Tyrone's new duo set off down the path Bonner has walked
Allianz Football League Division One North: Tyrone v Donegal (today, 5pm, Healy Park, live on TG4)
IT’S a brand new era today. That much we know. What’s unknown is whether the changed face of Tyrone football from this day forth will find its way to smile again.
Mickey Harte’s 18-year reign unleashed the full gambit of emotions on a people that had never known his success before him, yet became so accustomed to it with him that they heaved for change when they could no longer see it in him.
The cascading stand in Healy Park will be empty tomorrow barring a few subs. They will make their judgements on Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher from the living rooms from which they’ll hardly need coaxed when fans are finally allowed back.
First impressions count.
There must have been at the very least an upcurved eyebrow and a half-smirk on the face of Harte when the Tyrone team for today was announced.
Of the 19 players used in blowy Ballybofey, only Tiernan McCann is not in tomorrow’s 26, which is also missing Cathal McShane as yet.
It’s ten of the same starting fifteen from last year, plus Padraig Hampsey and Richie Donnelly, who would presumably have been in were it not for injuries.
Paul Donaghy, the star of Dungannon’s 2020 success now making his senior inter-county debut, is the only man Donegal won’t know all about.
If the world was expecting wholesale changes in personnel, disappointment was always likely to come their way.
Yet there is intrigue in how Logan and Dooher have lined them out on paper.
Hampsey named as captain for the year and placed in a strong full-back line that has been a running issue. Peter Harte at six. Frank Burns and Brian Kennedy in midfield. Donaghy at wing-forward and Mattie Donnelly at 11.
It feels different and yet it feels very believable, as though Tyrone might actually line out something close to how we’re being told they’ll play.
The bench is loaded with Mark Bradley, Lee Brennan, Darragh Canavan, Darren McCurry and Niall Sludden, with starting nods in attack going to Kieran McGeary and Conor Meyler.
That suggests a realism around the idea of loading every inside forward they have into the team somewhere, and to hell with defending.
The mystery is not in who is different, but what is different.
Comfortable victories over defensive Down and Fermanagh sides in challenge games were reportedly underpinned by a faster version of the counter-attacking game, one that involved keeping bodies up the pitch and moving the ball with the boot.
Of Donegal and Tyrone’s 14 league and championship meetings of the last decade, just two have been in Omagh. Those were league games in 2013 and ’18, and Tyrone won both.
Donegal have deep-fried their neighbours six times in Ballybofey but lost the big one in the Super 8s.
They’ve won two from four in Clones and their Breffni Park meeting, but lost the big one in the 2016 Ulster final.
Those two results are central to the narrative that the current Donegal side does not do the really big games all that well.
Declan Bonner has been largely insulated from the strength of criticism that others might have faced.
His is a regime that began with back-to-back Ulster titles and fell short of a treble in that jaw-dropping defeat by Cavan last winter.
He has overseen a change of emphasis towards a far more enterprising and entertaining style.
That has brought success of a certain degree, but this is year four. It feels like the time has come for a latter-stage championship victory of some significance, or it could be a winter of questions in Donegal.
Chat was brought back to the Cavan game in a press conference during the week, when Paul Brennan was asked from the floor about last year’s Ulster final.
Bonner interjected: “Can we move away from the talk about Cavan? We have moved away from that and we’re moving into what we are doing.”
It was a reminder of how little they need, or want, reminding.
His team is as yet unnamed but Tyrone will have largely the same set of questions to answer as they’ve failed to in the last two seasons.
For all that eyes will fall upon how the hosts’ attack functions and whether they have the defensive capabilities to open up, Donegal will still feel they’ll win this game in midfield.
Bonner has walked the road that Logan and Dooher are starting down. Like Padraic Joyce in Galway, or Peter Keane meeting them trying to go the other way in Kerry, Tyrone’s new management will find that it’s more of a bumpy lane than a smooth road.
The long-term project is to transform not just the perception of Tyrone football, but the reality.