Hugh McFadden believes the rivalry that has dictated the tone of Ulster football for the last decade is currently being dictated by Tyrone. Whereas Donegal, under Jim McGuinness, defeated the Red Hands in three successive seasons between 2011 and 2013, in more recent times the side managed by Mickey Harte has come out on top.
Donegal were unbeaten in league and championship in Ballybofey for nine years, prior to Tyrone rolling out of MacCumhaill Park with a 2-17 to 1-13 win in the Super 8 last season. Early in the second half, trailing by four, Tyrone looked out of ideas and on their way out of the championship.
But Harte made the changes that counted, turning to his bench and having his faith repaid with 2-5 from his second-half replacements, with Declan McClure and Harry Loughran the goalscorers.
“It’s a rivalry,” midfielder McFadden says. “But the fact is, Tyrone have dominated that rivalry for the last few years now. Donegal had things their own way at the start of this decade, but the balance has moved again.
“Tyrone punished us severely in the last quarter in MacCumhaill Park. It was a very tight game. It was an All-Ireland quarter-final, so to speak, on our back door. We let that opportunity go. It was also the first time we’d lost a championship game in MacCumhaill Park since 2010. At the end of the day, we can’t allow ourselves to get bogged down in that.
It’s an Ulster SFC semi-final. That’s the motivation for us. We want to get back to an Ulster final. Tyrone have those exact same ambitions.
Even the year beforehand, in 2017, Rory Gallagher’s last in charge of Donegal before Declan Bonner came back for a second stint as boss, Tyrone were vastly superior in their 1-21 to 1-12 Ulster semi-final success in Clones.
“One of the harsh realities for me, in my first year in, in 2017, was playing Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final and it didn’t go our way at all,”
Donegal forward, Jamie Brennan, recalls. “I was taken off at half-time and it was one of those things you don’t forget. It was a learning curve. The level of intensity was so hard to get up to. I just wasn’t used to it.”
That was Tyrone’s third win over Donegal on the bounce, with the baton passing hands in the 2016 Ulster final, that claustrophobic and sweltering encounter when Donegal tried to hold onto a four-point, second-half lead, only to be pipped at the end, 0-13 to 0-11, as Tyrone celebrated victory in the province for the first time since 2010.
The Ulster heavyweights collide for an eighth championship clash in nine years and Bonner insists he’ll be taking no chances. The mercury rarely takes long to rise when these teams meet, but Bonner says his players mustn’t be left treading on a disciplinary tight rope.
“Discipline is huge,” he said. “At this stage, picking up a yellow card, you’ll be looking over the shoulder. An early card probably means you’ll be substituted. That’s just the way, because you can’t afford to lose men.
Discipline will be a huge factor and it’s something that we’re always talking about in the group.
Donegal, though, can look ahead to this evening’s clash, at Breffni Park, with some semblance of optimism. Michael Murphy sat out the first four league games this season, but since his return, one wet and windy night when Armagh came into the Twin Towns, in March, Donegal haven’t looked back.
Then, in their Ulster SFC quarter-final against Fermanagh, last month, Patrick McBrearty lined out for the county for the first time in 11 months, having suffered an ACL injury against the same opposition last season, as Donegal won a ninth provincial title.
The snappy turnaround between the fixtures is something that suited Donegal last year and McFadden insists the panel are enjoying ‘championship season’ again this year.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the quick turnaround between championship fixtures last season,” he said. “It just allows for greater momentum. There isn’t as much slogging in between — the need simply isn’t there to do that.
Derek McGrath and Ger Cunningham review the weekend's hurling with Anthony Daly
“You’ve a clear picture in your head. It’s all laid-out. Every session counts now in the lead-up. It’s exciting. Tyrone comes around pretty quickly. It’ll be hyped-up. For supporters and players, it’s a huge game to look forward to,” McFadden said.
“Paddy, for me, is one of, if not the best, inside forward in the country. For us to have him back on the field is a serious boost. The way he’s gone about his business since the operation, the rehab, it’s been seriously impressive. The condition he’s come back in is unbelievable.
“He’s a class act. I read somewhere this week that he’s into his ninth championship season. That’s remarkable for a man of his age.”