Donegal and Tyrone minor footballers get the ball rolling next Sunday in Sean MacCumhaill Park, when they lock horns in the Ulster Minor Football Championship. (Throw-in 2.15 pm)
The game is the curtain-raiser to the big Ulster Senior Championship clash of All-Ireland champions, Donegal, and their arch rivals Tyrone.
Tyrone are the reigning Ulster minor champions having completed an Ulster Minor League and championship double last season.
Donegal are bidding for a first quarter-final success in a number of years after defeating Cavan last year in the preliminary round in Kingspan Breffni Park, but then losing to Derry in the quarter-final.
The teams have met once already this season. That was in the Ulster Minor Football League in Garvaghy (Tyrone’s new training grounds) with the Red Hands taking the spoils by nine points, 2-13 to 1-7. The margin of victory in the end was slightly flattering for Tyrone, who pulled away in the closing minutes with a goal and couple of points. The sides were level 1-7 each at the three quarter-mark.
Darach O’Connor, the Donegal captain, carried the main scoring threat on that occasion and scored 1-5 of his team’s total.
This was a gutsy performance from Donegal, who, if they had a little more firepower up front to support skipper O’Connor, would have been much closer at the finish.
Tyrone, on the other hand, were far more clinicial in attack. The Red Hands had ten different scorers with midfielder Ruairi McGlone and second half substitute Stephen McGrath scoring the goals and Daire Gallagher with four, the top points scorer.
That was Donegal’s second defeat of the minor league. They had also lost to Fermanagh in their very first game, after letting a nine point half-time lead evaporate in the second half, before losing by a point.
But with Eamon McGrath returning from injury and manager Stephen Friel making a number of adjustments, Donegal bounced back from those two defeats. And without being spectacular they defeated Derry and Antrim in Ballybofey, to qualify for a place in the last four and a meeting with Down in Downpatrick.
And in possibly their best performance of the season so far Donegal defeated a highly fancied Down 1-10 to 1-8, in a closely contested encounter. Darach O’Connor scored the goal and also contributed three points and once again carried the main threat in the attack.
This was very good result as Down, managed by former double All-Ireland winning senior manager Peter McGrath, had topped their section and had gone into the play-off with a three game unbeaten run.
Ironically, Tyrone, who were unbeaten in the league section and had topped their group with four straight wins, were beaten by Monaghan in the other semi-final. Monaghan won that game 3-14 to 1-16.
In the final Donegal lost to Monaghan, 1-10 to 0-10 after dominating possession and missing a host of gilt edged opportunities. But the result was all the more palatable, given that skipper O’Connor had been ill in the build up to the game and after starting was forced to leave the action before half-time. He was introduced again, ala Peter Canavan, but by that stage the horse had bolted.
“We were very disappointed to lose Monaghan and we were pretty annoyed at the time. But on reflection and looking at a DVD of the game, I was pretty pleased with our performance. We seemed to have a clear penalty denied in the first half when Aidan Sweeney was clearly fouled and I feel we also had a few questionable frees awarded against us,” said Donegal manager Stephen Friel, who is in his second year in the job.
“I felt we played well and dominated in general play for long periods with our downfall in the final third of the field and our failure to convert possession into scores.
“That is something we have been working on since the league final and hopefully we will have sorted for Sunday against Tyrone.”
Donegal wound down their preparations on Saturday last with a challenge game against Sligo in Sligo. Sligo won what was a close and competitive game by a point. Donegal with giving skipper O’Connor just a half an hour and were without midfielder Peter McLaughlin. Saturday’s outing was O’Connor’s first since the league final. He was laid low with a bug as was a number of the squad in recent weeks, something which is a major headache for the Donegal management this week.
“The squad has been hit with a bug in recent weeks and quite few of the lads had it and it certainly hampered our preparations. That is why we only gave Darach 30 minutes and did not use Peter at all against Sligo. Hopefully, everybody will be fully recovered right for next weekend.”
Naomh Conaill’s Ciaran Thompson was called up to the squad last week and impressed at midfield against Sligo, and could be in the running to see some action against Tyrone.
Friel experimented and switched personnel around during the league but seemed to be nearing a more settled formation in the knock-out stages and those expected to be entrusted with the job of halting the champions in their tracks, is expected along the lines of that which faced Monaghan in the league final.