kieran McGeeney’s charges found a goal of their own.
It was McVerry on target after Niall McConville brilliantly picked him out with a smart pass.
Tyrone to their credit fought back, the introductions of Cathal McShane, Niall McKenna and Mark Donnelly adding impetus to the attack.
Darren McCurry benefitted and he kicked two quick frees to bring his side to within a point of Armagh.
Eskra’s Peter Hughes brought the sides level as the clock ran down before young Cathal McShane kicked the point to put Tyrone into the lead.
Armagh at this point had been reduced to 12 players, Aaron Findon receiving a second yellow card. McCurry pointed late to seal an opening day with for Tyrone.
It was far from impressive but the win will be welcomed in the Tyrone dressing room and they will try to build on it next Sunday against St Marys in Omagh.