Tyrone goes to Ballybofey to face Donegal - it's war
All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals Group 2, Phase 3: Donegal v Tyrone (MacCumhaill Park, 3.30pm tomorrow)
AIR raid sirens. Doom-laden piano. Crashing cymbals. ‘Two Tribes’ by Frankie Goes To Hollywood has been running through my mind for days, the soundtrack to this titanic tussle, which will sink one team or the other.
To paraphrase its spoken intro, ‘When you hear the first whistle, you and your family must take cover…’
This will be intense.
This pairing has brought red cards for normally mild-mannered men such as Colm McFadden and Sean Cavanagh.
This is what All-Ireland quarter-finals were supposed to be: provincial champions with home advantage. Tyrone missed out on that in the inaugural season of the new format, 2001 and paid the penalty, losing out to then arch-rivals Derry in Clones.
Donegal have taken on that role as their Ulster rivals to beat in this decade and there’s been no love lost between these two for far longer than that.
Probably since at least 1973 – the last time that Tyrone win in Ballybofey in the senior championship.
The twist is that Tyrone don’t have to win: a draw will do them because of their superior scoring difference so far.
Yet in the senior Championship history between these two counties, 22 meetings in all, there has only ever been one draw.
And, intriguingly, for all the hard-fought nature of their recent battles, the closest results have been two-point games, in 2016, 2012, 2008, and 2002. The average winning margin, from 20 meetings in League and Championship this century, is actually almost exactly five points.
There have been hammerings – as recently as the last Championship encounter, when Tyrone triumphed by nine points last year, while Donegal won by 10 in the League in 2015 – and the Red Hands by 11 in 2007.
That game was followed by four consecutive Championship victories for Donegal, though, the first three of those under Jim McGuinness, the last (2015) under Rory Gallagher.
Tyrone have largely enjoyed the upper hand since their epic ending snatched the Anglo-Celt Cup in 2016, with that big win in last year’s Ulster semi-final and a six-point League success in Omagh in March of this year – but Donegal still won by six points in the League last year and again in the McKenna Cup Final earlier this season.
That last-named was shadow-boxing, between a half-strength Donegal and a second string Tyrone, but the victors’ joy in the Athletic Grounds tunnel area was still evident.
This is unlikely to be anywhere near as open as that game was, at least early on, but hopefully this game will be higher-scoring than FGTH suggest:
‘When two tribes go to war
One is all that you can score
(Score no more, score no more)’
Perhaps Holly Johnson and company were predicting the goals-per-game average in meetings between these two, which is only 1.2 over the last 20 meetings in League (0.9) and Championship (1.5).
For those who recall the video to ‘Two Tribes’ it may well preview this clash too. Grown men brawling. Choke holds, rabbit punches, dust-throwing, nostril-pulling, kicks to the groin, head-butts. Referee Joe McQuillan and his assistants will have to keep their eyes peeled, although both bosses will surely impress the need to stay disciplined.
Throbbing, ominous bass-line.
‘Ow, ow, ow’. Hard-hitting will be the order of the day.
After all the fuss over the pitch dimensions in Healy Park for Tyrone-Dublin, it may well be true that the Red Hands were planning ahead for this close encounter of the third round.
The crowd is certainly much closer to pitch in MacCumhaill Park than in Omagh or Clones, which will only add to the atmosphere of anticipation and animosity.
Familiarity has bred dislike, if not quite contempt, between many of these players, from a young age.
Besides all the senior showdowns, the counties met – Donegal under Declan Bonner – in the 2015 Minor preliminary round in Ballybofey, which led to a row that rumbled on and on, right up to Ulster Council level, over alleged ‘sledging’ about the death of the Donegal captain’s father.
They had also met in the 2015 Ulster U21 Final and the following year’s U21 semi-final, both edged by Tyrone, before Donegal won last year’s last U21 quarter-final meeting – also under the management of Bonner - but only after a replay, as Tyrone finished with 13 players.
Michael McKernan was one of those two Red Hands red-carded late on, while Lee Brennan also started. Donegal’s team included this year’s senior panellists Stephen McMenamin, Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Michael Langan, Cian Mulligan, Daire O Baoill, Caolan McGonagle, and Conor Morrison.
Donegal will look to the experience of their iconic captain Michael Murphy, along with the likes of Neil McGee, Paddy McGrath, Leo McLoone, Frank McGlynn, and Ryan McHugh, even though the last-named is only 24.
