Donegal and Tyrone go head to head on Sunday next in St Tiernach’s Park in Clones in the second of the Ulster Senior championship semi-finals.
Derry are already in the final having caused something of an upset last Sunday in Clones in their 3-14 to 1-11 victory over pre-match favourites Armagh, who had already defeated last year’s All-Ireland finalists Down in the quarter-final.
Tyrone are the reigning champions and are bidding for a three-in-a-row of Ulster titles. But on the back of Donegal’s comfortable victory over the Red Hands earlier in the season in the National Football League and their good run to the Division Two title, the pendulum has swung in recent months to Jim McGuinness and his men.
Tyrone and Armagh have dominated Ulster over the last 12 seasons having won each of the last dozen Anglo Celt Cups, with five going to the O’Neill County and seven to the Orchard.
Derry were the last county to win a provincial title other than Tyrone or Armagh. That was in 1998 when they defeated Donegal with a last minute goal from Joe Brolly.
This week, Donegal have been boosted by the rescinding of Michael Murphy’s red card picked up on Sunday week last in their quarter final meeting with Cavan. Jim McGuinness has reported an almost clean bill of health with Frank McGlynn, who missed the quarter-final with a hamstring, on the mend and close to full fitness again.
Michael Hegarty had been also nursing an hamstring injury and Neil Gallagher, who had been struggling with a groin problem in the weeks leading up to the Cavan game, played club games at the weekend. Both, by all accountsm had fine games and came through with flying colours. Eamonn McGee also played a pivotal role at centre half back on Sunday for Gaoth Dobhair as they defeated Four Masters.
In Tyrone, much of the attention is on the McMahon brothers Justin and Joe. The St Enda’s Omagh players have missed much of the league season through injury. Joe suffered a broken jaw in a club game at the beginning of April while Justin was sidelined with a hamstring injury.
They both returned to club action the week before last but Justin was forced to retire early in the game with a recurrence of the injury.
Mickey Harte last week more or less ruled out his first choice No 3 from playing any part in the game. Justin played a full part in the club game and has got a further 60 minutes under his belt last week, but has been reported of showing all the signs of a man coming back from a lengthy lay-off. The experienced Enda McGinley has also been ruled out by Harte.
Given the twin aerial threat of Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden, the Tyrone boss will be anxious to give the versatile Justin McMahon every chance to prove his fitness as he will feel he will need is power and strength against the two Donegal danger men. Both Jim McGuinnes and Mickey Harte put their sides through their paces at weekend in preparation for Sunday’s showdown.
“We know Tyrone are a formidable challenge along with Armagh they have been the to team in Ulster for over a decade,” McGuinness said. “They are a very experienced side with multiple All-Ireland winners in their team. We know what we are up against and we are prepared as well as we can, but all we can do is focus on our own game and get ourselves right and go out and produce our best on the day and hope it is good enough.”
Donegal trained on Friday night at Mountcharles and again on Sunday morning and will train again tonight before he finally names his starting 15 for Sunday’s showdown and the chance for a place in the Ulster decider since 2006.
With the exception of Frank McGlynn, if he can prove his fitness, the Donegal team is not expected to change all that much from the side that started in Kingspan Breffni Park.
Likewise, other than Joe McMahon and Owen Mulligan, Mickey Harte’s starting selection is not expected differ greatly from that which defeated Monaghan last time out. Sunday’s game will be Donegal’s third of the campaign. As well as overcoming Cavan they also accounted for Antrim, in the preliminary round, in Ballybofey.