Tyrone and Donegal set for tight, tense top flight tussle
Allianz Football League Division One, round five: Tyrone v Donegal (Saturday, Healy Park, 7pm)
SOME of the names have changed – but that still won't protect innocent eyes from what they will witness tonight.
All but the youngest children will surely know what to expect, however: a hard-hitting, intense affair, much more akin to Championship fare than the recent McKenna Cup Final meeting.
Entertaining as that encounter was, especially in its early exchanges, an air of unreality hung over the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Tackles weren't attempted, never mind missed, runs weren't stopped at source, and players were able to get shots away under little pressure.
The biggest surprise is that only two goals were scored as Donegal eventually emerged winners by 1-16 to 1-12.
This will be different. Obviously the two teams are much-changed (or expected to be) from the shadow sides who shadow-boxed for much of that final in Armagh.
The Red Hands retain only three starters from that night, all in defence: Cathal McCarron, Padraig Hampsey, and Kieran McGeary.
More pertinently, Tyrone have altered from their last outing, against Monaghan, with two personnel changes in the team announced.
One of Tyrone's major problems has been failing to convert enough of the chances they have created, hence Mark Bradley getting his first start of season, at the expense of Richie Donnelly.
The other alteration has Padraig McNulty replacing Conall McCann in midfield, an area where Donegal have big options. Hugh McFadden, who was stand-in skipper for the McKenna Cup, could be joined at times by long-serving captain Michael Murphy, although centre-field could also be the platform for the visionary passing of ¬ Odhran Mac Niallais – and Nathan Mullins is another able to pose problems in that department.
Although this is anticipated to be a cagey clash, Donegal have exhibited a more attacking approach under Bonner, and they're currently equal second highest scorers in the top flight with a tally of 4-58 (70).
Tyrone have managed just 2-49 (55) so far. It might benefit the hosts to be less cautious, at least early on. Poor starts cost the Red Hands in their opener against Galway and last time out in Monaghan, both times leaving them chasing the game, a situation that doesn't suit their system of play.
There was a similar scenario in the McKenna Cup Final, with Donegal five points up after a frenetic first 15 minutes, and the Red Hands only managed to claw their way back to parity on one occasion after that, and even then only briefly.
Donegal's positive momentum continued after that final triumph, picking up their first points of this year's League albeit with a controversial victory over fellow strugglers Kildare.
Tyrone, though, lost again, again to Ulster opposition in Monaghan, meaning their only League win so far has also come against the Lilywhites.
Clearly that leaves both tonight's teams in a perilous position. Their remaining opponents won't make matters easy either. Tyrone must travel to Mayo then host Kerry in the final round, while Donegal will go to Monaghan before finishing up at home to Mayo.
For all that Donegal boss Declan Bonner has downplayed the effect of potential relegation, he still won't want to drop down, and certainly won't be happy to lose to Tyrone.
Mickey Harte doesn't even like to talk about demotion, nor defeat.
Having been hit by the departures of three players from the panel recently – Eoin McHugh, goalkeeper Peter Boyle, and Michael Carroll, those last two since the Kildare win – Bonner has received a boost with the return of an All-Ireland winner.
Wingback Anthony Thompson who opted out last season due to work commitments in England, has rejoined the panel at the age of 31, although the Glenties man is not expected to feature in Healy Park tonight.
Yet we can expect many of the elements evident when he was a regular starter as the north-west rivals battle for two precious league points.
There's little love left between these two counties after a series of important clashes in recent seasons, not only at senior level but also on the U21 and Minor stages.
In terms of league survival, this one could be crucial too.
Tyrone: N Morgan; M McKernan, R McNamee, C McCarron; C Meyler, P Hampsey, K McGeary; C Cavanagh, P McNulty; M Donnelly (capt.), N Sludden, P Harte; L Brennan, C McAliskey, M Bradley.
Substitutes: M O'Neill, R Brennan, B Burns, C McCann, D McClure, A McCrory, D McCurry, HP McGeary, R McNabb, D Mulgrew, R O'Neill.
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath).