Donegal host Tyrone with both sides aiming to secure League survival
Allianz Football League Division One, round six: Donegal v Tyrone (Ballybofey, 4pm Sunday, live on TG4)
WHEN England’s cricketers went to India a cough was always a risk. That’s the situation for GAA stars now, although it’s no laughing matter.
Never mind the increased concern about pulled muscles after the strangest, longest break in the National Leagues ever.
Players know they are running a risk simply by playing their games, with Covid-19 infection rates on the rise again.
Donegal and Tyrone may be neighbours, and provincial neighbours at that, but there is the cross-border element to this contest.
Normally that doesn’t matter much within the GAA, beyond occasionally stupid partitionist jibes by some from outside Ulster.
Now, though, there’s the unseen threat of coronavirus. Only covidiots/ fans of Covita Trump are blasé about it.
With all the changing, differing rules and regulations, declaring yourself ready to play is no simple choice.
A victory for either side would secure survival of the sporting sort, given Donegal’s far superior scoring difference to Mayo, with whom they somehow drew way back in round one.
The defeated team would still be safe if Mayo lose away to Galway, but if James Horan’s side triumph in Salthill then they could save themselves by also winning their last match – at home to Tyrone.
A loss for Donegal tomorrow might leave them needing to pick up a point or two in Kerry in round seven.
In normal circumstances Donegal should be very confident going into this game. Their campaign has been impressive, with big wins over Meath and Monaghan to add to that draw with Mayo, and only narrow – indeed one-point – defeats by Dublin and Galway.
Tyrone are actually above Donegal in the table but the Red Hands’ performances were much more up and down, rollercoaster style.
A solid start with a home win over Meath was followed by a loss in Monaghan.
An emotional, controversial victory over Kerry in Edendork lifted spirits – which then came crashing down to earth with a 19-point humiliation in Galway.
Mighty Dublin were defeated in Omagh on a rare ‘leap day’ but the seven-and-a-half months since mean it’s more difficult than it even would have been in mid-March to predict what level of performance this Tyrone team will produce.
The intensity of this Donegal-Tyrone rivalry has largely been ratcheted up recently in Championship more than League, with eight knockout meetings over the last decade, Donegal winning five, including last year’s Ulster SFC semi-final. Tyrone did win three in a row, though, including the crucial ‘Super Eights’ clash in Ballybofey in 2018 – and there’s another due on November 1.
There were only five League encounters in the 2010s, including the 2011 meeting in Healy Park which Donegal won by seven points, the only time the hosts haven’t prevailed.
Donegal are favoured to add to their Ballybofey wins of 2015 and 2017, even with the training troubles affecting their camp due to Covid.
Indeed the versatile Ryan McHugh, whose club Kilcar have had their county SFC Final against Naomh Conaill, Glenties, was making no excuses ahead of this showdown:
“We’re very fortunate that we got a good run with Kilcar so that kept us in good shape – myself, Paddy [McBrearty], Eoin [McHugh], boys like that, Andrew McClean – and there are three or four Naomh Conaill men as well.
“All those boys would have been in tip-top shape going into a final so they’re obviously going to be in great shape for Donegal going forward.
“I can only speak for myself: I firmly believed, all throughout Covid, even during lockdown, that we were going to have football. I’ve always kept that mindset and I’ve always tried to keep my body in the best shape possible and be ready whenever it comes.”
Tyrone’s Allstar full-forward Cathal McShane apparently ruled himself out for the rest of this year back in August due to the ankle injury he sustained in that thrashing by the Tribesemen.
On the upside, Conor McKenna has been training with Mickey Harte’s men since his return from the AFL and could offer something different for the visitors.
However, although there are always imponderables surrounding the permutations in the closing rounds of the league, even in the best of times, amidst all the uncertainty Donegal are taken to prevail.