All-changed Tyrone still likely to hang on to McKenna Cup
Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup final
Donegal v Tyrone (Saturday, 6pm, Athletic Grounds)
THESE two have played a fairly significant part in each other’s recent past, creating a rivalry that might even be strong enough to spill into a mid-season McKenna Cup final.
We can hope for that at least, although in the team named by Mickey Harte you are offered a sense that the decider takes on less prominence even in Tyrone minds than in most years – but by their bench you can equally sense their reluctance to hand over a trophy they’ve had since 2012.
The sole survivor from last weekend’s dramatic win in Kildare is full-back Cathal McCarron, but regulars like Mattie Donnelly, Peter Harte, Niall Sludden and Padraig Hampsey are among a strong line-up of subs.
Harte has given a complete rest to the entire Ulster University contingent that’s been bouncing back and forward between inter-county and Sigerson Cup duty over the last three weeks.
Michael McKernan, Rory Brennan, Ronan McNamee, Mark Bradley and Lee Brennan played the full 90 minutes against UCD in Inniskeen, while Frank Burns made a welcome swift recovery from what was reported as an ankle ligament injury, playing 70 minutes.
David Mulgrew also skipped the queue on his prognosis when he came in after his dislocated shoulder for what turned out to be 45 minutes, when you take all the extra-extra time into account.
All six of them are given complete exoneration from duty in Armagh this evening, to where the game has been switched from Celtic Park due to the rescheduling of Derry v Offaly for this weekend.
Straight into the Tyrone team do come The Moy pair Colm Cavanagh and Harry Loughran, fresh from their significant contributions to the club’s All-Ireland intermediate joy.
And such is their strength in depth that, with all honesty, a lot of county managers would kill to have a starting fifteen that includes Aidan McCrory, Kieran McGeary, Conall McCann, Declan McClure, Darren McCurry and Ronan O’Neill.
It’s strange to suggest that a Donegal side that’s lost all three of its opening League games still travels with confidence but that is the pleasing reality for Declan Bonner.
The early weeks of his reign have not drawn any points but by most other measures of success, they would be regarded as having been encouraging.
Hauling their way back into the game against Dublin to the point of almost taking something, and doing it in such a bold, offensive manner was a psychological fillip for a young Tír Chonaill side.
Bonner hasn’t shown his hand in terms of a selection for tonight but it’s understood that Frank McGlynn and Martin McElhinney are both set to return to the squad, with both expected to see some game time.
Michael Murphy made a rusty comeback in Croke Park and finding the balance between giving him more minutes and risking a setback will likely see him confined to the bench from the start again.
The past month hasn’t quite had the same arduous impact on their squad giving their lack of Sigerson involvement, although Ryan McHugh could well be in line for a night off, having had less than 72 hours since those draining 90 minutes in Inniskeen.
Thereafter it becomes about how Donegal prioritise this and it’s unlikely that, even with the opportunity to take Tyrone’s scalp, they will go too hard after it with Kildare due in Ballyshannon next weekend.
Paddy McBrearty has been in stunning form since the start of the season, hitting 0-26 in their first three league games, but they might decide to leave him on the sideline with his Kilcar clubmate McHugh.
It’s more likely to be night for some of the younger hands to stake their claim, with Caolan McGonigle, Niall O’Donnell, Ciaran McGinley and Paul Brennan all waiting in the wings after coming off the bench last weekend.
Tyrone have looked to use the boot to fine-tune their high-scoring, counter-attacking game in the early weeks of the season, while Donegal have opened out considerably but haven’t quite been gung-ho either. The truth is always somewhere in the middle.
If Donegal meet Tyrone in the middle in terms of making wholesale change, then the McKenna Cup is likely to stay in Red Hands for a seventh year running.
Tyrone: M O’Neill; A McCrory, C McCarron, B Burns; M Cassidy, R McNabb, K McGeary; C Cavanagh, B McDonnell; D McClure, H Loughran, C McCann; D McCurry, R McHugh, R O’Neill
Subs: N Morgan, M Donnelly, P Hampsey, P Harte, C McAliskey, HP McGeary, C McLaughlin, P McNulty, C McShane, C Meyler, N Sludden
PATHS TO THE FINAL
Section A: Tyrone 4-20 Antrim 2-11; Tyrone 1-16 St Mary’s 1-11; Cavan 0-7 Tyrone 2-22
Semi-final: Fermanagh 0-8 Tyrone 0-4
Section C: Donegal 2-15 Queen’s 0-6; Donegal 1-10 Fermanagh 1-13; Monaghan 0-19 Donegal 4-17
Semi-final: Donegal 0-20 Armagh 1-10