Donegal outplay Tyrone to lay down a marker for the Championship
Allianz National Football League Division One: Donegal 0-12 Tyrone 0-6
IN every National League campaign, there are wins and losses that carry a far deeper significance than the two points on offer. This was one such night.
Donegal had raised a few eyebrows with a strong start to the season but this was a more serious marker than anything that had gone before.
In maintaining a 17-game unbeaten run in MacCumhaill Park, and a run in the venue against Tyrone that stretches back to the Red Hands’ last win there in 2005, Rory Gallagher’s side planted a flag.
The wave of winter retirements paved a narrative that Ulster was Tyrone’s for the taking but on this evidence there is plenty for them to do before the crown can be returned to their heads in July.
The second half of proceedings had all the spite we now associate with this rivalry, as the physical stakes were ramped up considerably beneath the miserable and unforgiving Ballybofey skies.
That Donegal stood tall in that respect, too, was almost as impressive as anything they’d done football wise in the opening 35 minutes.
There was only one team at the races in that period. Donegal played with a zip and a zest and a ruthlessness and a coolness. Tyrone played with none of the above.
What will annoy Mickey Harte most was their defensive display. For a lot of the half they played a one-man forward line, yet Donegal were able to pick off scores inside Tyrone’s 45 with little or no pressure on the shot.
A succession of their scores were borne of patience followed by a well-timed incision. And when the golden shirts flighted into a gap, the white shirts looked at each other to stop it.
Ciaran Thompson thrice, each better than the last, raised white flags and Frank McGlynn, Eoin McHugh and Hugh McFadden all pointed when they had time to steady up before the shot.
Even Paddy McGrath, the rarest of scorers, got up to point from the right wing.
But of it all, the score that really showed the threat this Donegal side will pose in the summer was Ryan McHugh’s 22nd minute point.
Declan McClure gave the ball away on the Donegal 45 and McHugh took it. Tyrone had committed to attack and the Kilcar man seared into the space.
He was actually too quick for the support to keep up with him, but even still it was only a brilliant piece of defending by Colm Cavanagh to hold him up and force him to take the point that prevented what looked a certain goal.
Cavanagh threw himself brilliantly to block an Eoin McHugh effort when Donegal led by 0-4 to 0-2, and you thought that would be a spark for Tyrone, but they remained listless until half-time, by which stage the damage was done.
Mickey Harte’s side had shown a deviation from the traditional attacking platform by tossing a few early balls in on top of a rotating full-forward. With Neil McGee pulled out to track Mattie Donnelly – a job he did superbly – Tyrone perhaps spied an aerial weakness.
It didn’t work on the night but expect to see the move repeated should the two, who are on a potential collision course in an Ulster semi-final, meet in the summer.
Donnelly, Sean Cavanagh, Mark Bradley and even Peter Harte were switching into the full-forward role but they were so over-run that it wouldn’t have mattered who was inside.
Donegal were winning the aerial battle on contested kickouts and with Ciaran Thompson’s left foot magnificently tuned for three first half points, the home side built a 0-9 to 0-4 lead.
“We’d have been very pleased with the first half performance,” said Rory Gallagher afterwards.
“We got some great scores and I thought we were full value for the five-point lead. The second half was very scrappy, and hard to watch even from our point of view. There wasn’t a lot of football played.
“We set out our goal, we had to get at Tyrone. They’ve a great defensive system in place the last couple of years that we’ve found difficult to break down.
“But we went at it with a really positive attitude and we did very well overall. We won the midfield battle on any long kickouts I thought, and our defensive display was quite good.”
The second half was laced with more venom but that suited the side holding the lead. Sean Cavanagh’s score within 10 seconds of the restart suggested a different Tyrone but the game became so scrappy that they found momentum impossible to build.
Justin McMahon was substituted after picking up a yellow card on 44 minutes, whereafter Michael Murphy found a bit more room having been tailed by the Omagh man, as is tradition in this fixture.
Even though Tyrone’s intensity improved after half-time, their composure didn’t and they registered just two points, losing by a wider margin than they’d trailed by at the break.
“I’d say the second half was probably more disappointing,” said Mickey Harte.
“I think obviously the last 10 minutes of the first half was the most disappointing because we were living off scraps to a degree and not being that far behind early in the game.
“But once they sort of picked off a few and it went to five points at half time, with the conditions out there that was a serious lead. So I’d be disappointed that we let it slip to a very difficult position in the last 10 minutes of the first half.
“Otherwise I suppose we were battling well with limited scoring opportunities and that’s the bottom line. We did not convert enough of the chances that we got and I think Donegal were very efficient with the ones they got.”
Donegal’s win leaves the race for a place in the Division One final wide open, but more significantly the race for the Ulster title found a few doors thrown open as well.
Donegal: MA McGinley; P McGrath (0-1), N McGee, E Doherty; E Bán Gallagher, F McGlynn (0-1), P Brennan; M Murphy (0-1free), C Thompson (0-3); M O’Reilly, E McHugh (0-1), R McHugh (0-2); M Carroll, H McFadden (0-2), J Brennan
Subs: C Mulligan (0-1) for McGlynn (h-t), M McElhinney for McFadden (64), M Langan for P Brennan (65), S McBrearty for E McHugh (74)
Black card replacement: M McHugh for P McGrath (56)
Yellow cards: M Murphy (28), J McMahon (43), M McElhinney (67), M Carroll (71)
Tyrone: M O’Neill; P Hampsey, R McNamee, C McCarron; T McCann, J McMahon, R Brennan (0-1); C Cavanagh, D McClure; C Meyler, K McGeary, P Harte (0-2, 0-1free); M Bradley, S Cavanagh (0-1free), M Donnelly
Subs: P Hampsey for McShane (h-t), C Meyler for McClure (h-t), A McCrory for McMahon (44), R O’Neill for Brennan (53), J Munroe for McCarron (64)
Yellow cards: P Brennan (43), M Bradley (66), R McNamee (67), N Sludden (73)
Referee: D Coldrick (Meath)