Donegal will have to be at their best once more on Saturday when they meet Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final in St. Tiernach’s Park, Clones (4.30 p.m.)
This time twelve months ago, they faced the same opposition and Donegal supporters travelled with a little optimism after having overcome Antrim and Cavan in the first two games.
On Saturday, that optimism has turned to expectation and Donegal travel as strong favourites to reach their second Ulster final in-a-row.
That is a huge burden for any team and while Jim McGuinness is in the strong position of having everyone fit and well for the battle, he knows that there is a lot more to Saturday’s game than just turning up in Clones.
Donegal got the rub of the green last year with Peter Harte having an off day at free taking and Donegal were fortunate to be still in the game at the interval, having had their opening point on 15 minutes and two points late in the half gave them a lifeline at 0-6 to 0-3. An injury to Joe McMahon in the second half was a factor in Donegal getting the two goals and Tyrone also had midfielder Kevin Hughes red carded.
Those statistics were not lost on Jim McGuinness when speaking to the Democrat this week. “They have worked very hard over the last two weeks and I would like to think they are well prepared and it is a matter now of going out and taking the game to Tyrone early in the match and being positive,” said McGuinness.
“We would be very disappointed with the start we gave Tyrone last year and really the game could have been over but for a block from Anthony Thompson on the goal line, the game was gone from us. So that is going to be an important aspect of the game for us and I suppose and it is going to take all our resolve and experience from last year to get over the line against Tyrone, because obviously the pedigree they have is second to none.”
The Donegal manager is happy that he has a full deck to play with for Saturday with Rory Kavanagh back training. “Rory is improving well and has trained well in the last two weeks and we will see how he goes this week. We have everybody. It is the first time since this season that we have a fully fit squad,” said McGuinness, who will again select his team tonight (Thursday) and it will be released to the public on Friday.
The big decision for the Donegal management team will be whether to include Rory Kavanagh or stick with the starting 15 that did so well against Derry. Given the way the side performed in that game in Ballybofey two weeks ago, it will be no surprise if the same selection takes to the field on Clones with Kavanagh held in reserve.
For Mickey Harte and Tyrone, it is a much different story. He has lost Sean Cavanagh, Kyle Coney and Ronan O’Neill to long-term injuries while Justin McMahon has more or less been ruled out with a hamstring injury. There are also doubts about wing forward Ronan McNabb for Saturday’s clash.
Joe McMahon is likely to fill the full-back berth in the absence of his brother, Justin, while Aidan Cassidy could come in at midfield to partner Colm Cavanagh. Tyrone are expected to name their team after training tonight (Thursday).
Whatever the selections, it is likely that Saturday’s game will be much closer than the pundits are forecasting. Tyrone, as Jim McGuinness has underlined, have a very good pedigree and they showed against Armagh, when the game was in the fire, that they have the experience and know-how to win games.
Donegal have improved significantly from last year, but they can not rely on always getting the rub of the green. If they can replicate the type of controlled and positive performance they produced against Derry, then they should be good enough to prevail.
Saturday’s game is preceded by the Ulster Minor Championship semi-final which pits Tyrone against a Derry side managed by Paul McIver, assisted by his father, former Donegal manager Brian McIver. That game is timed for 2.45 p.m. with extra-time in the event of a draw. The throw-in time is surprising because if extra-time is needed, then it almost certain that the Donegal-Tyrone senior game will have to be put back, possibly half an hour.