Donegal bounce back from slow start to reign in the rain against Tyrone
Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Donegal 1-13 Tyrone 1-11
THERE were more spills than thrills on a dirty dog of a day in Ballybofey that, in terms of the awful conditions and spirit-sucking emptiness at least, felt much more like a McKenna Cup game than this year’s most hotly-anticipated Ulster Championship encounter.
Yet what Donegal and Tyrone served up was just as engrossing and weirdly entertaining as you would expect from this pair. Maybe you had to be there.
And for the men from Tir Chonaill, winning – ugly or otherwise – was all that mattered. You won’t see a delighted Declan Bonner tightly grabbing hold of anybody wearing a hint of green and yellow the next time the Tir Chonaill come up trumps in pre-season competition.
Or the joy on Hugh McFadden’s face as he burst from the square with the ball after rising highest among muddied bodies to grab hold of Frank Burns’s late free as Tyrone’s last chance disappeared off into the ether, referee Joe McQuillan’s whistle signalling the start of the longest of winters for the Red Hands.
The last time they came to MacCumhaill Park in Championship three summers ago, the place heaved on a glorious sun-drenched day, a late rally seeing Mickey Harte’s men over the line to banish the hosts in a de facto all-or-nothing All-Ireland quarter-final.
Like everything that happened prior to March this year it seems, that now feels like a lifetime ago.
Instead of the deserved acclaim of their own, the rain thumping down onto the corrugated roof of the stand sounded the only round of applause Donegal would receive for their endeavours. But, in a game of the finest margins, they deserve to be the ones looking ahead to a semi-final showdown with Armagh.
All the pre-match question marks over how the game would take shape from a tactical perspective were pretty much undone as the heavens opened, leaving a slippery marshland underfoot as the ball skidded out of players’ hands time and again.
In those conditions it was always going to be a day when a handful of big moments would decide everything, and so it proved.
Despite being left without Rory Brennan as a result of his failed appeal to the Disputes Resolution Authority on Saturday, it was Tyrone who got to the pitch of this unusual Championship occasion first.
They had a little help from the normally assured Shaun Patton early on, the Donegal goalkeeper’s radar temporarily askew as his third minute kick-out went straight to Darren McCurry.
The Edendork man isn’t one to look a gifthorse in the mouth as he slotted the Red Hands ahead, his free four minutes later doubling their lead as Donegal struggled to control the ball and get any semblance of a running game going.
With Brennan suspended and Padraig Hampsey on the bench, Harte opted to put Mattie Donnelly on Michael Murphy. As Hampsey has proved in previous duels, the key to marking Murphy is to force him back and Donnelly hinted at doing exactly that as he swept up the right 10 minutes in to fire over.
Unfortunately for Tyrone, that was pretty much the only moment of threat the Trillick man posed. And where Donegal have plenty of others to inflict damage outside of Murphy, the Trillick man’s raw pace and power was missed where it really matters.
A free from the excellent Ciaran Thompson settled Donegal’s nerves but when a Conor McKenna free and a Niall Morgan 45 edged them into a 0-5 to 0-1 lead at the first water break, it wasn’t looking good for Bonner’s boys.
But, as we have seen since the restart, the water break can not only break up the momentum of a winning team, it also gives coaches a vital window of time to change things up.
Within 11 minutes, a Michael Langan-inspired Donegal were two up.
Having operated around the middle previously, Langan pushed up to bag his side’s first point from play, and in the 24th minute he converted the Tir Chonaill’s only real goal chance.
Patton deserves huge credit as, after watching Darragh Canavan’s shot drift wide of the upright, his booming kick-out found Peadar Mogan in acres of space as the Red Hands attempted to regroup.
Mogan heard the shout from Langan on his left shoulder and, after receiving the ball on the run, he powered into the score before rattling the net.
Jamie Brennan scored his first of the day and all of a sudden it was Donegal winning turnovers and picking up the breaks that had been going against them, Thompson converting another free to leave it 1-5 to 0-6 at the break.
Veteran full-back Neil McGee, who had got to grips with Conor McKenna in the first half – a bit too much for Mickey Harte’s liking – was forced off with a knock at half-time, but Stephen McMenamin relished that particular battle on a day best suited to defenders of his ilk.
Having registered three wides in the opening stages, Tyrone were growing frustrated – but then came a cameo to savour from Championship debutant Canavan.
First he curled over after a gap appeared, and then scored the goal that put the Red Hands back into the lead, profiting from an Eoghan Ban Gallagher slip before shimmying around Patton and side-footing home. You’d swear you had seen it somewhere before.
Donegal held their nerve though, reeling off the next three points and throwing on Oisin Gallen to beef up their attack as this battle headed into the championship rounds. Tyrone, in contrast, replaced McCurry with Bradley, and later sent on Niall Sludden in place of Canavan as they chased the win.
Extra-time looked a distinct possibility as these old foes were tied at 1-11 apiece heading into the last 10. Control and calm was required, and it was the Ulster champions who moved up to the mark as the rain stepped up its assault.
Thompson nudged them ahead from a free, McKenna sent one wide from a similarly scoreable position. That can be the difference on the big days and Gallen curled over two minutes from the end of normal time following a patient build-up to push their lead out to two.
Tyrone tried, and tried, but nothing came off. It was just after 3pm and darkness was already settling, storm clouds roaming mercilessly overhead. It will take a long time for the Red Hands to shake but, for Donegal, their reign rumbles on.
Donegal: S Patton; S McMenamin, N McGee, E Ban Gallagher; R McHugh, P Brennan (0-1), K McKelvey; H McFadden, C McGonigle; C Thompson (0-7, 0-5 frees), N O'Donnell, M Langan (1-2); P Mogan, M Murphy, J Brennan (0-2). Subs: E McHugh for McKelvey (24), A McClean for N McGee (HT), O Gallen (0-1) for O’Donnell (43), P McGrath for P Brennan (54), J McGee for McGonigle (70)
Yellow cards: J McKelvey (20), J Brennan (23), M Murphy (25), P Brennan (35+2)
Tyrone: N Morgan (0-1, 45); L Rafferty, R McNamee, F Burns (0-1); T McCann, M O'Neill, M McKernan; B Kennedy, M Donnelly (0-1); K McGeary, C McKenna (0-1, free), C Meyler; D McCurry (0-3, 0-1 free), P Harte (0-1), D Canavan (1-1). Subs: M Bradley (0-2) for McCurry (49), R Donnelly for O’Neill (52), P Hampsey for Kennedy (57), N Sludden for Canavan (63)
Yellow card: C McKenna (20)
Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan)