Donegal saved their best performance of the campaign for their fiercest rivals and were full value for a comfortable six point win in Ballybofey last night.
The hosts’ display was controlled and composed and despite re-awakening a little regret over the past and the Ulster Final defeat, ultimately the game provided confidence for the future.
In producing their spring best they laid down a marker with summer in mind.
The home support left Mac Cumhaill Park with a warm glow inside despite the biblical elements rendering them soaked from head to toe.
The conditions were awful but Donegal seemed to relish the challenge of facing into the wind and rain as well as the Tyrone defence.
Both teams play similar styles and set up in almost a mirror image of each other; you would think then a stalemate would ensue but after trading a few early points, the home side surged clear in the second quarter.
Ciaran Thompson was once again the leading light and right now he is as good a striker of the ball as there is in the country. His wand of a left foot can register points from any angle and any distance and the Glenties man added 0-3 more to his league tally.
While Thompson splitting the posts from anywhere isn’t that big a surprise, possibly the biggest roar of the night came when Paddy McGrath launched a missile from under the stand to score the point of his life.
McGrath is a cult hero for Donegal supporters, emptying the tank every single day he goes out to represent his county. He doesn’t do bad matches and he was once again a vital component of his team’s defensive effort.
Another of the stalwarts at the back, Frank McGlynn, had a brilliant opening half and hopefully his half time substitution doesnt lead to any major injury concern. While the young bucks have thrived this year, the likes of McGlynn and McGrath are still as important as ever.
The job of the defenders was made that bit easier by the unrelenting pressure applied by those out the field to the Tyrone ball-carriers. Michael Murphy, Micheal Carroll and Thompson got through a trojan amount of work around the middle and set the tone for everyone else.
Mickey Harte opted to station Sean Cavanagh and Mattie Donnelly, two of the finest footballers in the land, inside in the full forward line and in truth it proved a wasteful decision. Very little ball came their way and as a result both were out of the game for much of the opening half.
Any ball that did come their way was dealt with by Neil McGee and Eamon Doherty. McGee was at his brutal, brilliant, bullying best.
With Donegal fashioning a lead, they found themselves in the perfect scenario – ahead against Tyrone, in control, the game in their own hands – a carbon copy of the circumstances they found themselves in during the provincial showpiece last July. Would Rory’s charges relinquish another lead or keep their foot on Tyrone’s throat and see it home?
The lead was stretched out as half time approached, eventually becoming five at the short whistle and six in the second half. At no stage did Tyrone really look like they were going to close the gap.
Donegal led with an assuredness. There were no wonder scores from Cavanagh or Peter Harte, indeed McGrath’s black card came from an unforgiving drag down on the latter. It showed that he and his teammates were intent on holding onto their lead, by fair means or foul.
In that decider in Clones, Tyrone were patient in the second half despite being behind and waited on their own 45m line for Donegal to make a mistake with the ball before pouncing. Donegal were ponderous and unsure. This time around, Tyrone were forced out towards the opposite 45 to try and win the ball back such was Donegal’s calmness and confidence with the ball; they were happy to keep it and move it around looking for an opening.
The mindset was the difference. There is a big contrast between knowingly wanting to hold the ball and being hesitant with it.
The U21 joust between these two teams last week was similar. Declan Bonner’s team looked for fast breaks when they were on but they weren’t in any rush to commit men if they felt there wasn’t a high percentage chance of a score. When an attack had to be slowed down and the ball retained that’s what they did.
Teams are so consumed with getting in behind a team before the defensive shape is set that they often mess up scoring chances by displaying too much eagerness and not enough composure.
Cian Mulligan produced an impressive cameo off the bench in that U21 match in Omagh and he did so again in Ballybofey, capping off a productive spell on the field with a well taken point. He’ll certainly be in the mix for a starting jersey for the replay on Wednesday night.
One man who never has to worry about getting a jersey is Ryan McHugh, who was magnificent once again. His intelligence in possession is wonderful and is a player that Tyrone simply cannot cope with. Both teams have set man markers that are generally used when the sides meet – we saw the latest instalment of Justin McMahon’s staring contest on Murphy – but Tyrone have yet to figure McHugh out.
There were more rows than scores in the second half but the outcome was decided long before the final whistle sounded. After securing their place in next year’s Division One against Cavan, this win suddenly puts Donegal in with a chance of reaching a league final.
Who knows, maybe there could be a repeat of this fixture next month? Either way, they will meet again.
That can wait as the battles keep on coming – Monaghan next up.