GAA Football

Kenny Archer: Donegal and Tyrone's bitter rivalry set for another Ballybofey battle

Even League encounters between Donegal and Tyrone are fractious affairs... Picture Margaret McLaughlin

SPORTING ‘rivalries’ can sometimes be amicable enough – at least until that other lot start winning.

That’s my theory to, at least partly, explain the tempestuous relationship between Donegal and Tyrone, which will get another chance to air its dirty strokes in public on Sunday in Ballybofey.

Some suggest the ill-feeling started in 1989, with the drawn Ulster Final, before Tyrone triumphed by 12 points in the replay. Donal Campbell and Damian Dowds, in their book ‘Sam’s for the Hills’, claimed:

“The rivalry that was born in Clones that July was immense and dark, particularly among the supporters. A dislike, perhaps mutual, swept Clones.

“Two tribes went to war and a ceasefire has still to be declared.”

Others have pointed, with considerable justification, to the so-called ‘Battle of Ballybofey’ in June 1973, when Tyrone dethroned reigning Ulster champions Donegal in a brutal battle, with incidents on and off the pitch – and elsewhere, reportedly.

Intriguingly, when I went to The Irish News files, I could not locate the one for January-June 1973, yet there were two for January-June 1972. Go figure. Perhaps ‘January-June 1973’ has yet to be declassified and instead has been buried in lead somewhere along the Barnesmore Gap, which provides something of a DMZ between Donegal and Tyrone. I once endured a frightening sole drive through the Gap; it would have been worse had it been night-time. But I digress…

Other reports reveal that Donegal had recalled Nealy Gallagher and he scored their first three points – before being thumped by his marker Mickey Joe Forbes, forcing him to go to Letterkenny Hospital, concussed and needing seven stitches in a busted eye.

The ‘Gaelic Weekly’ said “the contest was one of survival of the fittest with no holds barred” and that Tyrone “stood up better to the gruelling encounter”.

Forbes escaped punishment but Tyrone did have Seamus Donaghy sent off, “undeservedly” later said Donegal player-manager Brian McEniff, who was himself “levelled” along with team-mate Joe ‘Dodo’ Winston and Tyrone’s top scorer Patsy Hetherington. Players remember bottles and cans being thrown from the terraces. 

Tyrone scored late on to win by 0-12 to 1-7 and reportedly both teams fought their way off the pitch. The ‘Donegal Democrat’ reporter criticised the referee as “well and truly out of his depth” but said that “the scenes afterwards, amongst the Donegal team and its supporters, were to say the least, a disgrace.”

Pubs in Ballybofey shut early to avoid trouble, but away supporters were accused of causing some in Castlefin on the way home.

Acting Donegal secretary Frank Muldoon apparently phoned Ulster Council Secretary Gerry Arthurs the next day, demanding an investigation, and claimed: “Donegal County Board officials were very worried about the danger to their players in games with teams from across the border, because of the attitude of the six counties’ spectators and indeed, some of their players and officials.”

Muldoon even suggested that Donegal would move province rather than suffering the hell of facing more six-county sides, with the Donegal Democrat’s front page – yep, front page – headline the following Friday suggesting: “Donegal GAA will withdraw from Ulster?”, the story explaining that “As a result of their experiences in recent cross-border games in general and last Sunday’s deplorable scenes in particular, Donegal GAA may seek to leave Ulster and affiliate with Connacht.”

Yet in my view, it may have been the year before ‘The Battle of Ballybofey’ that did the damage, when the two counties met in the Ulster Final for the first time – and Donegal brought the Anglo-Celt Cup to ‘the hills’ for the first time.

Donegal had beaten Tyrone in the Ulster SFC before – but only once, and only in 1919 when the GAA was in disarray ‘among the bushes’, although hardly much better off in Tir Chonaill. Still, a 4-3 to 2-0 win in Strabane hardly counts as an away match for Donegal.

