Tipperary knew the implications of defeat here. Injury-ravaged and with only one point from a possible six, not to mention upcoming trips to Armagh and Newbridge, relegation to Division 3 would have been near unavoidable.
Manager Liam Kearns admitted as much shortly after the final whistle.
The dread of having to try and navigate their way up from such a perilous position is, you suspect, what inspired their rousing finish against the promotion favourites, outscoring Donegal, as they did, by 2-5 to 0-2 from the 54th minute onwards. Their reward was a first victory of the spring, the county’s first over Donegal since 1981, and three points from a possible six.
Their bid to maintain Division 2 status has a fair bit of road to travel yet, but the outlook is far brighter this morning than what it was early yesterday afternoon.
This Tipperary win is even more impressive when you consider how average they were for the opening 19 minutes of the second period. Despite a strong wind at their backs, Tipperary allowed Declan Bonner’s charges dictate the terms of engagement. Mind you, the home side didn’t help themselves by racking up four wides in the 10 minutes after the restart, their keenness to capitalise on the elements leading to a handful of audacious shots which didn’t come off.
A Michael Langan free on 50 minutes was the first score of the second half, stretched Donegal’s lead to four, 0-11 and 1-4, and heightened the collective consensus that the nous and know-how of the Ulster champions would see them grind out a third consecutive league win.
Then arrived the game-changer, gift-wrapped and all by Donegal ‘keeper Shaun Patton and Hugh McFadden. A 54th-minute Liam McGrath free, taken from the 45-metre line and which lacked the necessary legs to carry over the black spot, should have been collected by either of the two Donegal men on their own goalline. Instead, they miscommunicated and the ball slipped in behind them.
Oisin Gallen responded with Donegal’s sole point from play of the second-half, but momentum had begun to ebb away from the visitors. A Conor Sweeney goal chance ended with sub Liam Boland splitting the posts and the Premier County should have restored parity thereafter but for a poor Liam McGrath miss, one of eight second-half wides.
Ciaran Thompson, who boomed over a first-half sideline, kicked his second free on 61 minutes to again put two between them, 0-13 to 2-5, but the northerners would not score again. A second-half tally of 0-3 was never going to be anywhere near sufficient.
Tipperary, on the other hand, found an extra gear and with Steven O’Brien and Liam Casey pulling down every opposition restart, as well as a fine inside mark made by Sweeney, the hosts reeled off 1-4 without reply.
Somewhat fittingly, it was Brian Fox who lit the fuse on this closing spell of supremacy, the 31-year-old delivering an outstanding point. A misplaced Ryan McHugh pass allowed McGrath put through Casey for goal number three, handing the lead back to Tipp for the first time since the ninth minute.
Points from Casey, Sweeney and O’Brien propelled them across the line, an understrength Tipp side upsetting the Division 2 applecart.
Donegal boss Declan Bonner was left to rue a missed goal chance early in the second period, at a time when his troops were still in the driving seat, and was in no doubt they had invited Tipperary back into proceedings.
“We were in control of the game until that second goal when the ball went up between Hughie and Shaun.”
“We were the architects of our own downfall, a lot of basic errors, and we were punished with three terrible goals from our point of view. In the last six games we played, we conceded one goal and today we conceded three bad goals. Hopefully, the boys learn from that,” said Bonner.
Even though they continue to operate without a number of key figures and the average age of yesterday’s side, according to Bonner, was 22, Donegal were structured and disciplined in the opening half, very much at odds with their disjointed finish.
Thompson, Langan and Jamie Brennan were all on target to more than cancel out an early Steven O’Brien goal. How costly Jamie Brennan’s 32nd-minute saved penalty would prove and how pivotal it could yet prove in determining where both counties wind up in late March.
Scorers for Tipperary: S O’Brien, L Casey (1-1); Liam McGrath (1-0, 1-0 free); C Sweeney (0-1 free), B Fox, P Austin (0-2 each); L Boland (0-1).
Scorers for Donegal: C Thompson (0-4, 0-2 frees, 0-1 sideline); M Langan (0-1 free), O Gallen (0-3 each); J Brennan (0-2); N O’Donnell (0-1).
TIPPERARY: M O’Reilly; A Campbell, J Meagher, E Moloney; J Feehan, D Brennan, K Fahey; S O’Brien, J Kennedy; P Austin, L Casey, L McGrath; B Fox, C Sweeney, K O’Halloran.
Subs: L Boland for O’Halloran (52); C O’Shaughnessy for Feehan (59); C Kennedy for J Kennedy (67); D O’Meara for Austin (73); P Codd for Fahey (73).
DONEGAL: S Patton; EB Gallagher, B McCole, T McCleneghan; C Ward S McMenamin, R McHugh; J McGee, H McFadden; C Thompson, C McGonagle, M Langan; N O’Donnell, O Gallen, J Brennan.
Subs: L McLoone for McGee (45); E McHugh for McCleneghan (52); M McElhinney for Gallen (66); P Brennan for McMenamin (69).
Referee: B Cawley (Kildare)