Donegal's Martin McElhinney in full flight against Tyrone during the Ulster Championship semi-final in Clones. Photo Thomas Gallagher INDD190617 Donegal v Tyrone TG23
Ryan McHugh was being honest on Sunday evening when he said he hadn’t given a single thought to the Qualifiers or who Donegal might meet in the back door.
The Kilcar man had just emerged from the dressing room area at St. Tiernach’s Park, the pain of defeat still etched on his face. He was out the other end of a torrid 70-plus minutes during which he and his team had played second fiddle to a ruthless Tyrone. Losing the game was one thing. The manner of the defeat probably hurt even more.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I’m not even sure who our options are because we weren’t even thinking about the back door,” he said.
“We were just fully concentrating on Tyrone and coming up to this game.”
Quite a number of the thousands of Donegal fans who made the journey to Clones would not have given much thought to the Qualifiers either.
After all, their team were well fancied to put one over their neighbours. We’d beaten them in the league back in March, with some degree of comfort.
And this was a Tyrone team who, aside from last year’s Ulster Final, had really struggled against Donegal in their championship jousts in recent years.
Rory Kavanagh had suggested that the younger, fresher legs in the team would give Donegal that bit extra when it came to imposing their running game. That was something, he said, that was missing in last year’s Ulster Final.
Donegal started well. Early scores from Patrick McBrearty and Michael Murphy got them up and running and and while Tyrone were able to respond with scores of their own, Rory Gallagher would have been content with his team’s opening.
At four points apiece the game’s big moment arrived. Eoin McHugh screwed his shot harmlessly wide with only Niall Morgan to beat. Nine times out of ten, McHugh would have buried it.
Had that chance been taken, Donegal might well have kicked on. In truth though, Tyrone could have had goals of their own in the first half. All too often they managed to work their way into goalscoring positions - a fact that will surely be of grave concern to the Donegal management.
They eventually found the net immediately after the restart when once again, the Donegal defence was opened up. Tiernan McCann stroked the ball to the corner to put Mickey Harte’s side 1-12 to 0-5 in front with half an hour still to play. It was game over.
Looking back on the game, we were probably all a bit guilty of underestimating this Tyrone team. Unlike many in this Donegal side, Tyrone know how to win on the big occasion. Experience was key and while too many players didn’t deliver for Donegal, everything seemed to go right for Tyrone.
It means they progress into a provincial final. Donegal turn their attentions to Longford on Saturday week.
The Qualifier draw brings back memories of the All Ireland series in 2003. Donegal, after losing to Fermanagh in Ulster, were blessed to be paired at home to Longford, then Sligo and then Tipperary. Their run of victories continued in Clones on the last weekend in July when they got the better of a Down side who had reached the Ulster final, only to lose to Tyrone.
All of a sudden we were in an All Ireland quarter-final and after a memorable replay victory over Galway in Castlebar, Donegal eventually bowed out of the All-Ireland at the semi-final stage to Armagh.
Back in 2003, Donegal were really lucky in each of the Qualifier draws. They were fortunate again on Monday to be drawn at home. The feeling was that an away draw - even against Longford - would be a difficult test.
Longford have a decent record in the play-offs. But these Donegal players owe it to themselves to get back to winning ways. Against Longford, they’ve a chance to reignite their season and prove that they’re a much better side than what we witnessed in Clones last Sunday.