Ulster SFC semi-final: Tyrone v Donegal, 2pm ... It might not be pretty, but I expect Tyrone to move on from last spring, writes Dara Ó Cinnéide.

It might have gone unnoticed outside the two counties involved but Donegal’s league victory over Tyrone last March was quite a statement.

With Kerry trying to stop Dublin’s unbeaten run in a sold out Austin Stack Park and Ireland playing England in the rugby, a six-point win for a young Donegal team was never going to grab the headlines, but it was significant nonetheless.

Given the familiarity, the tension, the tightness of recent clashes, as outlined by John Fogarty on these pages yesterday, a six-point win for a Donegal team playing without Patrick McBrearty should have been seismic.

Watching the highlights on television later, I was struck by the lightness of Ryan McHugh on his feet on a particular counter-attack against the gale late in the second half when Donegal had finally broken Tyrone. I got the sense at the time that this was a huge scalp and a huge stride forward for a newly reconstructed team. I also felt that night that McHugh and his cousin Eoin, Martin Reilly, and Ciarán Thompson could play even better with a dry sod and a dry ball in the white heat of Ulster Championship.

And yet, as both teams prepare to face off in Clones again tomorrow, I can’t avoid the notion that it is Tyrone who arrive with more menace.

I know that Tyrone’s form dipped dramatically towards the end of the league after that defeat in Ballybofey, losing subsequent games at home to Mayo (remember that Kevin McLoughllin beauty to win it?) and away to Kerry (when they managed only three scores from play) but it was Donegal’s last league outing against Mayo that is sowing the seeds of doubt in my mind.

When Mayo got a grip on that game Donegal couldn’t score with the aid of the breeze for the last half an hour and during that period they came across all Hansel and Gretel — young and lost.

For all the talk of renewal, rejuvenation and regeneration in Tír Chonaill and despite the flexing of muscles in their 16-point win over Antrim a month ago, we simply don’t know enough about this Donegal team yet.

We know they have pace. We know they can run the show with that slow rhythm of theirs suddenly injected with a lacerating pace at the right time. We know also that they have put more thought than any team in recent years into really getting at Tyrone’s defensive set-up.

We also know that they are on an upward trajectory. But will that be enough?

Based on consideration of last year’s Ulster final between the two counties, it might not be. You couldn’t make up the Donegal vs Tyrone Ulster final last year — well not as a football game, you couldn’t.

It was tit-for-tat, tantric football punctuated by the very rare moment of inspiration until the final, frantic six minutes of injury time when, sensing tiring Donegal limbs, Tyrone pounced for points by Seán Cavangh, Peter Harte, and Kieran McGeary.

I have heard comment this week by former and current Donegal players suggesting that last year’s Ulster title was one that was let slip as opposed to Tyrone winning it. It has also been said that because the temperature might not be as high tomorrow and because Donegal have replaced those tiring limbs with newer ones, the deficiency highlighted at the end of last year’s Ulster final (and once again when conceding the goal of the year to Dublin’s Paul Mannion in the quarter-final) will be rectified.

Tyrone bringing right sort of menace to Clones

If only it were that simple.  

I doubt that it was tiring limbs or dead heat that caught Donegal last year. If you look at the game again you will see that it was Donegal’s innate conservatism and their unwillingness to really go at Tyrone that beat them in the end. In a low-scoring game, Donegal had gone four points up in the early seconds of the second half and seemed primed to see it out. They were outscored 0-9 to 0-3 for the remainder of the game.

If there is one lesson that Rory Gallagher will have learned from 2016 it will have been that in order to beat this Tyrone defensive style, you simply must do more than just support the man in possession from behind the play. There were many signs in that league game in March that Donegal were willing to try more ways of getting at Tyrone than the one-dimensional support play that marked last year’s clash.

Now that they have done it in the league, it will have given them encouragement. But to expect newcomers like Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Ciarán Thompson, Cian Mulligan, Jamie Brennan, Jason McGee, Michael Carroll, and Caolan Ward to execute a similar gameplan all at the same time in a championship environment is a huge demand.

That expectation is a challenge this Tyrone team embraced last year. This time last season, Tyrone were the team trying to get over the line for the first time in a while with a young bunch of players. While it might be a bit of a stretch to expect them to come out with a totally offensive approach, I would hope for a bit more flair and expression this time around from Mickey Harte’s men. Despite all that is said and written about them, this Tyrone team are more than capable of playing an expansive game. Winning Ulster in the manner they did last year won’t prepare them for Croke Park later on. They have to come with something extra this time out.

On the Donegal side, an injury-free Michael Murphy is a huge plus. Maybe some of us should just give up the ghost on ever again seeing him as an out-and-out full-forward, but in an era when defensive strategies and kick-out variations are all the rage, it is becoming clearer than ever that the teams with the best chance of ultimate glory are those with one, if not two reliable scoring inside men.

Michael Murphy
Michael Murphy

Donegal had them (McFadden and Murphy) the last time they won anything, Dublin have them, and Kerry followers know that James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney are vital this summer if they are to win out.

Given the influence that Murphy is bringing to bear on games at midfield and behind, it is understandable that Donegal would persist with the big Glenswilly man outfield. The new rule in relation to the mark has only further highlighted the advantages of having Murphy out around the middle but if he were to play inside at stages, it would be one of the few areas where Donegal would have an obvious advantage over Tyrone. Although named as substitutes, I’m not sure anyone believes that either Cathal McCarron or Justin McMahon wouldn’t pick up Murphy if he were to drift inside. Either way, I’d like to see him at full-forward so that we could appreciate how good a fully fit Murphy can be.

David Coldrick’s role as referee cannot be underestimated either. It will be his third Donegal-Tyrone game in under a year and while Tyrone people will point to the black cards issued to Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane in last year’s Ulster final as being potentially game-changing, Donegal will recall a huge hit on Frank McGlynn that went unpunished as being even more critical. Much has been made of the animosity between these sides in recent times but there is a huge onus on the players themselves to act with discipline at all times. The refereeing becomes irrelevant then.

The final factor worth consideration is the impact of both benches. Rory Brennan made a huge contribution on his introduction for Tyrone last year and the sense is that he will be better again as a starter in 2017. Brennan, Kieran McGeary, and Darren McCurry all scored a point off the bench last year and Tyrone seem to have the better options once again in a game of the finest of fine margins.

It mightn’t be pretty, but I expect Tyrone to move on from last spring and show us exactly why they are Ulster champions tomorrow.


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