Donegal began their Nicky Rackard Senior Hurling Championship campaign with an opening round defeat at the hands of reigning champions Tyrone, in Letterkenny.
Four points separated the sides at the finish and the Red Hands were worth every one of them as they dominated most of the 70 plus minutes on a bitterly cold and greasy O’Donnell Park.
Tyrone were much the better outfit and had the greater hunger and from very early that they were out to avenge the recent Division Two promotion/relegation play-off won by Donegal in a replay.
They hunted in packs around the middle of the field and man of the match and top scorer Damien Casey and Gerard Gilmore proved a very effective two man full-forward line.
Mattie Lennon, the Tyrone boss, seemed to have learned most from the two promotion/ relegation play-off games and singled out Donegal’s most effective performers in those encounters, especially Danny Cullen in the middle of the park and Ronan McDermott up front.
Any time Cullen and McDermott won possession they found themselves crowded out by a number of red and white jerseys.
And with both McDermott, scorer of three goals in the Owenbeg play-off between the two, and skipper Cullen both held scoreless, the tactic paid off.
Donegal started well with the game’s three opening points from Jack O’Loughlin from play and two Lee Henderson frees, one from 60 metres. That 60 metre monster from Henderson in tricky wet conditions was on seven minutes and was Donegal’s last score for the best part of 12 minutes as Tyrone took a firm grip on the game.
Tyrone, who were sharper and a little more crisp with the stick, hit 1-3 without reply, as Damien Casey posted 1-2 and Conor Grogan also got in on the act with a fine point to the one struck by Sean Og Grogan, the game’s first point of the game.
Casey’s goal was a real turning point and propelled his side into a 1-3 to 0-3 lead with Casey doing well to win a cross field centre from Justin Kelly, ahead of two markers, before he rattled the roof of Dylan Lafferty’s net from a tight angle, from just outside the rectangle.
Conor Grogan’s point seconds later opened up a 1-4 to 0-3 lead as the game entered the second quarter.
Donegal, who at times looked a little leaden legged, did up their game in the second quarter and Sean McVeigh with a superb individual point after a good fetch in the middle of the field, left a goal between the sides. And while the eagle eyed Casey restored a four point advantage with another precision conversion shortly after Henderson with a 55 mere free and two delightful points from Ciaran Mathewson and an inspirational strike from inside his own half by Joe Boyle tied up the game with four minutes left in the half.
But thanks to a late Casey free Tyrone went in 1-6 to 0-8 up at the break and in a good position with a strong wind in their backs after half-time.
Tyrone found their rhythm again on the resumption and in a flash they were five up courtesy of points from Ger Grogan, Case (from a free) and two super points from the middle of the park off the hurl of Justin Kelly.
Facing into a stiff wind and with Tyrone displaying the greater hunger, Donegal faced an Everest.
Lee Henderson did raise hopes of a revival with three points - all from frees - in a good ten minute spell to reduce the margin to two with 15 minutes remaining.
But despite applying a good deal of pressure in the closing exchanges, they found the Tyrone rearguard difficult to break down as Mike Gorman, Dermot Begley and Tiarnan Morgan stood tall. Tyrone held on as fittingly on a day he turned in a master class in the art of scoring, Damien Casey ended the Donegal agony with two late frees, one from ‘65’ and the other from 45 metres.
The game was gone from them by the time Donegal were reduced to fourteen after Joe Boyle received his marching orders for a second yellow card offence.
Donegal: Dylan Laverty; Padraig Doherty, Jamsie Donnelly, Marty Callaghan; Jonathan Downey, Joe Boyle (0-1), Niall Cleary; Danny Cullen, Sean McVeigh (0-1); Jack O’Loughlin (0-1), Enda McDermott, Lee Henderson (0-6,6f); Ciaran Mathewson (0-2), Ronan McDermott, Bernard Lafferty. Sub: Stephen Gillespie for B Lafferty (53).
Tyrone: John Devlin; Conor McNally, Mike Gorman, Martin Grogan; Padraig McHugh, Dermot Begley, Tiarnan Morgan; Justin Kelly (0-2), Aidan Kelly; Mark Winters, Damien Casey (1-7,6,f), Chris Cross; Conor Grogan (0-2), Sean Og Grogan (0-1), Gerard Gilmore. Sub: Matthew Mulgrew for G Gilmore (52).
Referee: O Elliot (Antrim).