There is a sense ahead of tomorrow’s Ulster final between Tyrone and Donegal of a wheel having come full circle, of a new cycle about to begin and of this latest clash between neighbouring counties being a cusp game.
Tyrone would certainly see it that way.
But if they hope to win their first Ulster title since 2010, they are going to have to break the most stubborn and durable opponent Ulster has seen since the Down team of the 60’s, the last team to make six Ulster finals in a row.
While we have been focusing all along on the venerability and vulnerability of some elements of the Donegal machine, they have gone about the process of making themselves young and defiant and dogged again.
That is how Donegal will see this game. They have had Tyrone’s measure in recent years and will feel they can handle them now too. You could see and hear it in the language Michael Murphy used in his post match interviews two weeks ago.
Donegal have very cleverly positioned themselves as the team to be knocked and written off this year. They have turned the negative energy generated by some of their antics in earlier league and championship games on its head. The ‘nobody likes us, we don’t care’ message that Tyrone supporters carried into Croke Park in 2015, could well have been written for Donegal this year.
All other counties, bar Monaghan, have found Tír Chonaill unconquerable in this the most successful period in Donegal football history.
Tyrone have been dispatched four times in that period and the Monaghan question was answered definitively a fortnight ago, too.
Tyrone, we are told, are a different proposition this time around. They have been anointed time and again this summer as ‘the team most likely to beat Dublin’ but that hardly matters this week. All that matters is that very few of their players are in possession of an Ulster Championship medal, and they feel they need to change that if they are to develop as a team. An Ulster title would be a tangible reward for what has been going on behind the scenes in Garvaghey. Their preparation will have been meticulous and will almost certainly have taken in Donegal from a long way out.
There have been signs over the past 12 months to suggest that Tyrone are indeed ready.
Colm Cavanagh has honed his skills as a sweeper to the point that he now rivals Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan as the best in the business. Much has been made of the 2-17 that Tyrone conceded in their replay a fortnight ago, and it made for quite a convenient narrative within the county as well. What has rarely been mentioned is that Cavan, with 15 minutes left on the clock, had scored just ten points and that the other 2-7 was conceded after Cavanagh was replaced.
Given his previous success, I expect Tyrone to ask Justin McMahon to track Michael Murphy wherever he roams and to ask Colm Cavanagh to reprise his role from the semi-final against Kerry last year.
Rory Gallagher will have noted how Kerry’s Johnny Buckley, operating across the 50-yard line, scored three points in the opening 10 minutes of that game because Cavanagh was so concerned with closing down the space in front of Colm Cooper, Kieran Donaghy and James O’Donoghue. If Donegal feel that they have somebody that can similarly punish Tyrone tomorrow (Martin McElhinney scored the only championship goal against Tyrone in 2015 as well as two points last time) they must now reckon with a harder working Tyrone half-forward line. Peter Harte and Niall Sludden offer more than Mark Bradley and Conor Meylerin terms of getting back to shut down space and Cathal McShane is starting to look like a proper Tyrone half-forward.
Other young guns, such as Sludden and Ronan O’Neill contributed little last year as they recovered from long term injuries. This year, they have channelled that disappointment and frustration to become central players in the charge for an Ulster title and, more importantly perhaps, they have a sense of perspective having missed out on so much previously.
What they wouldn’t do to get their hands on an Ulster Championship medal.
Further evidence of Tyrone’s progress can be seen on the sideline. Although Peter Donnelly and Gavin Devlin have been involved for some time, their input and exhortations in recent games have been pronounced.
Watch tomorrow and see how any Tyrone player who decides to take a momentary breather is cajoled back into position by Donnelly and Devlin.
This is where Tyrone differ substantially from most of the top teams. On the counter attack, they have players who are willing and expecting to get a touch of the ball. Most others are happy to just support the runner with the ball without actually feeling the need to get possession. When Tiernan McCann or Mattie Donnelly or Ronan McNabb go forward they know they will have a battalion of men in white jersies alongside them. Some of these will handle the ball twice or three times in the same move. It is self-evident, therefore, that carrying the ball into contact inside the Tyrone half of the field is an absolute no-no.
Cavan’s Conor Moynagh was the latest to find out two weeks ago that Tyrone’s discipline in the tackle makes it very hard for a referee to give a free or a penalty against them. It may at times look like a foul but more often than not, it is good technique and the sheer force of numbers converging that causes the turnover.
I suppose the standout image we have of the Ulster semi-final replay a fortnight ago is Connor McAliskey’s goal on 44 minutes. That came when Jack Brady’s grasp on the ball was loosened and Sean Cavanagh passed to McAliskey who ran 80 yards upfield. Even though he had Peter Harte riding shotgun, McAliskey went for it and scored. It was spectacular in its execution but the question must be asked – can Tyrone realistically expect to get a similar score against an established defensive set up such as Donegal’s?
For that matter, do they really expect a score like that again in 2016?
There are further questions for Tyrone to ponder.
Who will pick up Ryan McHugh? Frank McGlynn is just as great a threat going forward, but McHugh has reached the point where you must give someone detailed and dedicated marking duties just to curb his influence.
Will Tyrone leave Seán Cavanagh out around the middle? With Neil McGee back, Paddy McGrath doing a decent job on Conor McManus two weeks ago, Ciarán Gillespie offering new possibilities in terms of match-ups and Eamonn McGee as tough as ever, Cavanagh might get more involved as an extra midfielder, as he did against Cavan.
If they go with two sweepers in front of their own full back line, can Tyrone allow Donegal the luxury of having two spare players with time and space out the field? Donegal are not like Cavan. They won’t blink first.
Have Tyrone sorted out their freetaking issues? We’ll assume that Michael Murphy’s missed attempts against Monaghan were a mere aberration, but Tyrone, on the other hand, have a serious enough issue with long range frees that goes back to Niall Morgan’s debut in Ballybofey in 2013. I haven’t seen enough evidence in any game this year that Tyrone have solved this problem. In last year’s semi-final against Kerry, Morgan missed long range frees to narrow the gap on 58 and 71 minutes. Darren McCurry missed two difficult but kickable frees in the 61st and 65th minutes to level the game and also fluffed another important one into Hill16 on 31 minutes. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Tyrone were to fall down for failing to profit from the one area where they hold a distinct advantage over Donegal – discipline and the ability to win frees?
Granted, Donegal have their own issues with lack of genuine depth on the bench, with an untested and raw goalkeeper in McGinley, with Neil Gallagher’s absence, with Michael Murphy’s knocks and bruises and with that inevitable question about mileage and road weariness.
Donegal have been to the well an awful lot these last six seasons but almost every time they’ve been asked to show character, that well has given up more than its share.
In beating Fermanagh with 14 men, beating Ulster champions and Division 1 diehards Monaghan and in doing more than any other team to break the Tyrone team of old, I believe that Donegal have the wherewithal to hold off the latest Red Hand rising.
Tyrone’s need might be greater and they might ultimately go further in this year’s championship. But I don’t believe Donegal are ready to cede power in Ulster just yet.
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