It’s time to get that green and gold flag dusted down and erected once again. On Sunday week, Donegal will contest their eighth Ulster final in nine years. As we know, Ulster is the toughest province in the country and to reach so many finals on the trot is very impressive.
I believe that last Saturday’s performance against Tyrone was a tactical masterclass delivered by Declan Bonner. As I stated in this column last week, the influence of former Mayo manager Stephen Rochford cannot be ignored. His style of play was stamped all over Donegal’s defensive and offensive tactics. And yes, it was indeed a masterstroke by Bonner to invite Rochford into the Donegal setup.
For once, I believe that Tyrone manager Mickey Harte may have erred tactically. His problem was that we have too many prolific forwards to mark. While our more high-profile players were being watched and shadowed Jamie Brennan stepped up to the plate and it was his goal that took the wind out of Tyrone’s sails early in the game. Not that Brennan is just another forward. He is a class act. Though Tyrone did have three clear goal opportunities, Shaun Patton made great saves to deny the O’Neill men. That’s why he’s there and that’s what goalkeepers are supposed to do. Goalkeepers though, in the modern game have added responsibilities in respect of kick-outs. Patton has certainly improved in no small measure this season. I’m surmising that former All-Ireland winning goalkeeper, Paul Durcan has made a huge impact here. I liked everything about Donegal’s overall display because we were always in control. We dictated the pace and style of play. Our discipline and patience once again were exemplary.
Make no mistake about it, this Tyrone team are no slouches. They are physically very strong and have a quality group of players and will have plenty of say when the Super 8s begin. But that Donegal could play at will for such long periods is testimony to their current status as genuine contenders for not only Ulster glory but for All-Ireland success too.
I appreciate that we don’t want to get carried away or look too far ahead. Declan Bonner and his charges certainly won’t. I simply believe that it will take a serious outfit to beat Donegal. Kerry, Mayo and possibly Galway can definitely cause problems. Dublin though are still out there as the main team to beat. I’m not basing my outlook solely on the Tyrone game. There’s a distinct and definite change to our team from what was there last season. Our young players that Declan Bonner nurtured since there were minors and even at U-16 level have matured into outstanding talents. They are ripe for success. It is pleasing to watch their progress and how they have adapted to senior inter-county football. They have eased the pressure on our seasoned players and compliment those mature players in so many aspects of the game.
The basics for any team are fitness and conditioning. That is there without question this year. These fundamentals allow players to have endurance, speed, mobility and agility. It is no secret in the sporting world that physical fitness is directly correlated to mental fitness. Our speed of thought, sense of positioning and timing is finely tuned this season. More importantly, the conditioning facet of general fitness allows players to take and give hits.
As I well know, a massive hit to the body can be more energy consuming than running the length of the pitch. Throughout our league campaign we were in hard training for the championship while simultaneously in the process of gaining promotion. The fact that Donegal played from Division Two doesn’t matter a hoot because we were always there with quality and efficiency.
Since, we were beaten by Tyrone last August, we have been on an upward spiral. So much has changed physically and mentally in nine months. It’s is not only the players who have been transformed. Our management team have taken on their deficiencies and fixed them. They will have watched this Tyrone game and taken the negatives along with the positives. They certainly won’t be pleased that Tyrone were able to breach our defence to create three goal chances. However, they cannot make everything perfect. Good and great teams will always create goal chances no matter what.
For now, we have the bragging rights over our neighbours in Tyrone. To be honest, that matters little. There are bigger days ahead. If a team wants to learn about discipline, then all they have to do is to pay close attention to Donegal. Tyrone’s discipline however was poor overall. A silly foul by Peter Harte at the outset caused him and his team a black card. It perhaps, played a part in Tyrone’s demise. The incident involving Tiernan McCann only served to buoy Donegal. It actually infuriated those Donegal players who were closest to it. Because of Donegal’s superior discipline, none of them reacted in a manner that would interrupt their supremacy. It wasn’t that long ago that some of our players questioned and harrassed many referees about decisions, made rash tackles, lost their shape and got frustrated as a result. I don’t see that now.
The journey has truly begun and the bandwagon is surely rolling. Next up on Sunday week it’s Cavan, the Breffni Brave Hearts. For now, we’ll sit back and enjoy the sunshine.
In the meantime, keep the faith!