After so much criticism, scrutiny, and negativity, this was Tyrone’s day of deliverance with the team unleashing possibly its best and most significant victory of this decade at Clones yesterday.
The execution of the game-plan was at times masterful, the discipline of their tackling and accuracy of their long-range shooting effectively won the game in a memorable 15-minute spell before half-time, when they scored seven unanswered points.
It was the most ruthless and harshest of reality checks for Donegal. The youthful promise they showed in the spring was ultimately scant preparation for this step up in class on a day when everything clicked for Tyrone.
Even so, no-one saw a one-sided game of this nature coming — except of course, Mickey Harte.
“Absolutely I did,” claimed the Tyrone manager. “I am the eternal optimist anyway and I have been seeing that coming for this last year and a half. I knew that some day we would deliver the kind of performance that we are capable of.
“Of course conditions were fine for us and we do like the dry sod and hot days in Clones. A lot of things that people are saying are not in our game anymore were there — lots of fast break play and lots of play in open space.
“Of course there were defensive set-ups too and times when it was very clustered, but I think it had a bit of everything. A bit of the old, a bit of the new and what might be to come.”
Tyrone’s failure to rack up big scores against the top teams has hurt them consistently since their last All-Ireland win in 2008.
Yesterday, they managed to do damage to one of the most notoriously mean defences around, with 12 different players on the scoresheet.
The fact they only took one of six golden goal chances remains a concern for a goal-shy Red Hands, Tiernan McCann’s 38th-minute goal wiped out any faint hopes of a Donegal comeback from their 0-12 to 0-5 half-time deficit, but they should have bagged a few more.
Even Antrim managed to expose a few chinks in the Donegal rearguard in the first round and Tyrone punched serious holes in it yesterday — surely an area Rory Gallagher must address facing into an arduous back-door route?
Donegal had six players starting a championship match against Tyrone for the first time and only two of them — Micheal Carroll and Eoghan Ban Gallagher — finished it, such was the learning curve as Clones became a makeshift classroom with Tyrone dishing out the homework.
Colm Cavanagh was outstanding for Tyrone, winning aerial midfield battles against Michael Murphy among others and reminded everyone watching why he is one of the best, if not the best, defensive sweepers in the country.
Pádraig Hampsey brilliantly marshalled Murphy when he tried to come forward and outscored him from play, while Tiernan McCann was another success story as the reigning provincial champions advanced to another final.
In front of 22,609 and in soaring temperatures at Clones, any thoughts of a repeat of last year’s cagey affair between these teams were quickly buried in a brisk and hugely entertaining first half.
Tyrone’s defence contributed 0-4 from play in that time and all but one of their scores came from play.
The sides were level three times in the opening 23 minutes, Donegal taking an early lead through dead balls from Paddy McBrearty and Murphy.
David Mulgrew, making a first Tyrone championship start, got on the end of a move involving the Cavanagh brothers and Mattie Donnelly pointed from the wing to tie the scores.
McBrearty and Murphy again pointed, this time from play, to restore Donegal’s two-point advantage but there were already signs that Tyrone were going to have the upper hand with the number of turnovers they forced with superb tackling.
David Gough allowed the game to flow, and Tyrone grew in confidence each time they won the ball back and broke at pace and took the lead for the first time at 0-5 to 0-4 after three points in a row from Mark Bradley, Peter Harte, and McCann.
In the middle of all that, Eoin McHugh missed a glorious goal chance for Donegal, his shot across goal flew well wide. Considering the punishment that was coming their way, it was a chance they couldn’t afford to miss.
Tyrone completely took over with seven points in a row before half-time. Niall Sludden, Hampsey, and Kieran McGeary — with a booming left-foot point reminiscent of his late score which sank Donegal in last year’s Ulster final — stretched their lead.
Hampsey and Sean Cavanagh missed good goal chances for Tyrone, McGinley saving from Cavanagh after a great offload from his inspirational younger brother.
If Donegal stood any chance of a miraculous revival, they needed to find the net early in the second half, but it was Tyrone who got it.
Tiernan McCann jinked inside and found himself in acres of space and somehow his low shot to the far corner went through several legs before nestling in the back of the net.
Donegal failed to score for 19 minutes either side of the break with McBrearty ending the drought, but it was already game over.
The second half was played with little of the intensity or drama of the first, with Tyrone able to pick scores off at ease.
A mysterious black card for Mark Bradley hardly seemed to matter as McGeary and Niall Sludden piled on the misery with 0-2 each in the second half.
Donegal lost heart quickly with McBrearty one of the few to keep fighting to the end hitting four second-half points.
Tyrone’s defence was breached in the 63rd minute, Micheal Carroll drilling a loose ball past Morgan, scant consolation as Donegal were sent packing.
Scorers for Tyrone:
T McCann (1-1); N Sludden (0-4); K McGeary (0-3); M Bradley, M Donnelly, P Harte, P Hampsey (0-2 each); D Mulgrew, S Cavanagh (f), D McClure, R O’Neill, N Morgan (45) (0-1 each)
Scorers for Donegal:
P McBrearty (0-6, 2 frees); M Murphy (0-3, 2’45s); M Carroll (1-0); M Reilly, M Langan, H McFadden (0-1 each)
N Morgan; A McCrory, R McNamee, P Hampsey; T McCann, C McCarron, P Harte; C Cavanagh, C McCann; K McGeary, N Sludden, D Mulgrew; M Bradley, S Cavanagh, M Donnelly
D McCurry for Bradley (BC, 45), R Brennan for Mulgrew (47), D McClure for C McCann (51), R O’Neill for S Cavanagh (57), C McShane for McGeary (57), J McMahon for Harte (70)
MA McGinley; P McGrath, N McGee, EB Gallagher; R McHugh, F McGlynn, E Doherty; J McGee, C Thompson; M Carroll, M Reilly, J Brennan; P McBearty, M Murphy, E McHugh
K Lacey for J McGee (32), M McElhinney for McGlynn (HT), H McFadden for Brennan (HT), K Gillespie for Doherty (47), M Langan for E McHugh (60)
David Gough (Meath).
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