Donegal's rolling stone crushes Tyrone


ULSTER SFC SEMI-FINAL: Donegal 0-12 Tyrone 0-10:THIS WAS an absorbing encounter on the pitch but through the toughest exchanges, it was obvious that the chalk dust had been thick in both dressing rooms for the last few weeks. As predicted, Saturday’s Ulster semi-final was as frenetic as an ice hockey match but it was also as deliberate as a game of chess. The scores were slow coming and hard earned and the crowd of 17,330 was gripped to the end.

For the second year in succession, Tyrone fell short against Donegal but as they threw their bags on to the bus, the players could at least console themselves with a lot of reassuring “ifs”. If only they had marquee players like Seán Cavanagh and Kyle Coney available here. If only Paul Durcan had not made that outstanding save to send Martin Penrose’s last-gasp bolt for glory off the post.

If only they had taken a couple more chances in the first half.

Jim McGuinness happily admitted he was “bamboozled” by Tyrone afterwards and that seemed like the perfect word for it.

Mickey Harte’s strategy to deal with the Donegal threat of counter-attacking in waves was predictable in that he dropped men back.

But it was inventive in execution as Tyrone soaked up the best that the Donegal men had to offer in a low-scoring first half and then embarked on nimble-minded attacks along the tramlines, exposing a chink in the Donegal defence and sniping for points from distance.

As Harte pointed out afterwards, the teams mirrored each other in their alignment and that arrangement made for another departure from traditional football.

Perhaps the most startling example of this was the sight of Steven O’Neill, one of the purest attackers of the last 20 years, grappling for possession with Michael Murphy, generally regarded as the most promising young forward in the game. Both men were named at full forward but they were tussling for the ball out near the Donegal 50, yards from where McGuinness and Harte stood.

The traditional full forward sector was so clustered neither man had any room to do what they do best and so, like almost every other player, they went roaming.

Busy as the movement was, the fascination lay in seeing both teams literally think each other out. There was a guerrilla quality to the scores Tyrone produced in the first half, with Seán O’Neill and Dermot Carlin ghosting up from the left flank to expose gaps in the Donegal defence with quick points.

Conor Clarke, the young fullback who stepped in for the injured Justin McMahon, also roamed upfield to land a wonderful point from distance.

Tyrone found ways, as the smart teams always do. Big Joe McMahon landed two excellent long-range frees and Conor Gormley, their eternal centre-back, banged home a 50 late on.

The pattern of the game meant Peter Harte also dropped into the Tyrone half-back line and attempted to use his creativity from deep. But just like the Donegal men, he rarely found joy in his attempts to carry the ball into the heart of opposition country.

Donegal were not as imperious as they had been against Derry but this was a sterner test and they never once lost control of the flow of the game. They dealt with the disruption of a third-minute hamstring injury to fullback Neil McGee smoothly and gradually felt their way into the afternoon.

They broke clear in a 10-minute spell when the Tyrone resistance began to wane and the crucial scores advertised not their tactical acumen but their natural ball-playing ability. Rory Kavanagh kicked two classy points early in the second half and Colm McFadden, who won several balls he had no right to in the second half, scored the point of the day to put Donegal 0-12 to 0-8 up with seven minutes remaining.

Neil Gallagher claimed several exceptional catches at midfield and Mark McHugh did so much unseen work and still found time to fire a point.

Significantly, Donegal began to attack with more speed and directness in the last quarter even as the Tyrone effort wilted. They turned the ball over more than they will be happy with here, soloing into cul-de-sacs where red and white shirts had gathered and over-elaborating on attack several times.

But every so often, they cut through the gaps in Tyrone’s rearguard with aggression and purpose and had a variety of finishers. Ryan Bradley and Karl Lacey both contributed big points as Donegal set about taking control. As Mickey Harte would later note, a four-point lead in such a deliberate, tight game left Tyrone in a deep hole. It said much for their mental state that they almost managed to climb out of it.

Donegal will hardly be happy that they fell into a siege in the last five minutes. Steven O’Neill’s 71st-minute point was Tyrone’s first in half an hour but they almost orchestrated a memorable draw when Penrose skipped through a cluster of green and gold shirts and fired low and accurately at Paul Durcan’s goal.

The big Four Masters man spread himself and got his foot to the shot as it was crossing the line. It was that close and Donegal lived dangerously in those few minutes. But the match substantiated the view that the power in Ulster football has drifted northwest to the hills in the last few years.

A little over a year ago, Donegal’s starting ambition was merely to win an Ulster championship match. Now, they are one game away from being the first Donegal team to successfully defend the Anglo Celt Cup. The stone keeps rolling.

DONEGAL: 1 P Durcan; 2 P McGrath, 3 N McGee, 4 F McGlynn; 5 E McGee, 6 K Lacey (0-1), 7 A Thompson; 8 R Bradley (0-1), 9 N Gallagher; 10 D Walsh, 19 R Kavanagh (0-2), 12 M McHugh (0-1); 13 P McBrearty (0-1), 14 M Murphy (0-3, frees), C McFadden (0-3, 0-2 frees). Subs: Declan Walsh for N McGee (3 mins inj.), M McElhinney for N Gallagher (56 mins), M O’Reilly for D Walsh (56 mins), L McLoone for R Bradley (69 mins), C Toye for P McBrearty (72 mins). Yellow cards: Declan Walsh (21 mins), R Bradley (32 mins), C McFadden (50, 70). Red card: Colm McFadden (70 mins).

TYRONE: 1 P McConnell, 2 A McCrory, 3 C Clarke (0-1), 4 D Carlin (0-1), 23 R McMenamin, 6 C Gormley (0-1, 45), 12 P Harte, S O’Neill (0-1); 8 J McMahon (0-2, frees), 9 C Cavanagh; 18 Mattie Donnelly, 14 S O’Neill (0-2), 13 M Penrose (0-1); 11 M Donnelly (0-1), 15 O Mulligan. Subs: R McNabb for E Mulligan (49 mins), A Cassidy for C Cavanagh (56 mins), N McKenna for R McMenamin (56 mins), B McGuigan for Mattie Donnelly (61 mins). Yellow cards: S O’Neill (26 mins), C Cavanagh (30 mins),

Referee: D Coldrick (Meath).

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