The Championship

Aaron Kernan: Ulster appeal adds to final anticipation

(l-r) Donegal's Frank McGlynn, manager Rory Gallagher, Tyrone manager Mickey Harte and Red Hand star Ronan McNamee at Monday's Ulster Senior final launch in Strabane
Picture by Margaret McLaughlin 

IT’S safe to say it has been a while since there has been an Ulster final as eagerly anticipated by the entire country, let alone the province, as this Sunday’s clash between Tyrone and Donegal.

Having played against both counties in their pomp, I am well aware of the tempo they like to play at and the aggression levels they bring to each contest. The biggest mistake you could make against either side is to carry a ball into contact. They thrive on stopping an opponent, swarming him, forcing a turnover and countering at blistering pace, knowing they have just laid down a psychological marker.

Donegal, having been largely written off as serious contenders following five league defeats on the trot, have begun to hit form at just the right time and have reached a remarkable sixth Ulster final in-a-row. They haven’t gotten the praise they deserve for showing this level of consistency in what is, without a doubt, the toughest provincial Championship to win.

They now face the ultimate test against Tyrone. This Red Hand side, following a slow start to last season, have steadily matured as a group, developed a perfect blend of youthful enthusiasm and experienced, seasoned campaigners and are showing continuous improvement in the execution of their gameplan.

More importantly, they seem to have left behind the legacy of their all-conquering noughties side and new leaders have emerged, leaders who seem hell bent on moulding this current crop into a successful force at provincial and national level again.

I have read a number of articles in recent weeks where former players in both Leinster and Munster stated that provincial titles are now practically meaningless to them. That is certainly not the case up north and it is the reason I am genuinely excited about this weekend’s contest.

I can practically visualise both sets of players hardly being fit to walk from the field, such is the level of pace and physicality they have both set for themselves as their benchmark. What sets both sides apart from the majority who try and fail to implement defensive gameplans is their ability to break at pace and in numbers to ruthlessly punish their opposition. 

It’s safe to assume that whoever comes out on the right side of the result will have earned their victory the hard way. Winning this weekend will mean much more than lifting a piece of silverware. Both teams will want to march into Croke Park with a spring in their step and some success to show for their season’s efforts so far. 

More importantly, it offers them the direct route to the All Ireland final. It may be a bold call to make before we’ve reached the August bank holiday weekend, but I feel whoever wins this weekend’s game will go the whole way to the third Sunday in September.

Watch footage from Monday night's Ulster SFC final launch in Strabane  

As has become the norm following drawn encounters, Mickey Harte yet again got his tactics spot on the second time around against Cavan. He realised he needed more protection in front of his full-back line given the aerial assault of long direct ball Cavan fired in to David Givney and Eugene Keating in the drawn game. Deploying Justin McMahon in the deep-lying sweeper role to assist Colm Cavanagh worked a treat because of their superb defensive awareness.

However, for this to work, it meant the remaining outfield Tyrone players had to work extra hard to put maximum pressure on any Cavan players in possession to make sure they could not run the ball into the Tyrone half with ease. They also had to make sure that any ball delivered into their defence was ferociously contested in order to give their full-backs a fighting chance of dispossessing the inside Cavan forwards.

To work so hard as a unit outfield when outnumbered by the opposition takes serious communication, desire and trust. All it takes is one man to get lazy and switch off to allow an attacker to ghost into their half unopposed, meaning one of their sweepers has then to decide where is danger most likely to occur.

Cavan did manage to rack up 2-17 but, by the time the majority of those scores arrived, Colm Cavanagh had left the field and the game was long since over as a contest. Does Mickey Harte go with the same tactics and personnel again, or will he revert to his usual gameplan of only allowing Colm Cavanagh to drop off and offer protection in front of his full-back line? Rory Gallagher is a shrewd cookie, he will have studied the Tyrone set up meticulously over this past fortnight and he will see areas he feels he has the personnel to punish Tyrone.

Can Tyrone allow Donegal, the masters of the running game, two extra players time and space to break from their defence? I don’t think so. The one aspect of this Donegal side where I feel they are unrivalled is their angles of off-the-shoulder running. They are more than happy to be patient in their build-up play and an excess of defenders in their forward line will not faze them. 

They are happy to switch play from one side to the other and draw numbers from the opposition defence around the ball until the time is right for a perfectly timed run and pass to split the defence wide open to create a goal chance.

Odhrán Mac Niallais’ second goal against Fermanagh was a perfect case in point, where the direct running of Marty O’Reilly and Frank McGlynn cut through the Fermanagh rearguard to create the simplest of goal chances.

My hope for this weekend is that it does not become overrun by tactics. Both sides possess some of the finest footballers in the country, players who thrive on the big stage. The biggest influences on either side and how their gameplan is implemented are Ryan McHugh and Mattie Donnelly. So much of the good each team displays goes through these men. They perfectly suit their brand of football. Rarely will you see them make a mistake, they always have time on the ball, they’re almost impossible to keep quiet for 70 minutes. Their level of input on Sunday will have a huge bearing on the final result.

Since 2010, Donegal have held the upper hand in these Championship encounters. Tyrone have to be the hungrier side given the recent history and the fact it’s been six years since they last tasted Ulster success.

Donegal want to win, Tyrone need to win and, for that reason, I expect them to narrowly get over the line in what will hopefully be a fitting finale to the 2016 Ulster Championship.

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The Championship