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte has re-built his side from the start of 2016 onwards, and freshened it up this year, but can still count on Collie Cavanagh, Ronan McNamee, Tiernan McCann, Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly, and Niall Sludden for big games, along with more recent key performers such as Frank Burns and Padraig Hampsey.
At the long whistle, whichever teams can ‘Tell the world that you’re winning’ – or even drawing in Tyrone’s case – will be ‘Loving life, loving life’.
The Red Hands have something to hold onto, second spot in the section, which would pit them against the table-toppers from the other group, either Galway or Monaghan.
The fact that Donegal HAVE to win, and so will HAVE to go at Tyrone will play into Red Hands to some extent given their fondness for defending deep and in numbers and then counter-attacking.
Donegal appear more open at the back under Bonner’s more attacking approach, which also offers hope to the visitors.
Yet if there are doubts over Donegal’s defending, question marks remain too over Tyrone’s attack against the top teams, despite their thrashings of Carlow, Cork, and Roscommon, scoring 10 goals in those three matches.
Connor McAliskey’s form hasn’t been as great in recent games, but Tyrone do have Niall Sludden, Peter Harte, Burns, and the Donnelly brothers as sources of scores, as well as Mark Bradley, Lee Brennan, and Harry Loughran on the bench.
The loss of Patrick McBrearty is a serious blow to the hosts, though, as would be Eoghan Ban Gallagher, but there’s a suspicion that the impressive attacking wing-back will play some part, if not start.
Donegal failed to find the net against either Dublin or Roscommon, but with Murphy pushing into full-forward at times, and the pace they possess from the likes of Ryan McHugh and Cian Mulligan, the Tyrone defence will have little chance to ‘Relax’ tomorrow.
You can go whistle for ‘The Power of Love’ and it definitely won’t be a case of ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’ for Tyrone.
However, the Red Hands have made a habit of ousting Ulster champions from the All-Ireland series in recent years, having beaten Monaghan in both 2013 and 2015.
Doing so to Donegal in their own Ballybofey backyard will be an even tougher task but Tyrone might – just might – do just enough to reach the last four for the fourth time in six seasons.
This could be a Hollywood-style blockbuster - except for the 'X' rating.
Frankie says ‘War’. Hide Yourself.
MAN OF THE MOMENT
Michael Murphy (Donegal)
THE towering Glenswilly man has been in top form in this year's Championship, and curbing his influence is likely to be around the top of Mickey Harte's agenda heading into tomorrow's Ballybofey showdown. Has operated around the middle sector in most games, often playing in a more attacking role but afforded the freedom to roam.
However, Murphy was largely stationed on the edge of the square against Roscommon the last day and delivered a masterclass at full-forward, finishing with nine points. In the absence of the injured Paddy McBrearty, he is always an option for Declan Bonner up top. Was well shackled by Padraig Hampsey in Clones last year, ably assisted by Colm Cavanagh, although Murphy looked quite a bit off full fitness during that campaign.
Ryan McHugh (Donegal) v Peter Harte (Tyrone)
IT will be interesting to see how Tyrone approach Ryan McHugh. Declan Bonner has called for more protection from referees after finding the Kilcar ace found himself on the end of some rough treatment this summer. In the last two Championship meetings between the counties, Harte and McHugh have looked after each other, with mixed fortunes.
Last year it was Harte who held the upper hand, although that game was all but over at the break after a Tyrone scoring spree late in the first half. In the 2016 Ulster final, however, Harte failed to track McHugh's runs on several occasions, affording him the space at a congested Clones to inflict serious damage. It wasn't until Rory Brennan was moved on to him that Tyrone were finally able to curb his influence. Both are potential match-winners, and whoever comes out on top could have a serious say in which county progresses to the All-Ireland semi-final.
Neil McGee replaced Eoghan Ban Gallagher the last day and, if the latter isn’t included tomorrow, Stephen McMenamin could remain in the side, although Caolan Ward is a contender to come in. Indeed, the very attacking front six selected to face Roscommon may be tweaked, perhaps with Ward coming in at the expense of Michael Langan, or even saving Odhran Mac Niallais until there’s (slightly) more space later in the game.
Possible team: S Patton; P McGrath, N McGee, S McMenamin/ E Gallagher; F McGlynn, P Brennan, R McHugh; H McFadden, L McLoone; E Doherty, M Langan, C Thompson; O Mac Niallais, M Murphy, J Brennan.
Mickey Harte has named the same time as started at home to Dublin, meaning that full-back Ronan McNamee is passed fit after being forced off with a bruised shin.
The one change to the listed 26 involves combative defender Michael Cassidy named among the subs instead of lanky midfielder Padraig McNulty, which suggests Tyrone don’t feel there’ll be much clean aerial ball won.
