The only way to fully describe the championship clash between Donegal and Tyrone on Sunday last is tension-filled.
The eyes of the nation were on MacCumhaill Park and no matter about the quality, they certainly got entertainment. There was quality too, in abundance, with some great scores, both in their creation and finishing.
The only downside were the negative tactics. In particular the treatment handed out to Michael Murphy and, to a lesser degree, Sean Cavanagh. Much emphasis at national level was put on this side of the game and it is becoming something of a blight. You could argue that both sides were at it, but the close marking that was being employed on Sean Cavanagh paled into insignificance by the behaviour of Justin McNulty on Michael Murphy. McNulty had no interest in where the ball was; his sole instructions were to get into Michael Murphy’s face and stay there, by fair means or foul.
That it took seven officials some 63 minutes before a yellow card was brandished is an indictment on every one of the officials. It was significant that the loudest cheer of the afternoon greeted McMahon’s yellow card.
The fracas at half-time should not have happened and Tyrone mentors and substitute Joe McMahon must share a heavy burden of the blame. The Donegal players and mentors were making their way off but Tyrone seemed intent on creating a scene. There were plenty of verbals, but both sides are culpable in that regard.
This type of incident could be avoided and the Ulster Council must play their part. There should be instructions as to who is to leave the field first - in much the same way as the teams are timed to take to the field at the start.
The incident, thankfully, petered out without any major consequence but it could have been different, especially as it was close to the crowd.
As for the verbals, it is disturbing to hear that this sledging, as it is called, was part of the Tyrone minor game plan. Mickey Harte and others like Peter Canavan might say that coaches don’t coach that type of behaviour. Then where is it coming from? It is being used by all teams and will need to be addressed sooner rather than later.
The other issue which seems to be on in the increase is the use of Twitter as an instrument for people to hurl abuse at each other. Some of what’s posted constitutes much more than abuse.
As for the game itself, it was a close call for Donegal in the end, but they always looked the more composed and more likely to come through. It is to their credit that they are so assured and confident when things are at the critical stage.
Even when Neil Gallagher was red carded in the last ten minutes, you could see the leadership of Michael Murphy giving the rallying call and his troops answered.
Murphy, goaded and bruised throughout the game, stood tall when needed and his three late points from dead balls were the difference. How Tyrone would have wished they had a free taker of his stature.
How they wished also that they had half-backs of the calibre of Frank McGlynn and Karl Lacey. It is always difficult when under pressure of time to make decisions and on Sunday evening I gave the man of the match award to Lacey. But having watched the game again around 11.30 p.m. on Sunday evening when the paper was put to bed, I would have changed my mind to McGlynn.
The Glenfin man was just majestic. He has been described this week as the Rolls Royce of half-backs. Prior to the game I felt our half-back line of McGlynn, Lacey and Ryan McHugh were the perfect line to break any defensive wall that Tyrone would set up. McGlynn and Lacey delivered but young Ryan McHugh had a difficult match, unable to make his usual contribution. He is as talented as the other pair but Sunday will have taught him that he probably needs to add a little more bulk for the rough and tumble of senior championship. The conditions, wet and windy, probably didn’t help his cause and he will have learned from the experience.
But the other two did enough to make sure that Donegal were constantly on the front foot. As well, Lacey took on the man-marking duties on Peter Harte in the second half and snuffed him out of the game. That was important as Harte was causing Donegal many headaches in the opening half. Joe Brolly’s assertion that Lacey was ‘over the hill’ was strange. He wasn’t watching the same game that I was.
McGlynn is just a joy to watch in full flow and he was unlucky not to get a goal in the second half when Patrick McBrearty’s shot was stopped. It was a critical time of the game and if McBrearty had looked up Colm McFadden had momentarily been left alone and would almost surely have palmed home a goal that would have ended the game as a contest.
But overall, it was a good win in a game that was always going to be difficult. The conditions didn’t suit either team, but in the end it was that blend of experience and scoring ability that made the difference.
The inter-changing of players up front by Donegal was good to see with the likes of Patrick McBrearty getting time around the middle of the field to get on the ball, while Christy Toye made good use of space he found inside. The other aspect of the game which was new was the deployment of Colm Anthony McFadden far from goal and he revelled in his new found freedom. His point before half-time was typical of what Colm can do.
There were many good performances, not least Paul Durcan, who made a number of top class saves, while Paddy McGrath had a very solid outing at corner-back. Martin McElhinney, despite missing quite a bit of training, carried his league form into MacCumhaill Park and he will be remembered for finishing his goal with aplomb.
Fingers will be crossed that all players come through the club championship games this weekend because you can rest assured that there will be an even tougher battle ahead when they travel to the Athletic Grounds to meet Armagh on June 14th.
If Frank McGlynn cut a dash for the seniors, then Naoise O’Baoill lit up MacCumhaill Park earlier with his searing pace through the Tyrone rearguard. That pace led to Donegal’s opening goal and any time the Gaoth Dobhair wizard got on the ball, there was a buzz in the crowd.
The minors were a little nervous in the opening half and gave Tyrone far too much respect, but once they pushed up in the second half, there was only one team in the contest. The impact made by Cloughaneely’s giant Jason McGee at midfield was a vital factor. McGee, only a recent recruit to the panel, gave Donegal a foothold and once they got on the front foot, they always held the upper hand.
With that solid base in the middle, St. Eunan’s Niall O’Donnell began to show the form that was evident throughout the Minor League and his ability to glide through a defence is a joy to watch.
Daire O’Baoill also came into his own once Donegal were on the front foot and fingers will be crossed that his shoulder injury sustained late in the contest will not keep him out for long.
The same can be said of Ethan O’Donnell, who shipped a very heavy challenge almost on the stroke of half-time and was unable to play any part in the second period. You would have felt that had O’Donnell been on the field for the second half, then Donegal would have won even more comfortably.
It is critical that the team get a clean bill of health as they have only over a week now to prepare for their quarter-final clash with Armagh in the Athletic Grounds on Sunday week (7 p.m.) That game was brought forward due to the Leaving Cert starting on the first week of June.