Donegal and Tyrone share same championship desire

Alan Foley


Alan Foley

Donegal and Tyrone share same championship desire
THE minefield that is the Ulster championship never allows its participants to tiptoe their way into the escalating heat of summer.

THE minefield that is the Ulster championship never allows its participants to tiptoe their way into the escalating heat of summer.

But even at that, there’s something climatic about the meeting of Donegal and Tyrone in Ballybofey on Sunday afternoon.

Of course, the layout of the championship, since the inception of the qualifier system in 2001, means it’s not strictly winner takes all anymore.

Both teams will essentially still be in the championship by the time Sunday rolls into Monday, although the momentum of both will be flowing in different directions, vastly changed by what happens.

From a Donegal perspective, part of the reason for the sheer magnitude of the day, May 26, is because of the emphasis they have continually put on it. Jim McGuinness has hurled the lumps of coal on that fire himself.

In the wake of relegation from the Allianz League Division One, McGuinness’s laissez faire approach has been widely queried.

But the Donegal manager never used that as a reason for his team’s drop following the last day draw with Dublin. His convictions, agree with them or not, have been consistent.

And although he did admit afterwards he was understandably “disappointed” with relegation, his abilities, like every other manager, should not be judged on a league campaign, whether good or bad.

The focus has always been on May 26 and Tyrone.

“Mickey Harte said during the week that we had put all our eggs into the one basket, May 26, but the reality is that we did the exact same thing last year,” McGuinness said.

“We do put all our eggs in the one basket and that is the championship basket. And the year before we did the exact same.”

It’s understandable that McGuinness, seen by some as a modern-day revolutionary, gets more pen ink than most.

But for all the complexities and myths that surround this Donegal regime, there’s lots of things that are simply black and white.

“Last year all the talk from the first day we started back was May 20 and Cavan, the year before it was May 15 and Antrim,” said captain Michael Murphy.

“The next championship game, no matter who it’s against or when it is, is the most important. That’s the approach we take every year. And this year it’s Tyrone on May 26.”

Evaluating the current stance of the Donegal team is cloudy. The gates have been locked at training sessions recently as the championship preparation reaches full swing.

McGuinness was famously denied so much as a plug socket for his Powerpoint presentation on his second unsuccessful attempt at becoming Donegal senior manager in the autumn of 2008.

The disgruntled character left Jackson’s Hotel with his laptop over his shoulder.

That presentation has never, in public circles, seen the light of day. It scripted the path Donegal football would take under his management, outlining the progressive steps he sought to introduce if appointed.

McGuinness’s patience and passion for Donegal football meant he was the logical choice for the job when John Joe Doherty stepped aside in summer 2010.

There was an obvious shift between the traction of his year one, 2011, when Donegal won a first Ulster championship in 19 years, and last season, as Ulster was retained and Sam Maguire was won.

So, from the outside trying to look in, the evolution is pencilled to continue. The curtains will only remain closed for so much longer.

Donegal’s league form was, to take the most positive spin, patchy. McGuinness and his assistant Rory Gallagher spent more time evaluating opposing counties, acutely aware of their own side’s capabilities.

But a comparative tool between assessing Donegal of the spring just past and last summer in the championship, is, to steal another McGuinness term, “like comparing apples with oranges.”

On the other hand, Tyrone’s league campaign was one of promise. Their final position, second only Dublin, is a fair tool of reflection on the spring series.

Harte has approached things differently to McGuinness, but that too is understandable considering his team came from Division Two on the back of only reaching one All-Ireland quarter-final since Donegal’s change of manager.

“If people want to prioritise the league and try to win the league, something that is very important to them, that is their prerogative,” McGuinness said, not referring to Tyrone in particular.

“That was a decision and as with any decision we take, it was made for the good of our players. We know our players better than anyone else.”

Tyrone’s championship credentials under Harte are not to be questioned but neither are Donegal’s under McGuinness.

Donegal’s wins over Tyrone by slender margins in each of the last two championships have catapulted them onto greater things.

One wonders just where the McGuinness regime would be now had Tyrone won either of those two encounters. In terms of the bigger picture, it’s not the be-all and end-all on Sunday. But it’s not far off.