Donegal picked up the Anglo Celt last year without ever getting the credit they deserved. Many commentators suggested because both Tyrone and Monaghan exited the championship before they ever met Donegal, it was classed as one of those easy championship wins.
Donegal progressed to the Super 8s anyway and Tyrone came to Ballybofey and while it was close for a long time, Tyrone ran out easy winners in the end and they enjoyed it.
Saturday evening in Breffni Park gives Donegal their first opportunity to get another go at everyone’s favourites for this year's Ulster championship. We in Donegal will talk about the loss of Paddy McBrearty going into last years Super 8s and how it deprived the team of one of the most prolific scorers in gaelic football; it also affected the confidence of the side and the squad.
While no team is down to one or two players, Donegal have become over dependant on the likes of McBrearty and Michael Murphy, both of whom will get some close attention come Saturday evening.
Tyrone have had two outings already in the Ulster championship this year; they struggled for long periods against a rejuvenated Derry side who, to be fair, gave them all they wanted for about 50 minutes but once Tyrone put on the after burners they completely blew them off the pitch.
Their game against Antrim was done and dusted after 15 minutes with the Saffrons no match for last year's All-Ireland finalists. Those two games told us nothing of where Tyrone are at; it’s well known the potential they have within their side and the drive and hunger that Mickey Harte and his management team have instilled in this present group. The only question is can they put that to use on the pitch?
Donegal, on the other hand, had to go to Enniskillen and play a very defensive Fermanagh side who frustrated us for long periods; but for the experience and patience shown by the Donegal players, it could have been a different story.
Declan Bonner and his management team will have known what to expect last time around and they will know that Tyrone will cause them a whole lot of different problems. They will also realise that if Donegal are to retain their crown of Ulster champions they will have to be at their very best. Indeed they will have to play better than they have played through the national league.
The challenge lies in front of them but if Tyrone are going to be beaten in Ulster it’s going to be Donegal that’s going to do it. Tyrone know that Donegal are the biggest threat to them this year; they know the threat of McBrearty, Murphy, Eoghan Bán Gallagher and Jamie Brennan. They will set out their stall to stop Donegal running from the back and they will try their best to frustrate the Donegal players into rushing their passes, or kicking when it’s not on.
Just like the Fermanagh game, Donegal will have to use all the experience that they have built up over the years. They will have to be disciplined both in the tackle and anything off the ball; they will have to bring an intensity that playing in division two did not require at times and when the chances come, they will have to be taken.
Much as been made of the Tyrone attack, because of the big numbers they threw up against Derry and Antrim, but their biggest strength lies in their workrate, their hunger in the tackle and working off the ball. Donegal will have to match it and use the disappointment of last year in Ballybofey to get that bit of extra to get us over the line.
This is a huge challenge for Donegal, their biggest test of 2019 and it will give everyone, both management and players, a great insight into where we are really at. The performance against Tyrone last year showed that we were not that far away but we lacked the strength-in-depth that the so-called stronger teams have. To be fair to the Donegal management they have given plenty of opportunity to a lot of younger lads throughout the national league and their hunger and enthusiasm, hopefully, has infected all those around them and give the older lads who have experienced it all to give it another crack.
If Donegal can use some of what Fermanagh showed us in a defensive strategy and add that attacking culture that Declan Bonner has introduced it may be enough to get us over the line. If we leave ourselves open at the back, Tyrone will go for the jugular; they will punish us hard. So if we can frustrate them into making poor decisions and turning them over, then on the break use the lightning pace that Donegal have in most every positions.
The discipline I talked about earlier will be vital. You cannot afford to lose a man against the stronger sides; they find the openings and make you pay. Discipline, patience and match their hunger and drive then see what happens.
If we are in the mix with ten minutes to go, we will see where they are at. Donegal are the team going in with nothing to lose and sometimes that’s exactly what gives you the edge.