ALL-IRELAND SFC PRELIMINARY QUARTER-FINAL
Donegal v Tyrone
Saturday, Ballybofey, 7pm (LIVE ON GAA GO)
By Niall Gartland
TYRONE versus Donegal at Ballybofey – it’s a familiar story, perhaps a little too familiar if you were hoping for something novel, something a little bit different to emerge from Monday morning’s Preliminary Quarter-Final draw.
It’s the eleventh – yes the eleventh – championship meeting between the teams since 2011 (as an aside, Peter Harte is the only player to see action in every single one of those clashes). Add all the various league encounters and McKenna Cup matches into the mix and it’s fair to say this isn’t the most novel pairing in the world.
But don’t let that detract from what is a seismic encounter for both teams. The Red Hands were a matter of inches from exiting the championship last Sunday afternoon against rank outsiders Westmeath. They lived to fight another day and time will tell whether that scare will jolt them into life with only five weeks left of the inter-county season.
Opponents Donegal have sailed through rocky waters this season. That they haven’t capsized is surprising in the circumstances – Karl Lacey’s unfortunate resignation as head of the Academy that sparked a crisis that still reverberates, Paddy Carr’s decision to step aside after only a few months as the team’s manager.
Heck, even Michael Murphy’s retirement at the outset of the season and injuries to key players like captain Paddy McBrearty – it’s been a bumpy voyage to the last 12 of the All-Ireland race, but they seem to have turned a corner and finished second in the group stages thanks to victories over Clare (as expected) and Monaghan (less so).
While Tyrone have been nothing if not competitive in this year’s championship – after four games, a three-point defeat to Galway was technically their worst result – there are justifiable concerns about whether they have what it takes to win a second All-Ireland title in three years. It’s hard to spin that their performance against Westmeath was any sort of outlier – not for the first time this season, Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher’s team failed to press home their advantage when in the ascendancy and they almost paid the ultimate price.
It’s also the third game running that they didn’t score a goal, and yet again they were too reliant on the inside scoring line to carry the scoring threat. Darragh Canavan produced the finest performance of his senior inter-county career to date with a 10-point haul, but the burden should be lessened this weekend with the expected return of Darren McCurry, who sat out the Westmeath match as a precaution. It also won’t have gone unnoticed that 2021 Footballer of the Year Kieran McGeary, who has been largely limited to a substitute role this season, showed a bit of that old spark and drive when introduced from the bench in the second-half, while Ruairi Canavan did well on his debut, weighing in with three second-half points.
A revitalised Donegal produced their best performance of the season to date when they got the better of Monaghan last Saturday in Omagh – a not inconsequential result as it meant they were second seeds in Monday morning’s draw. They seem to have finally dispensed with the lateral style of play that had become their trademark and they’ve always had good footballers: Oisin Gallen, who has struggled big-time with injuries in recent years, was in top form in attack, likewise Jamie Brennan, while Brendan McCole and Stephen McMenamin held the fort at the back. It wasn’t the perfect performance – they still conceded 17 points across the hour and it must be said that Monaghan weren’t really at the races. Still though, credit must go to their management team and players who have restored pride in the jersey, and their new-found direct running style has the potential to cause Tyrone no end of problems.
Precedent also suggests that this is a big ask for Tyrone. Ballybofey hasn’t been a happy hunting ground down the years (the celebrated ‘Super Eights’ victory in 2018 the notable exception) but it could also be the game to belatedly kick-start their season.
There’s something to be said for the old cliché that Tyrone tend to lift their game when under siege – recall how they raised their game for the visit of reigning All-Ireland champions Kerry earlier in the year when their Division One campaign threatened to unravel. It really is sink or swim time for the Red Hands, and our hunch, and it’s really only a hunch, is that there’s a big performance in them and they’ll book their place in the quarters.