No room for error for Tyrone if they are to take down Donegal
THIS week is what all the effort has been about for the Donegal and Tyrone players.
The end of the league fills players with dread. Club games are a welcome distraction from the thought of the tough training ahead of them. It’s all worth it now, though, with the work done and the buzz that the week of Championship football brings. Nothing can beat the week before a big Championship match.
After relegation from Division 1 of the NFL, the mood in the Tyrone camp would have been one of disappointment. However, I’ve no doubt the players know Championship football is what really matters. The chance to dethrone the defending Ulster champions in their own back yard is a massive opportunity and that will have been a huge motivating factor over the last six weeks.
Tyrone will be totally focused on this game alone. The Donegal mind set will certainly be different. Rory Gallagher’s players are ultimately motivated by the opportunity to put right last year’s All-Ireland final defeat. They will see the Tyrone match as a step on the way.
The difference in attitude is small, but Donegal will need to draw on all their experience to ensure they match the intensity and desire of a motivated underdog.
In the Mickey Harte era, Tyrone have a very good record of getting through in the opening round of the Championship, but the performances haven’t matched that record. I’d have to go back to the 2004 win over Derry for a top display from Tyrone in their opening Championship match.
A win against Donegal in Ballybofey would represent one of the best results of Mickey Harte’s time in charge of Tyrone and it will take a massive performance to achieve that.
Guessing the line-ups and match-ups chosen by Rory Gallagher and Mickey Harte is next to impossible, but there are some key decisions to be made. From a Tyrone perspective, I would like to see Joe McMahon given the job of curbing the threat of Michael Murphy. Joe has all the attributes to nullify Murphy - he has the height and physicality to win the aerial duels, he will be equally comfortable on the square or out the field, and he has experience of marking him before. Tyrone would be happy if Murphy plays deep, but I expect the trend of the league to continue, when he played inside on a more regular basis.
Patrick McBrearty has started to develop into the top player we all expected him to become. He spent some time on the subs bench last year, but he had a superb league campaign in 2015. I’ve no doubt he has benefited from playing alongside Murphy, as it takes the opposition's focus away from him.
McBrearty can win his own ball out in front, but he is excellent at playing off other forwards. He loops around his fellow attackers, creating a scoring opportunity, and it is very difficult to defend against.
Aidan McCrory tends to get the job of marking one of the opponent's main forwards. His strengths are evident after his man wins possession, but McBrearty’s ability to collect lay-offs from team-mates and shoot early may not suit him.
One big question surrounding Tyrone is whether they can get enough scores to win the match. Seán Cavanagh’s return to fitness is a boost and it will be interesting to see where he plays. I expect Cavanagh or Mattie Donnelly to play in the forward line alongside Darren McCurry and they will need to influence the game if Tyrone are to win.
Donegal are the experts at suffocating the opposition forwards. It’s possible Tyrone will let McCurry and Cavanagh/Donnelly drift out towards the half-forward line to get more space. Éamon McGee has been tasked with marking Cavanagh before and he may well pick him up regardless of where he plays.
Tyrone have tried to play patient football against Donegal in the last few years and it hasn’t worked. Keeping the defensive shape is important, but you must attack at pace and in numbers to break Donegal down. Too often, Tyrone’s build up play has been laboured and, in the league game this year, that lack of urgency in their play was ruthlessly exploited by Donegal.
Mickey Harte must decide whether it is more important to have support runners to break down Donegal or keep his defensive shape so Donegal cannot break out, exploiting the space behind.
Donegal will hope to utilise the appetite their players have to make the hard support runs when they break out of defence. The runs of Frank McGlynn, Anthony Thompson and Ryan McHugh are typical of the hard running style of the team. Donegal frustrate their opponents and hold a big psychological advantage in games as a result.
They hold a major mental advantage over Tyrone, having beaten them in their last three Championship matches and that edge was only reenforced by their easy league victory this year. Mickey Harte will have been working on building the belief of his team, but the real test will come in the crucial moments of Sunday’s game.
When these teams met in 2012, Niall Morgan had an off day with his free taking. The Donegal players gave him some special attention as he lined up his frees and I’ve no doubt they will do the same again. His free taking this year has been very inconsistent and he needs to be at his best on Sunday as you can be sure Michael Murphy will punish any Tyrone indiscipline at the other end.
For Tyrone to win, they must, at least, come out even in terms of goals; Morgan needs to be perfect from frees; Cavanagh, Donnelly and McCurry must influence the game and an early lead is crucial to fuel their belief.
It’s possible for all of those factors to go in Tyrone’s favour, but it will take a major turnaround on the evidence of the last 12 months. Donegal to edge a physical battle by a few points.