Some fixtures transcend the importance of the Allianz Football League and Sunday’s clash between Donegal and Tyrone is one such game.
With the threat of relegation hovering over both teams, this is a very important match.
But forget about relegation. The significance of this game in Ballybofey stretches far beyond points and league tables. The fear of demotion will really only act as a convenient excuse for both of these teams to go at each other with hammer and tongs.
It was often said Jim McGuinness attached no importance to the League. That’s not true. There were certain dates which McGuinness circled with a red marker.
Donegal’s trip to Omagh on Saturday, February 11, 2011, was a prime example. It was McGuinness’s second competitive game in charge. After spending the winter telling his troops that they could be All-Ireland champions, he needed a result to underline his credentials.
Talk is fine, but it can wear thin. Players need evidence.
And in Healy Park, Donegal’s players received solid proof that McGuinness wasn’t selling pipe dreams. After taking an early three-point lead, Tyrone managed just two points during the remaining 55 minutes. In the second half, the Red Hands registered one score, a free by Sean Cavanagh. Final score: Donegal 1-10 Tyrone 0-6. The Jim McGuinness era had begun.
When Donegal met Tyrone in the semi-final of that year’s Ulster Championship, McGuinness’s team could draw some confidence from the victory they had previously secured in the League. Donegal’s win in Clones then established a trend in the Championship as they defeated their neighbours in 2012 and 2013. Make no mistake, Donegal’s supremacy over Tyrone dates back to that League tie in Omagh. That’s when Donegal put the Indian sign on them.
Mickey Harte believes in Indian signs. He believes in the power of victory.
Before Tyrone meet Donegal in the preliminary round of this year’s Ulster Championship, Mickey Harte will want to buck the prevailing trend. On Sunday, Tyrone need to lay down a marker. They need to beat Donegal.
Just like the Donegal squad in 2011, Tyrone’s players will draw huge confidence if they can see some sign that their system really works.
Tyrone have received a lot of flak for their policy of defending with the entire team.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the 15-man defensive screen has been designed specifically for Tyrone’s Championship game against Donegal on May 17.
Donegal can look very ordinary when they come up against a team that takes out insurance cover against them.
Before last year’s All-Ireland final, Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice informed his players Donegal’s success was based on two key components: breaking lines and counter-attacks.
In order to convince his players about the gameplan which he proposed for the All-Ireland final, Fitzmaurice arranged an in-house game. One team was encouraged to play in an orthodox style. The half-backs were given license to attack and one midfielder was allowed to provide support. The other team was set-up like Donegal. Cue carnage. It was like a repeat of Donegal and Dublin.
Fitzmaurice achieved his biggest breakthrough when he instructed the team which had been playing conventionally to exert greater caution. The half-backs were ordered to hold their positions. The wing-forwards were told to retreat behind the wing-backs, thus forming two banks of defence. The midfielders marshalled the central channel. The difference was astonishing.
Deprived of green grass, counter- attacking for the team which had been scoring for fun, suddenly became extremely difficult. And with two lines of half-backs and half-forwards, it was nigh impossible to break lines. For the Kerry players, seeing was believing.
Consider Donegal’s previous games. When given room to manoeuvre, Ryan McHugh’s stunning pace destroyed Dublin. When faced with a wall of Kerry jerseys, McHugh had nowhere to go because he doesn’t possess the raw power to break tackles. Even Leo McLoone, the best line-breaker in the Donegal team, hit an impasse when he tried to puncture Kerry’s grid.
In 2012, Donegal’s system and fitness gave them a significant advantage over their rivals. Three years later and the margins are now miniscule.
Any well-organised team that knows how to defend will cause Donegal severe headaches. Armagh could have beaten them in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final. Despite the loss of Conor McManus, Monaghan still beat them in this year’s League.
The Donegal players respect Rory Gallagher. Before the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, he told them that Cork would bring on three substitutes and he listed the order in which they would come on.
Ahead of the quarter-final against Kerry, he predicted that if Donegal made a good start then Darran O’Sullivan would be introduced during the first half.
The Donegal players had never worked under a management team with that level of insight. Naturally, when the opposition kept behaving entirely to script, a huge level of trust was developed.
Since replacing McGuinness, Gallagher has revamped the backroom team. Gary McDaid, the Glenswilly manager, is his assistant.
Paul Fisher, the strength and conditioning coach for Glenswilly, has also moved into the county set-up. Jack Cooney, who was with Martin McHugh at Sligo IT, is the new football coach.
While Gallagher is extremely knowledgeable about football, there is still a limit to what he can achieve.
Donegal just don’t have the same playing resources as the other top counties. The loss of Rory Kavanagh and Leo McLoone cannot be underestimated.
After just three weeks of training, Fitzmaurice was able to coach his players a new style of play which neutralised Donegal’s gameplan. Without their customary advantages, Donegal had no room for error. Every decision by the management, and every mistake by the players bore a huge significance.
Unless Rory Gallagher can bring something new to the table, he’s going to be operating in an incredibly unforgiving environment. And if Donegal are perceived as being vulnerable, then their status as the best team in Ulster will not last much longer.
Mickey Harte has never been in the business of shadow boxing or playing phoney teams.
That’s why his team’s trip to Ballybofey on Saturday is so fascinating.
After that League win in 2011, Donegal have kept their foot firmly pressed on Tyrone’s neck. Rory Gallagher needs to prove that nothing has changed since Jim McGuinness left.
Mickey Harte needs to show his players that the order is about to change.
As a game of football, it will probably be grim.
But as a battle for position between two proud tribes, it will be utterly compelling.
Contact Paddy Heaney on Twitter @HeaneyPaddy
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