By Niall Gartland
RECENT painful Championship losses against Donegal should act as a sufficient motivational tool to get Tyrone fired up for Sunday’s crunch Ulster semi-final, defender Michael McKernan believes.
The Tir Chonaill have enjoyed the upper hand on their bitter rivals over the past two seasons in the Anglo-Celt Cup series, taking the spoils in the semi-final in 2019 at Breffni Park and the first round at chilly Ballybofey last Halloween weekend, in what proved to be Mickey Harte’s last Championship match at the helm.
While the Red Hands had their opportunities in both of those encounters, ultimately they came up a distant second, and given they were also on the wrong end of the result in the League this season as well at Healy Park, they will head to Enniskilen determined to reverse that miserable trend.
McKernan turned in a typically industrious and tenacious display last Saturday as Tyrone eased past reigning champions Cavan by eight points in the first round. By contrast Donegal struggled for long periods in their Ulster quarter-final against a pumped up Derry outfit, before Patrick McBrearty sent over a screamer in injury time to secure a narrow one point victory.
There was no doubt they missed the leadership and talismanic qualities of captain Michael Murphy who had to be called from the bench in the second half, despite concerns over a hamstring injury. McKernan expects him to play a more central role at Brewster Park this Sunday.
“ Donegal are always ready for Championship football and they’re always very good against us. I can’t remember the last time we beat them in Championship, so they have a bit of a bounce on us.
“ And obviously getting Michael Murphy back is a huge bonus to them, so that’s’ another key player that we’ll have to watch out for.”
“ They will be another step up, as they’re a Division One team and the rivalry is there between us. They have six forwards that are all dangerous and their defence is very good too.”
While Donegal manager Declan Bonner has introduced several exciting newcomers to their ranks this term, McKernan reckons that whatever the personnel, they will go into the contest feeling they have the psychological upper hand on Tyrone
“ They have the likes of Paddy McBrearty, who is back fully fit, Michael Murphy came back in on Sunday, and then they have the likes of Niall O’Donnell, and Hugh McFadden, who drops back.
“ All round, they’re a very good team in both defense and attacking, so it’s going to be a massive ask for us, especially on the recent record, they do have the bounce on us. All we can do is focus on ourselves and hopefully we’ll work around it.”
With Tyrone playing last Saturday and coasting across the line against Cavan, they have enjoyed an extra 24 hour recuperation time on Donegal, who were embroiled in that gruelling affair with the Oak Leafers. However McKernan rejects any notion that the Red Hands will therefore be fresher for the semi-final.
“ We’re all at a level now that we all have the recovery stuff available to us, so it doesn’t really make that big a difference.
“ It all comes down to the day. You can talk about the extra day and the extra hours, but it’s really about who wants it most.”
Looking back on the eight point success over the Breffni Blues, the Coalisland star admitted that it was good to brush off the cobwebs and the harrowing memories of that thumping in the League semi down against Kerry down in Killarney.
“ You want to be playing competitive games. We did play a couple of friendlies and we play in-house games, but nothing compares to everything being on the line against Cavan, it being straight knock-out and having to win.
“ The Kerry match obviously didn’t go as planned, but that’s one of those things that happens in football. It was good to get off the mark again after what happened against Kerry.
“ Cavan were very good in the first 25 minutes. In the first half they really brought a good intensity to the game.
“ Still we had a lot of stuff to work on, we still do have a lot of stuff to work on before Donegal, and all we can do is keep improving. Hopefully this week we can improve again.”
One player who was on top of his game last Saturday was Edendork attacking maestro Darren McCurry who produced a man of the match performance, as he flung over ten points with his wand of a left foot. McKernan was excited at the prospect of him operating in tandem with the returning Cathal McShane and fast emerging Paul Donaghy in attack.
“ Darren is playing out of his skin and to have Cathal back up front as an option is great, and then Paul is in there as well. He was very good for the club last year and he has been playing well for us.
“ We do have options, and we’re not afraid to use them all. Brian and Feargal have come in and they are playing a bit more attacking. But game by game, you have to adjust to your opponents as well, so it’s just about tinkering with the systems and doing what we need to do to hopefully get us across the line against whatever team we’re playing.”