IN previous years, this would’ve been viewed by the outside world as the de facto Ulster final – but the truth of the matter is that neither Tyrone nor Donegal have yet to announce themselves as champions-in-waiting.
Declan Bonner’s Donegal in particular are lucky to remain in the conservation after snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against Derry on Sunday – it looked like a re-run of last year’s Ulster final until Paddy McBrearty popped up with a glorious winner deep into injury time.
Perhaps every top side needs a scare at some stage – especially when there’s no Qualifier series conveniently placed to rectify matters – but it was a worrying performance to say the least.
Their opponents Tyrone were solid if unspectacular in their 1-18 to 0-13 victory over Cavan, but the happy and chilled post-match demeanour of their players stood in contrast to that of some of the Donegal lads, who looked more relieved than anything else after just about surviving 70-plus minutes against Rory Gallagher’s Derry.
It would be unfair to say that Tyrone have any sort of psychological edge heading into this match, however; this rivalry has swung back and forth over the last decade, but Donegal came out on top in 2019 and 2020 championship meetings, and have won the last few league meetings as well, most recently in round one of the league back in May.
But even though it was only two months ago, a fair bit has changed in the intervening period. Tyrone’s best performer that day was Paul Donaghy, who scored 10 points in a sensational debut performance, but he hasn’t hit the same heights and was replaced in the second half against Cavan by former All-Star Cathal McShane, who did well in his first match appearance in 17 months.
Conor McKenna also started that day, but he missed out against Cavan through injury. It’s understood he has a groin strain, and that he’ll be in contention to play against Donegal, but he hasn’t been in particularly great form either.
Darragh Canavan, who came on as a sub late on in the league meeting against Donegal, didn’t make the 26 against Cavan either as he’s also injured, but there’s still plenty of cause for optimism from a Tyrone perspective.
Darren McCurry has been in blistering form up front and tore Cavan to shreds, while Conn Kilpatrick and Brian Kennedy showed up brilliantly in midfield, a position perceived as one of Tyrone’s relative weaknesses. Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte, who had been quiet on that first day out against Donegal, have grown in stature as the games have whirred by, and the fact the game is in Brewster Park rather than Ballybofey, the scene of those recent championship defeats to Donegal, also bodes well from a Tyrone perspective.
Even though Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher are new to the job, they seem to have already found a fairly settled team, and their opposition counterpart Declan Bonner may be more tempted to tweak things ahead of Sunday’s game.
Eyebrows were raised when BBC pundit and former Donegal legend Martin McHugh said at half time of their meeting against Derry that a few of the players weren’t up to intercounty standard. It seemed a bit needlessly harsh, but it’s been evident over the last couple of months that their defence is a major area of concern.
From their defensive rearguard, only Neil McGee delivered a seven out of 10 performance against Derry, with Stephen McMenamin, Odhran McFadden Ferry and Eoghan Ban Gallagher struggling to reach the levels of previous years. There were problems further up the field as well, with Ciaran Thompson and Jamie Brennan having quiet matches, while Chrissy McKaigue stuck to Paddy McBrearty like a limpet until the Sleacht Néill man was yellow carded late in proceedings.
And part of the predicament for Bonner is that his subs turned out to be more effective than many of their starting players with Paul Brennan, Odhran MacNiallais, Oisin Gallen and that man Michael Murphy all helping to turn the game in Donegal’s favour in the closing stages.
The ‘will-he, won’t-he’start’ debate about Murphy will roll on for another week, but there’s no doubt that his iron will and intelligent positioning made a big difference when he entered the fray late on.
When these sides met in Ballybofey last November, it was Donegal’s superior attacking efficiency that carried the day. Mickey Harte shipped a lot of criticism for subbing off Darragh Canavan and Darren McCurry in the second half, and while Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher have made all the right sounds about adopting a more attacking approach, it’s only a game like this that will truly reveal whether significant advances are being made on that front – whatever about Donegal’s deficiencies, they’re still one of the top four or five teams in the country.
It’ll be interesting to see who picks up Michael Langan, who has been arguably Donegal’s best performer of the season to date, while captain Padraig Hampsey was designated with marking Michael Murphy when they met in the league.
They’re likely to appeal Ronan McNamee’s sending off against Cavan, and they could do with his one-game suspension being lifted as the 2019 All-Star usually performs well against Donegal. Logan and Dooher may also be tempted to start Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick together in midfield for the first time as Donegal have serious presence in the middle sector.
It’s a hard one to call, and while Donegal emerged with championship victories against Tyrone in the last two years, both of those games were in Ballybofey, whereas this Sunday’s encounter is in Enniskillen.
Their league encounter in Omagh was a free-flowing encounter, but this is likely to be a more claustrophobic affair. Tyrone will have noted that Donegal really struggled when Ryan McHugh and Paddy McBrearty were tied up for most of the match against Derry, and the sense is that Donegal still need their spiritual leader Murphy directing operations on the field of play.
It’s worth recalling that Conor Meyler did a job on McHugh last year, but he’s been a brilliant attacking presence this year – it’ll be interesting to see what role he has on Sunday.
The wake-up against Derry may be the kick in the y’know what that Donegal needed, but it would be a breakthrough victory for Tyrone’s new management if they get this one right.
Donegal have some of the best players in the country – but do they have one of the best teams? The jury is still out for both these teams, but there’s a nagging suspicion that Donegal will struggle if Tyrone make it a dogfight.