GAA Football

Tyrone will test Donegal's resolve in intriguing semi-final clash

Tyrone go into tomorrow's Ulster semi-final with Donegal as slight underdogs Picture: Philip Walsh

Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final: Tyrone v Donegal (tomorrow, Brewster Park, 1.45pm)


THIS is your classic 50-50 game. Is it ever anything else when Donegal and Tyrone meet? If we dealt in the abstract, Donegal win tomorrow’s Ulster semi-final on the basis that their game-plan is better than Tyrone’s.

It’ s better because the Donegal management and players have had a longer time to perfect it while Tyrone are still grappling with some new ideas being imparted by a new management team.

Dare it be uttered, but if Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin were still patrolling the Tyrone sidelines, a tightly packed defence, ability to win turnovers, electric pace and counter-attacking through the hands might be the most effective way to snare this Donegal team.

Of course, the whole thrust of the historic managerial change in Tyrone was to find another way of winning games. A more aesthetically pleasing way of doing it.

Undoubtedly and for obvious reasons, this year’s truncated NFL campaign has been a bigger drawback to Tyrone than Donegal.

As a result, Tyrone’s managerial duo Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher have probably had to microwave some of their ideas in Garvaghey over the last couple of months.

There have been encouraging signs, too, particularly in the first half of last week’s comfortable Championship win over Cavan and the impressive understanding between kicker and Darren McCurry.

So how did Tyrone and Donegal get here? Tyrone with the minimum of fuss against the Breffni men and Donegal labouring to a one-point victory over dark horses Derry.

How Derry lost last week’s encounter will niggle Rory Gallagher for the rest of 2021. They should have been 2-1 to no score up after six minutes, but weren’t, and they spurned further chances to put hosts Donegal away in the third quarter.

Afterwards, Declan Bonner understandably trumpeted Donegal’s resilient spirit rather than Derry kicking themselves out of it and felt his players had answered a few critics.

But did they really answer the critics?

In last year’s delayed provincial series, they looked like All-Ireland champions against Armagh and also-rans a couple of weeks later against Cavan.

It’s still hard to know what to make of this Donegal team. Are they boring? Or brilliant? Or both? Or somewhere in between?

Of course, Bonner and his backroom staff would settle for just being effective – and they are most days.

They are patient. They realise possession is now 10-tenths of the law in the modern game and they don’t mind going side to side for two or three minutes at a time.

At the start of last Sunday’s second half against Derry, they strung together 22 lateral passes, hoovering up 100 seconds of playing time in the process, which ended in Caolan McGonagle landing a great score – one of the few men who slipped Derry’s attentions.

Clearly, the Donegal players have incredible faith in this long, drawn-out process to nab a score. After all, the opposition can’t score if you monopolise possession.

They are expert at getting shooters in the right positions too – and the outer ring of the scoring zone is usually good enough for them too.

Take your pick from Niall O’Donnell, Ciaran Thompson, Ryan McHugh, Patrick McBrearty and Odhran MacNaillais and Michael Langan who are all unerringly accurate from 40 metres.

And is it not time the irrepressible Langan received the ultimate compliment of being shoulder-charged and bumped before throw-in - if only to give Michael Murphy a break - or have someone of the calibre of Padraig Hampsey saddle up to him in a Championship game?

He mightn’t dictate terms of engagement like Murphy does, but Langan’s ubiquitous influence over this Donegal team is growing by the game.

For Donegal, it’s all about the process – but they don’t have the insatiable appetite for Championship goals as Jim McGuinness’s teams.

The 2012 All-Ireland winning manager knew that goals in Championship games were worth more than three points; they administered untold psychological harm on the opposition.

Bonner’s team usually beat you by ‘death by a thousand cuts’ – or, in football parlance, 20 perfectly executed points.

They don’t bring the anarchy that McGuinness’s teams often brought.

But they do have a brilliant playmaker in Shaun Patton. While they passed and passed on the edges of Derry’s fortified backline last week, they showed just how switched on of a unit they are.

After Shane McGuigan fired over a free to put Derry 0-6 to 0-2 ahead, Patton immediately launched one of his missiles that landed into the arms of Ethan O’Donnell; he off-loaded to his namesake Niall who popped the ball over.

All it took was 12 seconds and two passes.

Of course, Niall Morgan at the other end of the field is no tactical slouch. He’s equally adept at being the attacking launch-pad and going long.

The two things Donegal will respect, if not fear, about Tyrone is their pace and intensity.

Apart from the middle of the field, where Tyrone have grown a couple of big men, the Red Hands are experienced and street-wise enough to win a sufficient number of turnovers and funnel enough correct ball to a forward line that could have Conor McKenna and Darren McCurry, with Cathal McShane likely to be held in reserve for the last 20 minutes when this semi-final is almost certainly expected to be still in the balance.

If it is, Tyrone just might have enough about them both in defence and attack to upset their rivals in what will be a cagey affair.

Key battle

Padraig Hampsey (Tyrone) v Michael Murphy (Donegal)

TWO who are well acquainted by now. For the first time in a couple of seasons, Hampsey looks bouncing fit and is likely to shadow Murphy again. It’s still unclear just how fit Murphy is, so the pair could be stationed closer to the square than in previous encounters.

Tactical take…


Donegal will occupy 65-70 percent possession and try to win the game as they always do by sucking the life out of the opposition and their careful shot selection. And while the men on the flanks will get chalk on their boots, Brewster Park isn’t as wide as Ballybofey, which means the Tyrone defence mightn’t be as strung out as Derry’s was up in Ballybofey.

It’ll be interesting to see if they drop a couple of bombs on top of Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty if only for an element of surprise.

Tactical take…


WHILE Tyrone have been keen to play a bit more direct this year, running the ball through the hands might be a better option to get around Donegal’s well-drilled defensive system. The Red Hands also have plenty of pace to hurt Donegal this way. Subs will also be crucial here. It’s understood Darragh Canavan isn’t fit but bringing Cathal McShane on against a tiring Donegal backline could swing it.

Build-up quotes…

“Brian and Feargal have come in and they are playing a bit more attacking. But game by game, you have to adjust to your opponents as well, so it’s just about tinkering with the systems and doing what we need to do to.” Tyrone defender Michael McKernan

“There were facets of our performance against Derry that were not up to the standard that we would like them to be.

“So, the management will go away and work on that and think of the things that we need to do better as we face into the Tyrone game.” - Donegal's Hugh McFadden


Joe McQuillan (Cavan)

Where to watch it…

BBC Two NI: The Championship ‘live’ 1.30pm

RTE Two: The Sunday Game ‘live’ 1.15pm

The line-ups (probable)…

Shaun Patton

Neil McGee Stephen McMenamin

Darren McCurry Conor McKenna

Hugh McFadden

Eoghan Ban Gallagher Paul Brennan Ryan McHugh

Conor Meyler Richie Donnelly Rory Brennan

Ciaran Thompson Caolan McGonagle Michael Langan

Mattie Donnelly Conn Kilpatrick Brian Kennedy

Jamie Brennan Niall O’Donnell Eoin McHugh

Peter Harte Kieran McGeary Niall Sludden

Frank Burns

Patrick McBrearty Michael Murphy

Ronan McNamee Padraig Hampsey

Niall Morgan


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