Tyrone hammered Cavan in the Ulster semi-final replay last Sunday week. Donegal beat Monaghan by a single point the previous evening in the other semi-final replay.
Monaghan were dumped out of the championship in the qualifiers in their own back yard in Clones by Longford last Saturday. It does not take a genius to deduce that Tyrone are the outstanding favourites for this Sunday’s Ulster final.
Paper never refuses ink, as I well know, and as columnists we have to give an opinion and make a forecast in the light of reasonable and experienced judgement. The majority of pundits are siding with Tyrone citing recent form. Donegal have been written off by many since our poor showing in the National League and we needed a second game to beat Monaghan. So the pressure is all on Tyrone.
Tactically we know that Mickey Harte is very shrewd. His team are an upcoming force mixed with experience and youth. From the very outset of the championship, Tyrone have been marked as the only team in the country that have the ability to beat Dublin. Apparently there is fierce competition for places on the team. All of these factors point to a formidable task for Donegal this Sunday. Never before have I seen Tyrone as stand-out favourites in a match between the two counties as they are for Sunday’s showdown.
I would like to try to put this game in its proper prospective. Tyrone beat a very poor Derry team in their first round championship game. Since then Derry seem to have regained some form as they are still in the qualifiers mix. Up next for Tyrone was Cavan. No harm to Cavan but they have a long way to go before they will be considered serious Ulster contenders. Cavan scrambled a draw in their first game against Tyrone. Tyrone was vulnerable in their full-back line under the high ball in the wet conditions and for them this is still a worry. Mickey Harte patched up this deficiency by playing Colm Cavanagh and Justin McMahon as sweepers for the replay. Cavan conceded five goals in that game but my club team Red Hugh’s could have scored five goals against Cavan that day!
It is almost a year since Tyrone played a Division 1 team. Donegal will be their first serious challenge since Kerry beat Tyrone by four points in late August in the All-Ireland semi-final. In the lead-up to this game Tyrone beat Limerick, Meath, Tipperary, Sligo and Monaghan. The latter were the only team with any serious pedigree.
Donegal have been somewhat dismissed by many and expectations are not what they were in the recent past. Donegal are at their most dangerous when their backs are to the wall. I believe that we still have a better team than our neighbours Tyrone. We played two very intense games against Monaghan which will have added a sharp edge to our game. Our full-back line has been in superb form even without Neil McGee. All teams’ successes are built on solid defences.
Our midfield has held its own while up front we have potentially one of the best forward units in the country. I believe that Tyrone will need damp conditions to beat Donegal. We have a hardened, experienced and a very talented group of players. Playing in Clones is like playing at home since we have played there so often.
Tyrone will be hungry for the Anglo Celt Cup but Donegal are a team that are in pain. Our players owe our supporters nothing and do not need to prove themselves. Our lads are proven winners who still ache enormously from last year’s Ulster final defeat to Monaghan. A manager cannot instil this type of motivation. It is raw and reaches to the very core of one’s being.
We know how the teams will set up tactically; ultra-defensive. Justin McMahon will spend the day looking into Michael Murphy’s eyes searching for his soul. Murphy is a hurting character these days and I feel that he will show his mastery like never before on Sunday.
Tyrone’s weaknesses lie in the fact that they have yet to meet a serious team. They do not have a notable free-taker which is of considerable importance given that this game will be played on the edge. Their team is young for the most part and I feel that they lack sufficient talent to overcome a more experience Donegal outfit. We have been improving with every outing and I believe that these lads are in a great place right now.
Few give us a chance of beating this Tyrone team. What motivation does any Donegal player need other than to be playing your fiercest rival in an Ulster final at the home of Ulster football in Clones? Hurt of course. I know what it is like to lose an Ulster final. In 1989 Tyrone beat us after a replay and Down beat us in 1991. The following years, 1990 and 1992 we beat Armagh and Tyrone respectively. After all the talk, speculation and punditry I believe that Sunday’s game will come down to the ‘will to win’. There is no such thing as luck in finals. Fortunate breaks are earned by courage.
The time has come. Let the battle begin. Tir Conaill Abu!