The first hurdle has been cleared by Donegal and as was widely expected beforehand, Tyrone presented a huge challenge and pushed the home side all the way to the final whistle. The league encounter seven weeks ago left a false impression of Mickey Harte’s team – yesterday was a more accurate reflection of their qualities.
It was a big day for Rory Gallagher. His tenure as manager started well with good performances in the league and some tweaks to the system being implemented to good effect. Still though, it is all about Championship so he needed to get a win under his belt and he duly delivered.
A blistering start certainly helped with four excellent scores registered inside nine minutes. The opener came from Frank McGlynn, who was immense throughout. As well as getting on the score board himself he set up numerous others and his pass to tee up Martin McElhinney for his first point of a 1-2 tally was nothing short of audacious.
The visitors fought their way back into the game and turned a four point deficit into a two point lead. Aided and abetted by Darren McCurry’s goal, they moved up through the gears and caused the Donegal back line numerous problems with their strong direct running; Peter Harte particularly good in this regard.
While all this was going on, the crowd at MacCumhaill Park were more taken by the battle, or maybe staring match would be more descriptive, going on between Michael Murphy and Justin McMahon. Wherever Murphy went, McMahon was never more than a nose away. Every run was blocked, every jink obstructed and at one stage McMahon even gave Murphy a pat on his backside – this was up close and personal man marking like we’d never seen before. You wouldn’t have blamed Michael if he checked outside his front door in Glenswilly last night just to make sure the big man from Omagh hadn’t followed him home.
Despite the vexation amongst the Donegal support and the borderline nature of the intimidation, you have to begrudgingly admire McMahon’s concentration, discipline and doggedness to stick to his task. It is an extremely difficult thing to do on a football field, to completely ignore the ball and all that is happening around you. Michael deserves huge credit too as it would have been very easy to simply lash out in frustration but he kept his cool and bided his time before making a match winning contribution.
With the sides deadlocked entering the final act, Michael stepped up and landed the game’s final three points to seal the win. The last of this trio, an incredible 45 from the wrong side of the field for a right footed kicker, was a thing of beauty.
Even aside from his late flourish, Michael played a big part in the game’s vital score, McElhinney’s goal. Moments before, Rory gave the signal for Murphy to move into the square and such was McMahon and the rest of the Tyrone defence’s preoccupation with the Donegal captain, they left Odhran MacNiallais totally unmarked in front of goal. A great save from Tyrone debutant Mickey O’Neill followed but man of the match McElhinney was on hand to drill the loose ball to the corner of the net.
One more score was to follow before the short whistle with the evergreen Colm McFadden slotting over to secure a two-point lead. McFadden was asked to play a deeper role than usual yesterday and he did it wonderfully well. We had seen glimpses of this during the league but it was a surprise to see him undertake such a specialised duty in a big game. It worked and Rory deserves credit for making the call. It meant that Patrick McBrearty often played the lone target man and while he didn’t see as much ball as he would have liked, whenever it did come his way he made it count.
Tyrone, while putting up what Rory described as a massive performance, are obviously short a few players in order to be able to challenge for honours like they were able to a few years ago. This was highlighted with the inclusion of Cathal McShane and Ruairí Brennan from the start. Both had played starring roles in their county’s U21 All Ireland triumph at the start of the month but making the step up to senior is a different story.
McShane had featured in some of the league ties but he was thrown in at the deep end being pitted against a three-time All Star in the shape of Neil McGee and the Gaoth Dobhair man simply gobbled him up. There may have been more than a hint of relief for McShane when he saw his number come up on the board to indicate he was being withdrawn shortly after half-time.
The second half became more of an arm wrestle than the first, scores were at a premium and less risks taken by the teams. Another goal from either team would have been a huge score in that environment and Paul Durcan came up with a big save towards the end with the ball bobbling around the square in front of him. Durcan’s kick outs were solid throughout as well and it was an important day for the Four Masters net minder after his last Championship outing in September ended in such disappointment.
The bear pit that is Ulster football meant that yesterday was about winning and nothing else. It was encouraging though that the team put in an excellent display even without some lads playing to potential. Ryan McHugh and Paddy McGrath on the left side of the defence had relatively quiet games as did Martin O’Reilly and the elder McHugh, Mark, when he was introduced.
So there’s plenty more in the team and in watching the substitutes warming up under the stand yesterday it shows the strength in the panel – Anthony Thompson was only introduced in the closing minutes while didn’t Hugh McFadden or Darach O'Connor didn’t see any action.
Donegal are in a good place right now. Rory is up and running as a Championship boss and most of his teams’ key men are in good form. Karl Lacey was outstanding, Christy Toye is aging like a fine wine while Neil Gallagher’s fetching is still one the game’s great sights.
It doesn’t get any easier with a trip to the Athletic Grounds in Armagh next up in four weeks but such is the nature of Ulster’s showpiece competition. It is as tough as it gets and it makes our recent record all the more impressive. Not since 2010 have Donegal been beaten in the Championship at Ballybofey and that day against Down was also the last time the team lost an opening round match in the province. The proud record of only losing one match in Ulster in four years will be severely tested by the Orchard men on June 14th.