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Tyrone's Mattie Donnelly's black card in Ulster final has silver lining

Mattie Donnelly (left) watches as team-mate Connor McAliskey pulls the trigger during July’s Ulster final clash with Donegal. Donnelly had to be replaced by Trillick clubmate Rory Brennan after he received a black card during the game. Picture by Seamus Loughran

EVERYTHING that happens, happens for a reason. Mattie Donnelly might have had mixed feelings about the high point of his 2016. His performances earned him a second consecutive Allstar, this time at midfield, but he played little part in the game that brought provincial glory.

A dark cloud, in the form of a black card, overshadowed his Ulster senior football final – but what mattered most was the silver lining of Tyrone’s triumph.

The Trillick man thinks about the team, not the individual, and he was particularly pleased that a club-mate [Rory Brennan] replaced him and helped the Red Hands lift the Anglo-Celt Cup after a six-year gap.

Donnelly understandably disagreed with referee David Coldrick’s decision to send him off the pitch shortly before half-time of the provincial decider against Donegal – more on that later.

However, he was happy that the enforced change helped Tyrone eventually overturned their recent hoodoo against the Tir Chonaill team, reflecting:

“Everything that happens, happens for a reason. The way the game was going, it was a very subdued performance by both teams. Donegal had the upper hand at that stage.

“Maybe me going off changed something, I don’t know. The big turning point in that game was Rory Brennan’s introduction. Would he have been held off too late if I had stayed on? You look at things like that too.

“I was watching it in the second half, the way it was unfolding in the second half there were gaps appearing and I would like to think I would have thrived in that.

“But, when I saw the reaction after I went off, it gave me great pride in watching them, especially my club-mate and good friend coming on and the impact he had. That was satisfying, the way he pulled me out of a hole that day.

“If we had have lost, we would have been asking ourselves a big question: ‘Did you cost the team?’ But thankfully, that conversation was one we never had.”

Yet despite the victory, Donnelly remains bitter about his removal from the pitch after colliding with Donegal’s Eoin McHugh, insisting that there was no malice, nor any cynicism in his challenge:

“Eoin is a quick wee fella. I remember thinking afterwards, the black card was brought in to eradicate cynical play and there wasn’t time for any cynical thoughts to enter my head. There was no intention that way.”

He found it hard to argue against the calls for his dismissal, but for physiological, not philosophical reasons:

“I was on the ground, it was quite a heavy collision between the two of us, and I’d got winded, so I couldn’t even defend myself.

“I heard noises, men looking [for] cards and that, which is frustrating, and I couldn’t defend myself or make any sort of reply.

“Eoin got quite a nasty knock too, I didn’t know until I got to the bench, there was blood on my shorts and it was coming from my elbow – there was a toothmark on it. I know Eoin had to get some sort of work done on his teeth.

“It was a heavy collision but there was no malice in it, it happened too quick for any though to enter my head. I thought the punishment was quite severe for that, when you put in so much work and, just like that, your day is over.

“There was a big grievance there for how severe the punishment was.”

Donnelly dislikes the clamour for cards, but is honest enough to admit he may have engaged in that practice himself:

“It is frustrating, definitely, when you see minor offences or incidents and players trying to exploit them with referees.

“But there’s no point me sitting here and acting like an angel – when a heavy tackle has gone in you’ve found yourself questioning the referee in how he’s going to deal with it.

“I don’t think it’s gamesmanship, it’s a natural reaction – but when there is gamesmanship, that’s very frustrating, I wouldn’t be a big man for that at all.”

Still, Tyrone finished the match as Ulster champions, finally getting the better of Donegal to boot after four consecutive provincial defeats, a double bonus, Donnelly acknowledges: “That was massive, no point saying otherwise. The big thing all year was that this team needed to win an Ulster Championship in order to arrive. That was a big thing in itself.

“But then Donegal, they had the upper hand over us in the previous years, they were beginning to get a strong stranglehold on us.

“There’s only so many times that people outside the group – and within the group – could listen to ‘If the ball went under the crossbar…If the ball bounced this way you could have beat them…’

“It was very important for us from a belief perspective to get the upper hand on them. At half-time that day there was a sense that we weren’t going to be denied and that proved to be true, thank God.”

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