Donegal face off against Tyrone on Saturday in an unusual position. Having been heavily criticised last year for their tactics, all of a sudden they have been serenaded with praise, with some pundits even suggesting Donegal could be a contender to win Sam Maguire.
The manner of the Derry victory was emphatic, and has rightly seen us receive plaudits from throughout the country. However, we must tread carefully. Derry were poor, they lacked fitness and had no plan to get ball to their forwards. Tyrone will not lie down so easily. Lest we forget, they are under the guidance of Mickey Harte. He has led Tyrone to three All-Irelands, and will almost certainly have a game plan to curtail Donegal.
In last year’s Ulster semi-final clash with Tyrone, Donegal won the game through a last minute Dermot Molloy goal. Tyrone raced into a 6-1 lead in the first half as they outplayed Donegal. Sean Cavanagh was immense as he drove at the Donegal defence. Late points before half-time were a synonymous feature of last year’s run, and points by Kevin Rafferty and Kevin Cassidy pegged Tyrone back as the interval approached.
Donegal improved in the second half and drew level thanks to a goal by Colm McFadden, and went on to win via Molloy’s intervention. It’s also worth remembering that the Red Hands were harshly reduced to 14 men for the last ten minutes, and if they had their full quantity who knows what way the game would have swayed.
Tyrone’s forward line is one of the best in the country and they pose a huge test. Against Armagh Peter Harte and Owen Mulligan were subdued, yet Martin Penrose and Mark Donnelly were given too much space and they did the damage. Penrose, in particular, is a vastly underrated player. He plays the game with a lot of energy and endeavour and always contributes a few points for Tyrone. He is likely to roam out the field and his pace breaking through the defence will be a big worry for Donegal.
Much of Tyrone’s dominance over the last decade came from their half-back line. While other lines were chopped and changed regularly, the half-back line of Davy Harte, Ryan McMenamin and Philip Jordan were the cornerstone for many victories over the years. However, injuries have left Harte on the fringes of the panel, Jordan has retired, while McMenamin had to be satisfied with a substitute jersey against Armagh.
Cathal McCarron, Conor Gormley and Sean O’Neill made up the half-back line against the Orchard county, and while they are good, strong players, they don’t possess the athleticism or attacking impetus that their predecessors provided. They are not renowned scorers, which is something that will suit the Donegal defence if they sit back and invite Tyrone on to them.
An interesting point arising from Tyrone’s victory over Armagh was that Armagh scored 1-13 against them. This is most unlike Tyrone teams under Harte, and I am convinced that if Donegal score 1-13 against Tyrone, they will be playing in the Ulster final. This was an Armagh side without the retired Steven McDonnell and in truth only Jamie Clarke would be considered a top class forward.
Patrick McBrearty has blossomed in the full-forward line, and with McFadden and Michael Murphy in the forward ranks too, Donegal will fancy their chances of beating Tyrone if they can get quality service. Kildare posted 16 points against them in the league final, and it’s not that long ago since Dublin destroyed them in Croke Park, scoring 22 points. The Tyrone defence is not the same scary proposition it once was.
Donegal’s defence was impressive against Derry, and the match ups against Tyrone’s forwards may be the deciding factor in Clones. Karl Lacey man marked Paddy Bradley against Derry and it will be interesting to see if he stays in the full-back line on Saturday. Last year against Tyrone, he picked up their playmaker Brian McGuigan. McGuigan is on the bench this year, and Peter Harte has assumed the playmaker role. He was well marshalled against Armagh, and Lacey may be assigned to do the same in Clones.
I’d expect Neil McGee to pick up Stephen O’Neill, with his brother Eamon following Owen Mulligan. Derry used John McCamley as a sweeper in the quarter-final, and this left Frank McGlynn spare in defence. With Ronan McNabb expected to play a deep role for Tyrone, McGlynn may again be the spare man. This will suit Donegal as he is a good ball carrier and links up will with the forward line.
Tyrone had a good league campaign but injuries have seriously depleted them. Underage stars, Kyle Coney and Ronan O’Neill are out for the season, while 2008 Footballer of the year, Sean Cavanagh is also on the sidelines. They lose his ability to carry the ball forward and kick points from all sorts of angles, along with his leadership qualities. His absence is a massive bonus to Donegal.
Jim McGuinness’s biggest decision will be whether or not to reinstate Rory Kavanagh in the starting team. He may be tempted to stick with the winning formula from the victory over Derry. However, if Kavanagh is fit to play, he brings a wealth of experience to the team, and his know-how would be very important against Tyrone’s seasoned performers.
I think the first half will be a tight tense affair, but Donegal’s physicality and athleticism should wear down Tyrone as the match reaches its conclusion. The Donegal forwards have excelled in their last two outings and if they can get a good supply of possession, they should have too much firepower for the Red Hands.