In Clones before throw-in, it was so easy to get caught up in the atmosphere. Judging the mood of the crowd, you felt it was going to be an absolute belter. Everybody just seemed so eager for the game.
But then you remembered this was Ulster football, an Ulster final between Tyrone and Donegal and neither were prepared to give much away to the other if anything at all.
It was a cagey affair and Tyrone were clearly suffering from nerves in the early stages. They were the polar opposite in the second half.
In fact, the game itself had turned on its axis after the break. In the first half, it was Ryan McHugh and Odhrán Mac Niallais who were punching holes in the Tyrone defence. In the second, it was Tyrone who were able to find pockets of space to pick off scores.
One of the reasons Tyrone were able to do that was based on how they used Mark Bradley when he came on. Bradley hugged the left-hand touchline and Ruairi Brennan, when he went forward, did the same to the right-hand touchline. Kieran McGeary did something similar on the left when he was introduced.
Stretching themselves going forward, they were able to pull the Donegal defence across the pitch.
I didn’t think 13 points would win this Ulster final. I know it was 11 points to 10 between Monaghan and Donegal last year but I sensed there would be an improvement. There wasn’t and this wasn’t great fare and yet it was exciting. Seán Cavanagh played a large part in ensuring that. His score towards the end was just unbelievable, the way he was able to find himself a small pocket of space to score when the Donegal defence was on top of him. To be able to find that composure to get his shot off was typical Seán Cavanagh. Peter Harte’s point was the score of the game. He struck it as sweet as you would like.
I mentioned the three substitutes who made the pitch so wide for the Donegal defence to cover and it was notable how Tyrone’s bench scored three points compared to Donegal’s one. They have that youthful enthusiasm coming into the game whereas Donegal had Christy Toye, who did okay, and Colm McFadden. They just didn’t have the same impact as Darren McCurry, Kieran McGeary and Jonathan Monroe.
Up to now, Tyrone have been operating in the little leagues but they’re back in the big leagues.
Winning all their games this year in the McKenna Cup and Division 2 was great and all but up to yesterday they still hadn’t beaten a dogged, old-fashioned team. They did here, though, and you have to say it was a coming of age performance for them.
It’s a real monkey off their backs to have won an Ulster title and you can see those young lads going from strength to strength. I would still like to see them play more football, though. The likes of Dublin, Kerry and Mayo would have blown them away in the first 35 minutes. Donegal should have exploited it a lot more but when they needed a little bit more of an injection to their play they just didn’t have it in their reserves.
Ryan McHugh had an excellent first half but it did suit him to have that free role. Yes, he was picking up Harte whenever he ventured into the Donegal half of the field but Harte never tracked him back and he was able to profit. Cathal McShane’s black card kind of played into Tyrone’s hands a bit because I think Mickey Harte was going to take him off at half-time anyway. The introduction of Bradley helped put McHugh on the back foot a bit more and there was nobody with his ability or composure to exploit holes in Tyrone’s defence.
Mac Niallais picked off one great point from distance but the likes of Karl Lacey, Frank McGlynn and Anthony Thompson were a little bit too static getting up the field.
As for the black cards, Mattie Donnelly’s one really casts doubt over its usefulness. It didn’t look worthy of Donnelly being put off. We also heard McShane was shown a black for verbally abusing the umpire although it appeared he had been shown one for a trip. If that was the case and he did have words with the umpire, it’s the first time I’ve seen a player black-carded for such an offence. The black card has created more problems than solutions and I believe it’s time we had another look at it.
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