N Morgan; M McKernan, R McNamee, H P McGeary; T McCann, F Burns, P Harte; C Cavanagh, P Hampsey; M Donnelly, N Sludden, C Meyler; C McShane, R Donnelly, C McAliskey.
Subs: M O’Neill, M Bradley, L Brennan, R Brennan, M Cassidy, H Loughran, C McCann, D McClure, A McCrory, K McGeary, R O’Neill.
There’s so much thought and planning that goes into modern football - but this may boil down to the traditional question: will they kick it long into the big man at full-forward?
The positioning of captain Michael Murphy is much-debated and he certainly did damage closer to goal against Roscommon, with his presence there increasingly needed in the injury-enforced absence of Patrick McBrearty.
Yet he can also pull the strings from around centre-forward, with his running, passing, and lay-offs – and Declan Bonner will know that Tyrone won’t allow much room in their defensive ‘square’.
Still, Donegal will have confidence in their ability to kick scores from long range over the deep-lying defence, especially given their greater familiarity with Ballybofey.
Donegal still get plenty of bodies back but they may have to concentrate more on defending considering the amount of goal chances they gave up against Dublin.
Tyrone are still doing what they do, but appear to be doing that with increasing confidence and pace. The Red Hands will also be glad of the fortnight’s rest after their run through ‘the back door’ and should have the zest to finish strongly here if required.
The visitors may bring more mental baggage though – not only do they have the ‘a draw will do us’ thought in their minds, they also carry the concern that Donegal have a great record in Ballybofey – and Tyrone don’t, having lost their seven times since their last win, 13 years ago, in the League.
It suits Tyrone to sit back, allowing them to counter-attack, but they cannot be too passive or Donegal may build up an unassailable lead.
Mickey Harte does have increasing attacking options on the bench – and even on the pitch. Richie Donnelly is a fine option for the long kick-pass if Tyrone do decide to kick rather than run the ball.
Last 11 Championship meetings...
Overall SFC record: Played: 22; Donegal wins: 9; Tyrone wins: 12; draws: 1 (1989 Final)
2017 Ulster SFC semi-final: Tyrone 1-21 Donegal 1-12
2016 Ulster SFC Final: Tyrone 0-13 Donegal 0-11
2015 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Donegal 1-13 Tyrone 1-10
2013 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Donegal 2-10 Tyrone 0-10
2012 Ulster SFC semi-final: Donegal 0-12 Tyrone 0-10
2011 Ulster SFC semi-final: Donegal 2-6 Tyrone 0-9
2007 Ulster SFC semi-final: Tyrone 2-15 Donegal 1-7
2004 Ulster SFC semi-final: Donegal 1-11 Tyrone 0-9
1994 Ulster SFC semi-final: Tyrone 1-15 Donegal 0-10
1989 Ulster SFC Final replay: Tyrone 2-13 Donegal 0-7
1989 Ulster SFC Final: Tyrone 0-11 Donegal 0-11
CLOUDY with a chance of slaps. Oh, and rain too. A close encounter on the field, it will be 'close' off it too as the elements look set to throw up a muggy day in Ballybofey with temperatures around 18-19 degrees.
Who's the ref?
Joe McQuillan (Cavan)
The Breffni county whistler took charge of both games in 2013 between these teams and Donegal will settle for the same Championship outcome. The Kill Shamrocks clubman has overseen three All-Ireland Finals, all won by Dublin, in 2011, 2013, and last year, but is perhaps more highly regarded by the appointments committee than by supporters.
Last Championship meeting....
2017 Ulster SFC semi-final: Tyrone 1-21 Donegal 1-12
YOU don’t always tell people what’s going to happen!” quipped Tyrone manager Mickey Harte after this dismantling of Donegal – but in truth no one saw this result coming.
The two teams had met in a tight, tense Ulster Final the previous summer, won by the Red Hands with three great late scores, but this one was over long before the long whistle.
Although Donegal did start well, a stunning last third of the first half meant that Tyrone led by 0-12 to 0-5 at half-time and their early second half goal from Tiernan McCann made sure that they would progress to a second consecutive decider. Michael Carroll’s late goal barely raised a murmur.
Donegal (+1) 4/5
Handicap draw (Donegal +1) 8/1
Tyrone (-1) 5/4
Michael Murphy 15/2
Peter Harte 4/1
No goalscorer 11/2
45 – years since Tyrone avoided Championship defeat in Ballybofey, which is what they need to do tomorrow to progress to the All-Ireland semi-finals.