Around about 10 minutes to go in the minor match, the storm clouds were brewing high off in the distance from Sean MacCumhaill Park.
All the talk had been of May 26, of Donegal and Tyrone and of us all heading off to Clones. But Jim McGuinness and Donegal’s clubs and county board had made the decision to keep their home fixture at home.
All spring the Donegal manager had said his only priority was May 26. Time and again his motives were questioned but after 70 minutes of intense action in a competition close to McGuinness’s heart, the Ulster football championship, his stance has been justified. Why did anyone ever doubt him?
Micky Harte said after Donegal’s 2-10 to 0-10 win McGuinness’s team are getting better and better. From the Tyrone manager’s standing point, his claims are understandable.
In 2011 Donegal were perhaps a little fortunate to defeat Tyrone. Last year, a stoppage-time Paul Durcan save from Martin Penrose clouded what was a more convincing Donegal performance. And on Sunday there was no debate required.
McGuinness said after the first of that trio of critical championship meetings that he felt his side genuinely didn’t believe they could beat Tyrone, until they actually did.
On Sunday, the shoe was on the other foot as when Donegal rallied, following Ross Wherity scoring the second of two perfectly-timed goals, it was Tyrone who thought they couldn’t beat Donegal. They soon knew it.
Rumours over Donegal’s selection flittered through the Ballybofey streets since sunrise. Thankfully, the chitchat that Donegal’s players had gone for a surf on Sunday morning after their overnight stay in Rossnowlagh, were wiped out as falsehoods.
When the team took to the field, somewhat mutely, some of the injury fears were correct – Karl Lacey wasn’t to start a championship match for the first time since the 2004 Ulster final. Mark McHugh was also listed among the substitutes.
Centre-back and footballer of the year Lacey, the strongest link on the chain between defence and attack, and McHugh’s sweeping abilities are two of the constituents upon which McGuinness has shaped his Donegal system.
But as soon as Colm McFadden rifled over the first point of the afternoon, a free from just in front of the stand, it was obvious that Donegal were in championship mode.
McFadden, like Donegal, comes to life in the summer and his goal on 32 minutes was, like Michael Murphy’s in the All-Ireland final, almost something that had been rehearsed.
Murphy’s quickly-taken free was perfectly slapped into McFadden’s path by the excellent Patrick McBrearty and Niall Morgan was picking the ball from his net.
McFadden has an obvious preference for his left foot but his right has served Donegal well in McGuinness’s time. Goals against Tyrone in 2011 and then Derry last year have come from what we’re told is the St Michael’s forward’s standing foot. Morgan, the Tyrone goalkeeper, kicked poorly on the day with only one, which he enjoyed celebrating, from six.
Tyrone won both the breaks and the battles at centre-field in a first half where the heavens opened, but, like many before them against Donegal, couldn’t make that apparent dominance tell on the scoreboard.
At one stage, Stephen O’Neill charged from 10 yards to try and dispossess Neil McGee in possession only to be flattened by the Donegal full-back.
A bit like Donegal defending their Ulster and All-Ireland titles, McGee’s attitude was presumably: “If you think you’re good enough, come and have a go.”
Donegal went in 1-5 to 0-6 up at half-time and left Tyrone twiddling their thumbs for four minutes on the field before making their reintroduction for the second half, to a much louder roar than before.
If there was one spell of worry for Donegal, it was when Tyrone pegged back two points to level things up by the 42nd minute. But Sean Cavanagh’s disputed score would be their penultimate, half-an-hour before their meaningless last, which was posted when many of their supporters had already vacated the premises to beat the traffic congestion on the way home.
The lack of space on the field almost replicated the gridlocked streets outside. Donegal broke intelligently from their defensive base and McHugh, who had been introduced prior to the interval, sat deep on the edge of Durcan’s square.
Sean Cavanagh was also there, flanked by Eamon McGee but the repositioning of Tyrone’s strongest asset in the middle of the field enabled Donegal to grapple control with assistance being provided by Martin McElhinney and Ross Wherity.
The St Eunan’s forward was introduced with Lacey, who took almost a monopoly of the attention, on 47 minutes. Wherity, who was denied on four different occasions during the course of the Allianz League when popping at goal, made a beeline past Conor Gormley to slap home a goal with his first ever touch in championship football just 125 seconds after taking to the field.
Again the move came about following a quickly-taken free-kick, in this case from Rory Kavanagh. McBrearty ghosted around Dermot Carlin and was strong enough to withstand all that Penrose could throw at him, before centring for Wherity.
McGuinness said afterwards that McBrearty is growing as a person. He’s growing as a player too and works impeccably for the team. It was, as he chases a third provincial crown before turning 20 in August, his best performance in a Donegal shirt to date.
McBrearty’s continued development in the full-forward line means Murphy can come and go as he sees fit.
A brilliant example of this was when the Donegal captain intercepted a ball in his own square to snuff out any chance of a Tyrone goal that would ignite their notions of a comeback.
It was in this instance Joe McMahon’s petulance got the better of him and Tyrone were reduced to 14 men by Joe McQuillan, the Cavan referee who had a sound game.
Donegal certainly deserve credit for the way they managed to maintain their own discipline in the face of escalating provocation.
McHugh then made a brave block from Peter Harte and started an attack from which McBrearty pointed for a potential four-point swing in a matter of seconds. Morgan laterally opted against adding to his tally, despite encouraging and amusing gesticulations from the home support to continue.
McGuinness played a calculated gamble in wishing to finish with as strong a team as possible and Donegal, as they had been in attack with four wides to Tyrone’s 13, were ruthless in possession.
For all the talk about a threadbare panel, David and Declan Walsh, Martin O’Reilly, McElhinney and Wherity proved they can fulfil championship roles.
Aspirations for winning the Anglo-Celt Cup for the third time in succession can wait for now. Tyrone on May 26 was always going to be a provincial quarter-final. It was a perfect storm.
The resounding win has set Donegal off and running again. All eyes now will be on the meeting with either Down or Derry on June 23 in the Ulster semi-final.
We’ll gladly all go to Clones for that one.