After that, though, Tyrone triumphed the next five times (including a 0-1 to 0-2 thriller in Letterkenny in 1924), the last of those when the Red Hands were first-time Ulster champions en route to retaining the Anglo-Celt in 1957. Omagh, Ballybofey, Dungannon, or Cavan – Tyrone won wherever they met Donegal.

Until 1972. Tyrone seemed set to bridge their 15-year gap without provincial success but a young team fell away late on against a powerful Donegal side led by player-manager Brian McEniff.

The decisive score came in the 72nd minute of the 80-minute encounter, when a long punt from Donegal midfielder Seamus Bonner travelled 60 yards and over goalkeeper Kieran Harte – and over the goal-line. Donegal tagged on two more points to win by 2-13 to 1-11.

The Irish News report said that “Tyrone’s aggression was cutting lumps out of the opposition in the first half, before “Burly Bonner began to stamp his power at midfield for Donegal and the real battle was on.

“At times tackling became too enthusiastic, fouls trivial and tempers a little frayed. Referee Fintan Tierney made a few peculiar decisions which were not well received by Tyrone’s large contingent of supporters.”

“In a way Tyrone foolishly attempted to mix it with Donegal on equal terms and paid the price. Donegal had the heavier artillery…Bonner…expressing his strength in no uncertain terms and his heavy attention to wee John Early earned him a booking…”

Donegal somewhat fortunately sealing the victory no doubt rankled with Tyrone. The Red Hands were clearly itching for revenge when they went to Ballybofey – and they got it, as detailed above.

The sides were paired again in 1974, this time in Omagh, although McEniff recalled later that Donegal “just got togged in Jackson's Hotel in Ballybofey and went by coach to the ground and went straight back in the coach afterwards.” Donegal won, and went on to regain the Ulster crown.

Indeed, of their 17 meetings from 1957 onwards, 13 of those occasions involved either the defending Ulster champions or was an Ulster Final or replay.

This Sunday will be the 14th such encounter, with Donegal having regained the Ango-Celt in June.

There’ll be another Bonner (Donegal boss Declan) against another Harte (Tyrone manager Mickey, who was playing in 1972 in the preceding Minor Final, and indeed top-scored with 1-3 in the win over Cavan).

It’s not just because I’ve spent days researching and writing a Gaelic Sunday centenary feature - I always believe that history matters in the GAA.

Tyrone haven’t won a senior football championship match in Ballybofey for more than 45 years. Sure, to an extent it’s ‘one of those stats’ – of 14 meetings since then, only two have taken place in MacCumhaill Park – but they’ve both been recent, in 2013 and 2015.

This is the first ever meeting on the All-Ireland stage. Effectively it’s an All-Ireland quarter-final, but with two twists: Donegal have home advantage and Tyrone know that a draw will do them.

After 1989 Donegal and Tyrone only met again in Championship in 1994, then in 2004, when both had sights set beyond Ulster. Donegal had reached the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final, had taken Dublin to a quarter-final replay the year before, after pushing Armagh hard in the Ulster decider. Tyrone, of course, were reigning All-Ireland and Ulster champs.

So Donegal’s five-point win in 2004 came as ‘a quare gonk’ to Tyrone, who handed out an 11-point drubbing to Donegal three years later.

The Ulster semi-final of 2011 was the making of Jim McGuinness’s Donegal. Many see the turning point in that as a superb score from Kevin Cassidy before the break, but arguably it was Joe McMahon being forced off with a broken jaw, having been marking Michael Murphy well. Murphy was not the culprit, but even one of the most partisan members of Donegal’s particularly partisan press crew acknowledged in print – albeit a couple of years later – that Leo McLoone was “perhaps fortunate” to escape a red card for his high hit on big Joe. Murphy set Dermot ‘Brick’ Molloy free for the decisive score.

Donegal won three more Ulster encounters, in 2012, 2013, and 2015, before Tyrone somehow snatched the 2016 Final victory, then won well in last year’s semi-final.

There’s been bad blood through Minors and U21s too.

Sunday will be about another battle - the Red Hands would snatch yours off if you offered them a draw now.

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