“Everything that happens to you in your life helps make you what you are today. Your past is your future.”
They were words uttered by Jim McGuinness last August – not that long ago but the thought process behind it seemed to have been lost in many people’s eyes in the build up to yesterdays totemic clash. Tyrone were the new kids on the block, the heir apparent to Donegal’s Ulster throne, primed for a raid on Ballybofey after an impressive league campaign and armed with an exciting array of new talent in their squad. One problem though – the recent past shows that Donegal are the best team in the country and after this display the future looks like mirroring that.
The Ulster Council’s decision to stage the game at MacCumhaill Park was rewarded with a feverish atmosphere and there’s a lot to be said in general for GAA matches being played in smaller venues with packed crowds. The old venue hadn’t seen a day like this in quite a while, probably going back to the Armagh game in 2007. The length of the traffic tailback approaching Stranorlar from the Letterkenny side has always been a good barometer over the years of the importance attached to a game. You’d always get a clear run in for McKenna cup games in January and even a league game wouldn’t be too bad as you were entranced by the sight of the giant floodlights in the distance. Yesterday though was blockbuster time, even before the minor game had thrown in there was a half a mile tailback approaching the T-junction before the twin towns and cars lining the road well before MacCumhaill Park came into view. It wasn’t quite knockout football but neither team could contemplate defeat.
Last year Mickey Harte felt his team weren’t good enough to take Donegal on and win, that was evident before throw in when Ryan McMenamin went straight to the edge of the square to take station as a sweeper (in his newspaper column last week he described his role that day as a defensive sweeper and at no time was he to push forward). This time around neither team played with an out and out sweeper to begin with, instead taking each other on in a deep lying counter attacking game of strategy.
As expected it was blood and thunder stuff from the outset, the ferocity of the shouldering on view was fantastic to see, none more so than the shuddering impact Stephen O'Neill felt when trying to level Neil McGee. The Tyrone sharp-shooter got a good run at McGee as he was about to lay off a hand pass and hit him with all he could muster but he just bounced off Donegal's full-back, who barely flinched.
Paddy McGrath was another who was flying into tackles and put his body on the line time and again. Paddy is a bit of an unsung hero on this team, going about his work in an unfussy manner; he was again magnificent yesterday, both in his defensive duties and in carrying the ball forward.
Tyrone took a while to find their feet but when they did they bossed the middle third and the hosts found primary possession hard to come by. In the last ten minutes or so of the opening half, Michael Murphy came out from his full forward position to try to stop the Red Hand momentum and it immediately paid dividends. With his team struggling to win possession, the captain steadied the ship and his positioning out the field proved even more advantageous as his long free into Paddy McBrearty led to Colm McFadden finding the net.
It wasn’t until the final league game that we saw signs of last year’s form coming back to McFadden but he led the line well yesterday in a composed display. He was outshone though by Kilcar’s McBrearty who brought real form into this game on the back of his U21 and club exploits and he had a huge bearing on the outcome. His neat touch down to McFadden was the mark of a class player and he showed his speed and skill to set up Ross Wherity for the second major later in the game.
The Donegal side-line was a busy place all afternoon; Rory Gallagher seems to put in as much running as the players on days like this with constant instructions being relayed to the troops. After everyone’s pre-match suspicions over the non-availability of Mark McHugh and Karl Lacey from the start were confirmed, Frank McGlynn was next to go and the strength of the panel was going to have its severest test. Many have questioned the quality in reserve but yesterday was hugely encouraging in that regard with Wherity, Martin McElhinney and Marty Reilly all making their mark when introduced while Lacey’s replacement Declan Walsh had a super game.
As always with McGuinness’ Donegal, the psychology of the game was vital. While it was widely anticipated that neither Lacey nor McHugh would start, the challenge was knowing when to introduce them. Lacey was warming up pretty much once the ball was thrown in and when he finally took off his jumper to reveal his No 6 jersey, Niall Morgan was just about to address the ball before another free. The stand in MacCumhaill Park erupted on seeing the Footballer of the Year and Morgan again fluffed his lines.
