Allianz National Football League Division One: Donegal v Tyrone (tonight, Ballybofey, 7.30pm – live on RTE2)
IT was a brutal gale that Donegal struggled with against Kerry last weekend, and an ill wind has continued to blow ahead of tonight’s crucial Division One date with All-Ireland champions Tyrone in Ballybofey.
Storm clouds started to gather when the Tir Chonaill looked lost in wet and wild Killarney. Trailing by seven at half-time, but with the benefit of a huge breeze blowing in off the Atlantic, bridging that gap wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
Yet the Donegal players appeared unsure how to make the elements work to their advantage. In the continued absence of a Michael Murphy figure, towering midfielder Jason McGee was stationed on the edge of the square.
Intent had been signalled, yet the ball barely went near him as Donegal reverted to type by retaining possession and offering very little penetration. The Kingdom won the second half by two en route to a 1-13 to 0-7 victory, while the Tir Chonaill came back up the road with some familiar criticisms eking their way out of the woodwork.
Former player Anton Carroll, a 1972 Ulster title winner, was so frustrated he sent an email to Donegal Live, describing the performance against Kerry as “unquestionably inept”, and bemoaning what he saw as “no sensible, coherent game-plan in the second half”.
“There was no convincing plan,” he added, “and there hasn’t been one for a long time.”
The extreme conditions are a considerable mitigating factor when analysing where it went wrong for Donegal at Fitzgerald Stadium, but the nature of the performance - and the perceived lack of a plan B - raised questions that have persisted particularly since Donegal’s shock 2020 Ulster final defeat to Cavan.
There were similar mutterings of discontent after the first round of games when Donegal failed to score in the final 20 minutes against Mayo, allowing James Horan’s men to snatch a draw when they should have been kept at arm’s length.
That is why, in terms of public opinion, there is much more riding on tonight’s clash for Declan Bonner than his Tyrone counterparts, Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher.
That Donegal haven’t lost at Ballybofey in the National League since being turned over by Down in 2010 shows how formidable they are at Pairc MacCumhaill. On days like this, though, that record can also become a burden. Lose it against Tyrone, of all the opponents, and suddenly the pressure cranks up just that little bit more.
As things stand, these familiar foes occupy the middle ground in Division One. The outcome of tonight’s game will change the landscape for both heading into the final three games of the League campaign.
Bonner has been around the block enough times not to get caught up in outside talk. Instead his concerns lie closer to home, and the likely absence of some key personnel for the visit of the Red Hands.
The influential Michael Langan did not travel to Killarney last weekend and isn’t expected to play tonight, while a broken hand sustained against Kildare three weeks ago looks to have ended Caolan McGonagle’s League campaign.
Indeed, Bonner has even suggested the towering Buncrana midfielder could face a race against time to line out against Armagh in the Ulster Championship on April 24.
Nippy forward Jamie Brennan remains a few weeks away from fitness, tonight is expected to come too soon for veteran full-back Neil McGee while Tony McClenaghan has been added to the injury list.
And then there’s Murphy. The Glenswilly colossus picked up a hamstring injury against Kildare and didn’t feature in the Kerry defeat, with Bonner saying he wouldn’t be rushing the Donegal talisman back onto the field - but this is Donegal-Tyrone. It may be the League, and it may only be February, but it would be a surprise if he doesn’t play some part.
And while the Tir Chonaill count the cost of their absentees, Logan and Dooher welcome back key quartet Padraig Hampsey, Michael McKernan, Peter Harte and player of the year Kieran McGeary from suspension.
Despite being under strength, and struggling at times to contain Kildare’s forwards amid difficult conditions in Omagh, the Red Hands are beginning to click into gear after a stuttering start to 2022.
Although still without Ronan McNamee, and possibly Mattie Donnelly due to a shoulder injury, they would love nothing more than to properly kick-start their campaign by ending Donegal’s 12-year unbeaten record.
A draw would be no surprise, but a gradually improving Tyrone might just compound the Tir Chonaill’s issues to leave them looking over their shoulders heading down the stretch in Division One.