Sport

Enda McGinley: Donegal and Tyrone can drag football out of the shadow of the small ball game

Tyrone's Niall Sludden is brought down by Donegal keeper Shaun Patton leading to a penalty during the Allianz Football League match between the sides at Healy Park Omagh in March Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

FOOTBALL'S tough summer continued last weekend with its older brother hurling putting the stick in by showboating with two games for the ages.

After a summer where even the most ardent football fan will have been drawn to the brilliance of games in the hurling competition, one would have assumed the early summer levels couldn’t be surpassed.

Yet last weekend’s two breathless semi-finals reached absurd levels of sporting quality and entertainment and never dipped in their sheer raw competitiveness.

This was frontline war being performed like a ballet and the country was left in awe.

The shining beacon of the small ball game has left football wringing its hands somewhat. Last summer the auxiliary talk around the games was regarding the fixture crisis.

That talk is much more muted this year as people wait to see how things work out with the current changes.

In its place has been an increasing call for rule changes in football to try to improve the aesthetics of the game.

There has been a flurry of suggested changes which, as always, are of variable merit.

The discussions appear not restricted to fans, bars or podcasts with several high-ranking officials indicating that rule-making committees are actively considering potential changes.

Such discussions, however, can be put on ice this weekend as we look forward to what could be a seminal game in Ballybofey.

Donegal v Tyrone has the potential to be every bit a landmark sporting occasion as last weekend’s hurling.

The fact that it has sold out long before the game itself is testimony to the size of this clash.

Somewhere there will be a GAA official wondering about the additional ticket sales possible if the game had been in Croke Park as opposed to the rustic environs of MacCumhaill Park.

Without a doubt an extra 20- or 30,000 would have attended if possible, yet a big part of the magic of this weekend is the fact it is in Ulster and in the smaller, partisan home ground.

An old-fashioned, straight knock-out Ulster Championship game with a place in an All-Ireland semi-final against Galway or Monaghan is at stake.

The fact that the resultant semi-final avoids Dublin and is thus potentially much more winnable will have crossed the minds of both sets of players at some stage.

From respective positions of relegation in April or defeat at home in the first round of the Championship by Monaghan in May, Donegal and Tyrone both now have a realistic path to the All-Ireland final.

The stakes simply couldn’t be higher. For Donegal, the glory of their Ulster title is on the line too as the success or otherwise of their season is dependent purely on the outcome of the 70-plus minutes on Sunday.

It’s a huge pity that the game will take place minus the talents of Paddy McBrearty and Eoghan Bán Gallagher.

While this can be seen as a blessing of sorts for Tyrone, it has a double-edged effect.

Of course, Donegal will be the poorer without them and Tyrone’s chances of winning are lifted. However, the fact that Donegal are weakened actually puts more pressure on Tyrone.

Yes, the Red Hands are without a number of injured players themselves or, in the case of Lee Brennan, players not long back from injury and thus short on match practice. They are not missing the star players Donegal are, though.

Tir Chonaill may have a few excuses then, while Tyrone will know there will be questions asked if they can’t overturn a weakened Donegal.

Countering any disadvantage in personnel terms is the fact of Donegal’s home advantage. Ballybofey, unlike Omagh, is a real fortress for the men in green and gold.

With no competitive defeat there since 2010, the vast majority of current Donegal players will never have experienced defeat there. As with other provincial grounds, Ballybofey has its peculiarities.

The dressing rooms are poor by modern standards and you walk down a stony lane behind the stand amidst supporters and TV vans before ducking into a dark narrow old concrete tunnel from which you enter the pitch up a few concrete steps.

It is a unique entrance to a pitch. It was where I made my debut in the League in 2002.

It was my first senior League game and I was blown away by the atmosphere. The crowd is right on top of you, while the tall buildings of the town close in one end and the trees do the same at the other end.

Unlike the sand-topped pitches throughout many club and county grounds which are perfectly flat, the surface itself is pretty uneven with the undulations unique to natural pitches.

The more different a home ground is, the more advantage it carries to a home team.

Donegal know this well and they will undoubtedly plan to keep Tyrone as unsettled as possible.

The intensity and physicality of this game is likely to be a significant step up from anything we have seen this year in the country and, due to the unique circumstances, perhaps anything in the province for almost 20 years since the inception of the back door and the consequent dilution of the old provincial Championship knock-out format. The closest comparison for me is the Armagh and Tyrone saga of 2005, which although not in the province as such, was laced with an almost unbearable sense of tension.

Hurling has led the way and the entertainment is highly unlikely to be surpassed, but up here we are different folk.

We don’t mind a bit of the ugly stuff, as long as we see teams going at it fully committed.

On Sunday, this could hopefully be modern Ulster football nirvana with everything that entails.

Yes, there will be probably some of the slow, lateral passing that has everyone pulling their hair out. Yet underneath it all will be two sets of teams pushing themselves to the absolute limits surrounded by two sets of fans crammed in to watch the battle unfold.

Ironically, my greatest hope is that the teams lose control and shape and start playing off the cuff – like the final 10 minutes of their Ulster final in 2016 when a game suddenly broke out from the chess match on show up to that.

The team that handles this best, as Tyrone managed then, will be the team to come through.

Football certainly has its faults at present yet the way this game is set up shows it can still capture the attention and spirit in a way little else can.

I for one cannot wait for it.

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