When a match is billed in certain quarters as being between one star rising as another falls, chances are they’ll get pretty close to one another at some stage on their respective journeys.
So it proved at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones on Sunday, when, after just over the allotted 70 minutes of the rustle and bustle of the Ulster championship semi-final, Donegal and Tyrone were as grid-locked as their supporters would have expected to be as they planned to undertake a similar route home.
A flu-stricken Martin Penrose, who was only fit enough to join the substitutes, had just scored Tyrone’s eighth point, which equated to Donegal’s goal and five. Seeing as the match threw in five minutes before its Leinster counterpart between Dublin and Kildare, and Aindriu MacLochlain and referee Cormac Reilly were yet to cross paths, the popular opinion was that in these types of situations the referee might lean towards a draw.
But the four minutes of stoppage time was still in its infancy. And as Tyrone streamed forward with their white waves about to batter off or meander through Donegal’s yellow rocks, things were at tipping point. The way Jim McGuinness has set about building Donegal from the back to the front, though, was about to be crystalised in one daring break.
Michael Hegarty won possession in the right full-back slot and scampered forward to feed Patrick McBrearty. The Kilcar teenager’s pass onto Michael Murphy was, unlike the 17-year-old, a bit on the short side, but he used his muscular frame to force Martin Swift to cough up and Dermot Molloy was in for goal.
His innocence of youth and strength of confidence meant taking a point never so much as crossed his mind. The goal was a carbon copy of the same player’s at Healy Park in the league, and, in some ways, so too was Donegal’s comeback.
After what was billed as the first real test of Donegal’s championship credentials, they had defeated the three-time All-Ireland champions, who were also chasing a third provincial crown in succession
To be honest, the celebrations for reaching a first Ulster final in five years were probably only a cause for a fraction of the Donegal delirium. Avoiding the qualifiers draw, where Donegal have obtained squatter’s rights, was even more of a delight to some, although a trip to Ruislip did admittedly hold certain attractions.
Tyrone now find themselves plotting that path, one that served them well in the past. In 2008, in a quarter-final replay against Down, Ryan McMenamin dropped a ball and Benny Coulter drilled a goal. McMenamin apologised to manager Mickey Harte under the glare of the Newry floodlights. He was told not to worry. The next morning the Dromore defender woke to a text message from his manager reiterating what he had said the night before and adding “we’ll win the All-Ireland.” That’s exactly how it unfolded.
It’s unsure whether or not Harte sent a similar text on Monday morning to Swift. With Pearse Park in Longford a precarious start, a bumpier road awaits. There are plenty of miles on the clock in Tyrone, but when a pulse is still to be felt it’s still a tad early to start penning an obituary.
But the replacing of mainstays such as Joe McMahon, Stephen O’Neill, Brian McGuigan, Brian Dooher and Owen Mulligan showed the clock is ticking. McMahon’s substitution, after being caught late by Leo McLoone in an incident that looked much worse on television than it did in the flesh, was the moment when the scales tipped in Donegal’s direction.
Whether Donegal would’ve managed the two goals they did had the Tyrone full-back been on the field of play is a question that will never be answered.
Perhaps more off-the-record than on it, Neil McGee, in the post-match interviews, summed it up perfectly. “If that game was a few years ago we’d have got hammered,” insisted the full-back whose stature continues to grow on the big stage with each passing afternoon.
McGuinness is a master of ploys and counter-ploys, but the one thing he promised on his appointment last summer was that, even in defeat, his team would leave every ounce of what they had on the pitch. Therefore, in a situation where they looked to be heading out of the Ulster championship at five points down, the heads did not drop.
During the National Football League, there were sprinklings of that resolution and embedding attitude and on Sunday, with the stakes at their highest point to date, it was evident again. After an initial sloppy pass, Anthony Thompson’s desire to scamper 80 yards to block at O’Neill’s feet as he shot for goal, was a sound-byte of what these players are willing to do.
That excellent piece of play was supplemented with Kevin Cassidy’s galvanising point that took Donegal back to within two points down. Despite the inadequacies of the first 35 minutes, the whispers said if Donegal could keep any sort of grip on Tyrone’s tail, their superior fitness might become an increasingly important factor. Time would tell.
In these tight times, Donegal’s levels of economy were startling. Four scores from five efforts compared to Tyrone’s six from 18 read the half-time statistics. A point that wasn’t made, though, ignoring Tyrone’s 12 misses, was Donegal’s willingness to let their opponents, at worst, shoot from distance. And while a long-range point is always pleasing on the eye, it’s a tough technique to replicate to perfection time and again, as Tyrone found out.
Saying that, though, papers over the cracks of Peter Harte’s poor free-taking, which was a problem that would escalate for Tyrone. Penrose, who scored 3-3 against Donegal in the Dr McKenna Cup 18 months ago, sat and watched from the bench and then stood and watched having been introduced, as did O’Neill, Sean Cavanagh and Mulligan.
Tyrone were keeping Donegal at an arm’s length of two points, widely considered to be the most dangerous lead in football. But Mark McHugh, who trampled on every square inch of the Clones surface, sped away to set up the first goal of the day on 56 minutes. McHugh fed Murphy, who dwelled to release the haring Karl Lacey. The centre-back found McFadden, whose autobiography probably won’t be titled My Right Foot, but the St Michael’s forward used his so-called standing foot to put Donegal in front for the first time.
Another one of McGuinness’s utterances is that Donegal play the given situation and tactics are tailored to suit whatever that situation may be.
There were occasionally nervy moments, as their younger legs made Tyrone’s look leaden and Donegal held on to complete the next step in what is turning into a remarkable journey. There are a lot of things Donegal have to improve on before the Anglo-Celt Cup is paraded around the Diarmond, but with a considerable scalp and people starting to take notice, their star continues to rise.