The Edendork youngster had a torrid afternoon. Hailed as the key difference as to why Tyrone had made up sufficient ground on Donegal after suffering two straight Ulster Championship defeats, he converted only one placed ball from six attempts and with every wide more confidence was drained out of the entire Red Hand team. Morgan didn’t help himself with his antics to the crowd after his sole score; no doubt he’s a confident young lad but he rubbed many of the home support up the wrong way and by the end of the game jubilant Donegal supporters took delight in ushering him forward to take the kicks; by the end he just stayed put.
Donegal felt they could put him under pressure and as with Enda Varley in last year’s decider there were blockers in front of the place kicker with Murphy running off to the side in his eye-line on one occasion just as the kick was to be struck.
The key moment of proceedings was the second goal and it made it a magical day for Ross Wherity. The Eunans man got quite a bit of game time in the national league and looked a good prospect for nailing a place as a key panel member. He missed a hatful of goal chances during that Division One campaign but he certainly picked his moment yesterday, finding the net with a deft touch from McBrearty’s cross.
The stats show Tyrone had plenty of chances, a lot of them ending in wides, but as with both the previous games in 2011 and 2012 many of these were kicked under pressure and weren’t gimmies by any manner of means. Donegal’s pressure cooker defence got to boiling point in the second half, keeping their opponents scoreless for thirty-two minutes.
While the visitors had bossed the midfield battle for a large part of the first half, they struggled there in the second and despite often having a free man on his own kick-outs Morgan continued to go long.
Morgan and many of his team-mates wilted under the strain placed on them in the second half; the Donnellys, Mark and Matthew, had impressive league campaigns but neither were able to stamp their authority on the game aside from that middle period in the opening half.
Even seasoned campaigners like Sean Cavanagh found the going tough and Tyrone lost all discipline and focus in the last quarter. Cavanagh was superbly marshalled by Eamon McGee for the seventy minutes as the Gaoth Dobhair man kept up his excellent form from the autumn. He was constantly in the Moy man’s ear as the verbals from both sets of players continued throughout the game.
Every free that was won, every kick missed, every score was re-inforced by letting the other side know what had just happened – it’s a side of the game these days that many don’t like but it just conveyed the ferocious intensity between both sets of players. It might not look like it at times but there does seem to be a genuine respect between the teams; Tyrone are the benchmark for Donegal, they won three All-Irelands and are quite rightly regarded as one of the great teams. That is the target for Donegal under McGuinness – greatness.
It was a procession for the home side late on with ‘Championes’ and ‘Jimmy's Winning Matches’ both getting renditions from the boisterous crowd by the banks of the Finn. It was a performance of character by Donegal yesterday, a real statement of intent.
Tyrone received most pundits’ nod for this game in what appeared a changing of the guard type prediction; this Donegal side though are relatively fresh, only entering their third campaign under McGuinness. He obviously feels there’s more to come from them and that he can find more in his players. Rory Kavanagh, another who had a fine game yesterday, spoke recently of not having played much football in his career to date. Even at 30, one of the elder statesmen of the panel, he believes there’s plenty more in him.
These are a hungry bunch of lads with a manager who can extract every last ounce of desire and ability in them; he can get the best out of them and he can get something out of them that they might not even know is there within themselves.
Analysts are using conventional wisdom to view this Donegal side but the last two years have shown us that Jim is anything but conventional – he’s a unique and special talent on the side-line.
A team with poor league form like Donegal’s against a team with hugely impressive form shouldn’t win so comprehensively – but they did. A team coming off a humiliating qualifier defeat in Crossmaglen shouldn’t win the All-Ireland two years later – but they did. Back to back All-Irelands are virtually impossible in the modern era so it shouldn’t happen – but it might.
Can Donegal break the mould? We’ll have to wait and see. If a team does beat us this year they will certainly have earned it and right now we remain the team to beat. Derry or Down will be next to try in four weeks time.