GAA Football

Tyrone star Rory Brennan braced for Donegal backlash in NFL opener

Stuck in the middle. Donegal's Paul Brennan, Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Michael Murphy attempt to stop Rory Brennan in his tracks at Ballybofey last season. Picture Margaret McLaughlin
Andy Watters

RORY Brennan expects an angry, wounded bunch of Donegal men to bare their teeth this weekend.

Their first outing since a shock Ulster final loss to Cavan brings Declan Bonner’s side to Omagh for Saturday’s NFL Division One North opener.

Tyrone defender Brennan anticipates a backlash from the north-west neighbours as they set about repairing broken pride and adding steel to fragile levels of resilience.

“They’ll be feeling hurt about the way the season finished for them, especially after putting us out in the first round, and then being pipped by a very good Cavan side that were deserving winners on the day,” he said.

“There probably will be that bit of a backlash, and they’ll be looking towards Saturday and the starting point for them to right the wrongs this year.

“It will be a massive game, both for them to kick-start their season, and for ourselves.”

It’s the latest in a series of Tyrone-Donegal ties that have become a regular occurrence in recent years, the majority of them staged at Ballybofey, including League and Championship clashes late last year.

This time a Red Hand side under new management will look to make the most of home advantage at Healy Park.

“Everybody knows what Ballybofey is like, it has proved to be a tough battle ground, and any time we get to play at home it’s a big advantage, and we’ll be trying to use that as best we can.

“They had those two games in quick succession against us and they definitely came up trumps.

“Ballybofey is a difficult place to go, so it’s nice to get them in our place for a change.”

Two of Ulster’s top sides approach this season opener from contrasting places.

While Donegal have a settled squad going into Declan Bonner’s fourth year as manager, the Red Hands will step into a new era, taking the field for the first time in 18 years without Mickey Harte on the sideline.

New bosses Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher go in at the deep end, straight into the serious business of League football without pre-season competition, and with just a few weeks to assemble a squad and develop a preferred and effective style of play.

“The core of that Donegal team has been building over this last couple of years, and ourselves, with the new management in, you could say that there’s new philosophies,” said Brennan.

“But from a management point of view it’s a clean slate, and you have 35 men there putting their hands up and competing for places.

“So there’s that competitive edge to get a jersey that will definitely fuel us and fuel the desire to perform, boys will be keen to impress.

“And that’s all we can do, and whatever 15 or 26 men are picked on the night will be trying to put their hand up for a place.”

An abbreviated League campaign will quickly lead in to a Championship series also curtailed by Covid pressures, the removal of the Qualifier rounds rendering it a straight knock-out series for the second year in a row.

Tyrone’s Ulster SFC clash with provincial champions Cavan makes July 10 the all-important date on the calendar, but they can’t afford to take their eye off the ball that’s in play.

Each NFL tie will require absolute focus as the new managers juggle the pieces in search of a formula that works.

“We’ll just take it one game at a time, one session at a time, and use every training session to the best of our ability and try to get things sorted,” Brennan said.

“It’s been a long lay-off for everyone, and you have to be positive about the fact that we’re playing football at all.

“So since going back out to training, we’re using every session as best we can.

“We’ll not look past the first round of the League against Donegal, and if we can get in there, get a good performance and build on that, try to build a bit of momentum in the following three league games as well, that will be good to carry that through and see where it takes us.”

Many of Tyrone’s players are familiar with the footballing ethos of Logan and Dooher, which helped them win an All-Ireland U21 title in 2015.

However, Brennan, who was part of that team, warned that previous associations will count for nothing.

A clean slate will offer equal opportunity to all in terms of inclusion in the squad and selection on the first fifteen.

“The senior group now, a lot of them have moved from that 2015 All-Ireland side, there’s a good core that has fed through from that.

“And a lot of the other boys, from the years after that, have experience with Brian and Feargal.

“We’re delighted to have them on board, most of us know them well, so it was an easier transition for us to move forward with.

“They have come in they have brought new ideas and it’s a fresh start. Everybody is starting from a level playing field, everyone has an opportunity make a claim for a starting place or a place in the squad.

“It has given players that wee bit of a push to impress and to push themselves to the next level and to get the best out of themselves.

“The competitiveness of Tyrone football generally, you couldn’t call a championship winner this past five or six years.

“Boys are not looking forward to the challenge, but we’re not looking past Saturday night to get that first game over us and move on from there.”

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