Kevin Madden: Darragh Canavan challenging Shane McGuigan for title of Ulster's finest forward

Darragh Canavan once again showed his class in Tyrone's win over Donegal on Saturday
Darragh Canavan once again showed his class in Tyrone's win over Donegal on Saturday Darragh Canavan once again showed his class in Tyrone's win over Donegal on Saturday

WHEN Donegal met Tyrone in the Allianz Football League back in February, eight points was the winning margin.

The gulf between the two teams in the All-Ireland SFC preliminary quarter-final on Saturday night mirrored that as the Red Hands looked superior all over the pitch.

They were very tigerish in the tackle as they hunted in packs to force turnovers and hurt Donegal on the counter-attack.

Conor Meyler once again underpinned his importance to this Tyrone team as he brilliantly tagged Eoghan Ban Gallagher.

At midfield, Brian Kennedy and Con Kilpatrick were a powerful duo, both of them landing big scores.

In attack, Donegal were very reliant on the impressive Oisin Gallen, whereas Tyrone had the two Cavanans, Darren McCurry and Mattie Donnelly all causing bother.

Darragh Canavan, in particular, is just unmarkable at the minute, and his fifth point where he cut in from the sideline onto his left foot was a thing of real beauty. Himself and Shane McGuigan have been the two stand-out forwards in Ulster this year, and both must be very close to nailing down Allstars, especially if they continue their form into the next game.

Donegal could never afford for it to go to a four- or five-point game, so a good start was always going to be crucial for them. There are some things that the gameplan can’t legislate for and a basic handling error from your usually reliable goalkeeper, Shaun Patton, is one of them.

Meanwhile, what else is left to be said about Monaghan at this stage? The old dog for the hard road and then some.

Three down with half-an-hour to go, they outscored Kildare by six points to two to clinch victory from the jaws of defeat and progress to the last eight yet again.

The Lillywhites had their chances to send Monaghan packing and they will certainly rue the goal chance that rocketed off the bar from Darragh Kirwan, with the follow-up blasted wide by Daniel Flynn. When you don’t put them away, more often than not,

Monaghan will grind it out.

What a score it was from Conor McCarthy with the last kick of the game to seal victory but the moment that summed them up best was the crucial break ball won by Karl O’Connell that led to the last play.

If yesterday’s first game at Croke Park was a shop window for the Tailteann Cup it would have sold very well.

In truth this was a really entertaining game that Antrim could and perhaps should have won. A really poor 11 minutes just after half-time, where they were outscored 1-5 to 0-1, shifted the momentum massively and put Meath in the driving seat.

At seven points down you could have been forgiven for thinking it would end up a hammering but this Antrim team under Andy McEntee have a great fighting spirit.

A point up at half-time was actually a disappointing situation for the Saffrons given how dominant they were before the interval. They had 21 scoring chances but only took eight whereas Meath were slightly more efficient at seven from 15.

The big turning point in the game was the withdrawal of Antrim full-back Peter Healy after he sustained a heavy knock.

This robbed the Saffrons of their best man-marker and a player of great experience. With Healy off, it was no coincidence Meath’s Matthew Costello, who he was man-marking, ended up man of the match.

If Healy remains on the pitch, Antrim win. The Saffrons were very loose in their marking at times after he went off and slow at shutting down the loops for shots around the ‘D’, an area where Meath kicked a lot of scores.

I was really impressed with Antrim’s running game and in particular Marc Jordan’s driving runs. But what was both refreshing and rewarding to see was their instinct to kick the ball long into Ruairi McCann as the big Aghagallon man wreaked havoc.

The style of refereeing was very much if you carry into the tackle you are unlikely to get a free. This cost Antrim badly and they perhaps didn’t adapt well enough.

Both Meath goals came from situations where Antrim got caught badly in contact. In fairness, I thought Jordan was fouled on the first one.

I also felt Dermot McAleese, very prominent in the Antrim comeback, was uprooted from behind on another occasion which should have been a free. Instead, he was blown up for overcarrying and Meath went up the field and got a handy enough free themselves.

After a horrendous start to the second half, remarkably the Saffrons had the winning of the game back in their hands.

After Paddy McBride palmed his goal to the net, a great steal by Adam Loughran on the kick-out had him bearing down on goal with McCann and Jordan wide open off to his left.

The talented Antrim forward got caught in two minds between passing and going himself. As a result he miscontrolled his solo.

If the first game was tense and exciting, the sequel was anything but.

We certainly can’t fault Down for that, though, as they dismantled Laois in devastating fashion. This was a mismatch of pace, power, and ruthless finishing, particularly from Liam Kerr who bagged himself at hat-trick.

A real thirst and intent to work the goal chance when it’s on is very evident in Down and clearly something Conor Laverty has instilled in his team.

When the last goal went in from Danny Magill the Down manager was still demanding more from his troops.

The Taitleann Cup final should be a cracker and no doubt it will revive a few memories from a golden era of football for both Down and Meath.

With four teams also in the draw for the All-Ireland quarter-finals, there is no arguing Ulster is still the most competitive province by some distance.