Donegal will have to battle from start to finish to succeed against Tyrone

Donegal will have to battle from start to finish to succeed against Tyrone

Back at the end of March when Kevin McLoughlin kicked an equaliser for Mayo in the National Football League to send Donegal to Division Two, thoughts of Donegal playing in August were not on the agenda.

It’s amazing what can happen in the life of a county football team. Donegal have lost just once (to Dublin) in the six games they have played since. But more than that, they have played a brand of football that has been exciting and refreshing and easy on the eye.

They have put a smile back on the face of supporters and no matter what happens going forward, 2018 has to be regarded as a good year for the county.

They have bagged an Ulster senior championship title - only the ninth ever for the county - and while it will be regarded as one of their easiest triumphs, Ulster titles are not easy won.

The effort put in under Declan Bonner and a new management team has been impressive and with the introduction of so many of the U-21 squad into the panel, the county is on a sound footing going forward.

The introduction of the Super 8s was supposed to give the football championship a new impetus, but the jury is out on whether that has occurred. We will wait until after this weekend to make a final judgement.

Of the eight teams involved going into the final weekend, only six have any interest. Dublin and Galway have already qualified for the semi-finals. Dublin will top Group 2 no matter what results take place on Sunday, but Galway need a draw in their final game at home to Monaghan to secure top spot in Group 1.

The big battle is for the two remaining semi-final spots. Donegal and Tyrone is a winner-takes-all battle for one of those spots, while both Kerry and Monaghan are in contention for the other semi-final spot. Kerry need to beat Kildare in Killarney and hope that Monaghan lose in Galway, while Monaghan just need a draw to secure that last four place and knock Kerry out of the running. The other game sees Dublin at home to Roscommon with the result having no influence.

Because there is so much at stake at three of the four games, it will be a real championship weekend. There will be no back doors after these games.

Donegal go into the final Super 8 game knowing that they need to win against Tyrone. A draw will be enough for Tyrone as they have a much superior score difference, courtesy of their annihilation of Roscommon in the opening series of games in Croke Park. They won that match by 18 points, while Donegal had seven points to spare over the Rosses in their encounter on Saturday week last.

Tyrone go into the game as slight favourites with the bookies. But the margin is slim - 11/10 and even money or something of that order.

What is home advantage worth? Donegal haven’t lost a game in MacCumhaill Park since the Ulster Championship of 2010, when they lost out to Down. Their record against Tyrone in recent times hasn’t been too bad, although they did lose their last two encounters - the Ulster final of 2016 (0-13 to 0-11) and last year’s Ulster semi-final (1-21 to 1-12), both under the management of Rory Gallagher.

WHIP HAND

In the four meetings prior to that, under Jim McGuinness, Donegal held the whip hand over Mickey Harte and Tyrone, but there was never much between the sides.

Another interesting statistic is that Tyrone have not won a championship game in MacCumhaill Park since the infamous game of 1973 when Neilly Gallagher was the victim of a serious attack which left him in hospital. Donegal were the reigning Ulster champions at the time, but lost out by two points - 0-12 to 1-7.

Neil McGee, apart from creating a new record of championship appearances on Sunday, will be making his eighth championship appearances against the Red Hand men. He has won four of the seven meetings so far and I’m sure he would like to make that five. Mention of McGee and Tyrone and that crunch shoulder with Stephen O’Neill in 2013 in Ballybofey always comes to mind.

There could be a few of those again on Sunday.

The loss of Patrick McBrearty is huge for Donegal and now they look like they will also be without Eoghan Bán Gallagher.

But the plans have to be made without them and central to them will be getting the match ups right. Eamonn Doherty will probably again get a marking role; and there could be a choice (Peter Harte, Matthew Donnelly or Niall Sludden). This trio would be regarded as the players that have to be locked down on Sunday next.

No doubt Mickey Harte will have similar plans for the likes of Michael Murphy, Ryan McHugh, Jamie Brennan, Odhrán Mac Niallais and company.

HAVE DONEGAL IMPROVED

Have Donegal improved much since their last meeting in the Ulster semi-final in Clones in 2017? Tyrone lorded that game and won in a canter, 1-21 to 1-12, being able to replace Sean Cavanagh and Peter Harte midway through the second half.

There is no doubt that Donegal are a better side in 2018 and seem to be playing better as a team unit. They will have to put their best foot forward on Sunday and at the same time match Tyrone for every ball if they are to succeed.

The battle to win the breaking ball will leave MacCumhaill Park no place for the fainthearted. But that's what will be required if Donegal are to succed.

It may also take a little luck, but that is always the case.

It is big task, but one which can be achieved. But nothing short of giving everything for the 70+ minutes will be required