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Danny Hughes: Heavyweight Donegal-Armagh Ulster SFC meeting will be fought out on the field and in the mind

Donegal's Eoin McHugh challenges Rian O'Neill (14) of Armagh during their Ulster SFC semi-final in November 2020.
Picture Margaret McLaughlin

THIS looks like the tightest Ulster Championship in a long time, with two heavyweights set to square off on Sunday in Ballybofey when Donegal play Armagh.

What camp would I rather be in approaching this weekend’s fixture?

Armagh have won their appeals and I believe League and Championship should be separate for the purposes of suspensions, so it’s right to me that they are available.

Declan Bonner may regret not appealing the suspensions of Neil McGee and Odhran McFadden-Ferry, but they were less impacted in the whole affair that it looked like Armagh were going to be.

Bonner may have thought that if they cannot beat Armagh without the missing players, then they have no business going for silverware in the first place.

Donegal have the benefit of that League win over Armagh but, in the greater scheme of things, this won’t impact the psychological aspect of the game.

Attitudes towards how much ‘mind games’, in all their forms, affect sporting performance can vary hugely.

A fair number of people simply don’t buy into the idea matches can be won or lost in the head.

I believe cognitive improvement in your approach to an event, in-game play and post-match analysis is a fundamental part of achieving optimal performance.

I have gone through enough good and bad experiences to understand that not enough work is done on an individual basis, despite all players now having access to sports psychologists within a wider squad.

One of the misconceptions is that the sports psychologist needs to have a degree in the field.

I believe the opposite. It could be an ex-player who has experienced the game, it could be manager who draws on their experiences, or it could be a team-mate.

It could also be an opponent if you happen to get an opportunity to discuss shared experiences with them socially.

The best players can also be self-taught and have an interest in  psychological improvement.

I would put Kieran McGeeney right up there with any top sports psychologist. His experiences as a player, his leadership qualities and his management credentials are all based on winning and losing – and both are necessary to provide context and improvement.

A deep thinker who is incredibly passionate, he has stuck with this panel of Armagh players for close to a decade and they are now in a position to genuinely compete for silverware.

Perhaps when these players have quit the inter-county game and have the benefit of sitting in my position, they may appreciate that management is a very difficult game compared to playing.

You can only influence so much.

You can only control so much.

The suspensions Armagh eventually successfully appealed had been a distraction these last few weeks and now that the players are clear to play this may change how Armagh line-up in Ballybofey.

One thing we do know is that Rian O’Neill is a key player for the Orchard and much will hinge on his performance, as well as Michael Murphy’s for Donegal.

However, and perhaps unfortunately, success is still measured by silverware and that’s how both Donegal and Armagh will be judged.

Armagh teams will be compared to 2002 and their decade of dominance while Donegal will be compared to 1992 and the team that won the All-Ireland in 2012 as well as a number of provincial titles.

The Orchard players have experienced enough and improved enough to not just think about but expect to deliver a title.

It goes back to a bit of psychology I have picked up in these last few years, something these Armagh players could well ask themselves.

‘If not now – when?

‘If not me – who?’

 

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FOR Tyrone, the most important thing about last weekend’s Ulster Championship opener against Fermanagh was to win it.

When they needed to step up their game, the introduction of Conor McKenna (left) and the Reds Hands collectively raising their level in the first 15 minutes of the second half made sure they would win it.

McKenna benefited from a free role, supporting the attack and putting in the kind of performance reminiscent of his first season as a Red Hand senior.

The only people who know why he isn’t a starter remain the player himself, management and the squad.

McKenna’s display against Fermanagh stated his case for a starting berth and it shows his strength of character and why he shouldn’t be overlooked from the start next time against Derry.

Others might sulk, moan to other players and be a negative influence within the squad, while some could decide to walk away altogether.

McKenna will be huge for Tyrone over the next decade so, by knuckling down, he has demonstrated his professionalism and the type of character you need as an inter-county footballer.

You might get away with having to play individuals who are perceived as being flaky at club level, perhaps because you have no other option. But, ultimately, a person’s ability to react to disappointments and pressure gives you an indication of their mentality.

Normally it is the best characters in this sense who will represent the county over a career, as opposed to the best players. Winning teams have both in abundance.

Tyrone have bigger tests ahead and Derry will love nothing more than to upset their momentum, but I would rather be in Tyrone’s position with a game under the belt and problems still to be ironed out.

Had the Red Hands performed perfectly against Fermanagh, the room for improvement could let in complacency, which is easy to pick up, difficult to identify and almost always fatal to sporting performance.

I think the turnover in the Tyrone squad between last season and this will help keep complacency at bay and there is enough quality all over the field to lift underperforming individuals should they have an off-day.

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