Two minutes before half-time in the 2011 Ulster semi-final, Tyrone ripped through the blanket and Brian McGuigan fed Stephen O’Neill, who cut inside two Donegal defenders.
Mickey Harte’s team, chasing a third Anglo-Celt Cup in succession, led Donegal 0-6 to 0-2. Paul Durcan, the Donegal goalkeeper, steadied himself. O’Neill, well inside the 13-metre line, drew on his left foot. His connection was true but having chased 80 metres after giving away a cheap pass, Anthony Thompson made a telling block.
“Tyrone got the run on us and it was vintage Tyrone — they took the game to us, stretched the play all the time, used the ball intelligently and asked questions of our defenders,” Donegal manager Jim McGuinness said afterwards.
Not only was Thompson’s interception something that galvanised a team, it was in retrospect the crossroads where Donegal grappled the northern supremacy from Tyrone. With the score level in the last minute, from the exact same squared metre of turf at St Tiernach’s Park, Donegal substitute Dermot Molloy found himself one-on-one with Tyrone goalkeeper Pascal McConnell.
The innocence of youth in the 20-year-old meant fisting over was never an option. Goal. Donegal won 2-6 to 0-9 and went on to lift a first Ulster title in 19 years.
“People were shouting at Dermot to put the ball over and take his point but not me,” McGuinness added. “It’s about trust and in that situation he was excellent.”
Donegal had evolved but were still wary of Tyrone as McGuinness and Harte again stood on the Clones sidelines in 2012. As it was put, the Ulster semi-final was “chess in coloured jerseys”. Donegal were three points up approaching full-time.
Martin Penrose, the Tyrone corner-forward, sold Paddy McGrath a dummy and smashed towards goal. Three other Donegal defenders threw themselves at the ball as it whizzed towards the bottom corner.
Durcan, somehow, extended a foot to send it into a spin, up off his upright and bouncing across goal, eventually hurtling wide of the opposite post to which he had saved. Tyrone, 0-12 to 0-10 losers, had come within a whisker. Donegal were soon All-Ireland champions.
“Each time we faced Tyrone, there’s not been much in it,” says Donegal forward David Walsh. “If Martin Penrose’s shot went in things could’ve been a whole lot different for us.”
One wonders which direction Donegal’s journey under McGuinness would’ve went had Tyrone won either of those two claustrophobic encounters.
“Those games were nip and tuck and there were times when Tyrone looked like they were going to run away with it,” says Donegal wing-back Frank McGlynn.
In 2013, Donegal, again, came out on top, 2-10 to 0-10. It seemed there was clear daylight at last. However, by August, Donegal lay in tatters having lost the All-Ireland quarter-final by 16 points to Mayo, while Tyrone had regrouped to reach an All-Ireland semi-final.
“Over the last number of years, there has been close encounters,” says Gavin Devlin, the Tyrone selector. “But every single game, hand on heart, you would say they were better than us.”
Derbies, form books and windows.
Donegal only lost one match in the province between 1972 and 1974, going down to Tyrone 0-12 to 1-7 in Ballybofey in a 1973 clash remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Donegal’s Neilly Gallagher would spend the night in Letterkenny General Hospital with seven stitches and when Tyrone’s Patsy Hetherington was grounded, it sparked outrage from the terraces, with cans and bottles tossed towards the pitch. Seamus Donaghy of Tyrone was later sent off. The public houses of the Twin Towns locked their doors that evening as Donegal considered joining Connacht.
“Two tribes went to war and a ceasefire has still to be declared,” Damian Dowds and Donal Campbell wrote in Sam’s For The Hills of the Ulster final of 1989.
Donegal had nine fingers on the Anglo-Celt Cup, only for Tyrone’s Stephen Conway to snatch an 0-11 to 0-11 draw. Tyrone comprehensively won the replay 2-13 to 0-7. “The rivalry was immense and dark, particularly among the supporters,” Dowds and Campbell added. “A dislike, perhaps mutual, swept Clones.”
When Tyrone won their first All-Ireland in 2003, a year later they were surprisingly ousted from Ulster by Brian McEniff’s Donegal. Colm McFadden scored 1-7 in a 1-11 to 0-9 victory.
Three years later, Donegal entered another Ulster semi-final as favourites. Brian McIver’s side, on a 10-match unbeaten run, had won Division One before putting an end to Armagh’s hopes of four-in-a-row in Ulster. Tyrone obliterated their rivals, winning 2-15 to 1-7. Donegal might’ve won their Division One but by 2008 Tyrone had three All-Irelands.
Donegal welcome their next-door neighbours to Ballybofey tomorrow. Whereas in the other provinces there’s perennial duopolies, in Ulster there’s pockets of occasionally heated rivalries that irregularly emerge and subside.
Seven weeks ago, Rory Gallagher’s team flexed their muscles to win 1-13 to 0-6 when Tyrone arrived in the Allianz League Division One.
“It was as bad a performance as I’ve been involved in with the Tyrone team over all the time that I’ve been involved — at any level and at any age,” a shaken Harte said afterwards.
Down the years, where Donegal and Tyrone were perceived to be has made little difference when the ball was thrown into the air. Tomorrow will be no different.
“We’re expecting a very formidable challenge from Tyrone,” Donegal manager Gallagher adds. “We might not even be in the first round proper of Ulster and that’s the reality of it. These games take on a life of their own.”
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