Donegal bury bad memories of last summer to slay Tyrone in All-Ireland opener

All-Ireland SFC Group Three: Donegal 0-21 Tyrone 0-14

Jason McGee rises for the ball during Donegal's All-Ireland round robin victory over Tyrone in Ballybofey on Saturday night. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Jason McGee rises for the ball during Donegal's All-Ireland round robin victory over Tyrone in Ballybofey on Saturday night. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

IT was right here, at Pairc MacCumhaill, where Donegal’s annus horribilis came to an underwhelming end last year. That they exited to the old enemy Tyrone served only to toss further salt into open wounds.

Ruairi Canavan got the early goal that started the rot. Darragh Canavan jinked and skipped around like he owned the place; the fortress well and truly fallen as arrows continued to rain down.

Tyrone were no great shakes last year but they waltzed away eight point winners. Fast forward 11 months and Tyrone, still a work in progress, left Ballybofey empty-handed on Saturday night after a second half show of strength saw Donegal ease to a seven point victory.

The Canavans were barely allowed space to breathe, never mind run amok in the manner they once had. Both were held scoreless from play, with Ruairi replaced after a frustrating first half.

Darren McCurry was Tyrone’s one beacon of light but it quickly dimmed before he was swapped out for Cathal McShane. He too, though, was blotted out as Donegal’s defensive discipline provided the most solid of foundations again.

Between the four of them, they managed two scores from play.

Since Cork scored two goals on the opening day of the National League, the Tir Chonaill have conceded just three more in the 11 games since – and none at all as they swept to the Ulster title. It is some platform upon which to build.

And, just as it did during Jim McGuinness’s first spell, that brings the confidence to play the game on your terms.

Yet there were a few worries floating around before this one, at least among the Donegal faithful. Would they be flat after a gruelling provincial campaign? Having already faced Tyrone, only coming out of their Ulster semi-final after extra-time, would the extra motivation lie with the Red Hands?

Cynics pointed to Derry’s first day out in the All-Ireland series last year, the Oak Leafs only managing a draw against a Monaghan side they had blitzed four weeks earlier. It all proved utterly irrelevant as, just like in that added 20 minutes at Celtic Park a month ago, Donegal’s superior fitness gave them the edge the longer the game wore on.

Eoghan Ban Gallagher’s introduction from the start, in place of Mark Curran, was inspired as he ran the show early on, finding gaps amid the congestion as Donegal recovered from a sluggish start to edge their noses in front with four in-a-row through Jason McGee, Ciaran Thompson, Oisin Gallen and Peadar Mogan.

Yet the St Naul’s dynamo was finding McCurry hard to handle at the other end, the 2021 Allstar carrying the fight to Donegal with a little help from the dancing feet of Darragh Canavan.

But it didn’t quite feel sustainable. At no point did Tyrone ever really muster the kind of momentum that suggested they were ready to take the game by the scruff.

Brilliant catches by Niall Morgan in either half could have provided the impetus they so badly needed, except on both occasions Joe McQuillan ruled against the Red Hands – giving a free against Morgan for lifting the ball off the ground for the first, then pulling play back for a foul on Ciaran Thompson in the second instance.

But we’re clutching at straws here; in simple terms, Donegal had their number.

In the Ulster semi Mattie Donnelly set the tone as Tyrone dominated most of normal time, a three-point lead at one stage offering a huge opportunity to spoil the Tir Chonaill party.

Donnelly, though, wasn’t allowed to be anywhere near as influential. After the eighth minute on Saturday night, Tyrone – despite narrowing the gap to the minimum at half-time - would not lead again.

For all their underage success in recent years, there is still so much of a gap to bridge between the All-Ireland winning side of three years ago; the current mix of tried and untested not quite at the same level physically, or when nailing down the matters most.

This was best evidenced in the last 10 minutes. Trailing by four, Morgan came out the field and arrowed a perfect pass into Cormac Quinn. Instead of taking a handy enough mark, however, the substitute bounded towards goal before skewing a harmless shot horribly wide of the post.

A minute later, fellow sub Joe Oguz bounded up the field but dropped his shot into the arms of Shaun Patton. With the game running away, and the Red Hands running out of steam, these were the moments Tyrone had no choice but to seize upon - and they didn’t.

If those two efforts go over, it’s a one-point game heading towards the last. From there, who knows? Instead, Donegal kept their cool, with Mogan the man to bury any hopes of a comeback in emphatic fashion.

Playing a bit of keep-ball around the middle, Donegal advanced slowly, Patton finding himself stationed just over the halfway point before getting the shout from Mogan on his right. Within seconds he had left four Tyrone players grasping at thin air before blazing over.

Ryan McHugh had grown in influence as the second half wore on, skipping away from weary challenges before turning matador in the closing moments, slowing the game down and drawing sub Lorcan McGarrity in his direction before turning on the afterburners and bombing upfield – Shane O’Donnell supplying the finishing touch.

Welcomed onto the field as Ulster champions, Donegal left it with their All-Ireland credentials further enhanced. With their next game against Cork in Pairc Ui Chaomh on Saturday, the players were ushered off the field and away from the masses before being whisked to Convoy for a recovery session.

The Ulster final celebrations have long ended, goals readjusted and focus renewed. Donegal will take a bit of stopping.

Donegal: S Patton; E Ban Gallagher (0-1), B McCole; C McGonagle, C Moore, R McHugh (0-1), P Mogan (0-3); J McGee (0-2), M Langan (0-1), Ciaran Thompson (0-2); S O’Donnell (0-1), D Ó Baoill, N O’Donnell; P McBrearty (0-2, 0-1 free), O Gallen (0-7, 0-5 frees). Subs: O Doherty (0-1) for O Baoill (45), J Brennan for McBrearty (54), A Doherty for N O’Donnell (61), J Mac Ceallabhuí for Gallagher (66), D Mac Giolla Bhride for Gallen (68)

Tyrone: N Morgan (0-1, free); N Devlin (0-1), P Hampsey; M Donnelly (0-1); M McKernan, B Cullen, M O’Neill, K McGeary (0-3); B Kennedy, C Kilpatrick; C Daly, R Canavan, S O’Donnell (0-1); D McCurry (0-4, 0-2 frees), Darragh Canavan (0-3, frees). Subs: J Oguz for R Canavan (HT), C Quinn for B Cullen (HT), C McShane for McCurry (51), P Harte for Kilpatrick (58)

Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan).

Att: 16,607