Donegal march on to Ulster final after sublime half-hour does for Tyrone
Tyrone never fully recovered after Peter Harte was sent off on a black card
Donegal’s Jamie Brennan celebrates scoring a goal during the Ulster SFC semi-final against Tyrone at Kingspan Breffni Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Donegal 1-16 Tyrone 0-15
The pendulum swings again. Declan Bonner’s young team took a huge stride forward with a strong and sometimes brilliant Saturday evening show against Tyrone. It was their first summer win over Mickey Harte’s team since 2015 and leaves them an intriguing proposition now that the summer deepens.
The big question hovering over this match was answered in the opening 10 minutes, which were simply breathtaking. Before this game, the Ulster championship had drawn favourable comparisons to its Munster hurling counterpart. At the start, both teams behaved as if it was the Munster hurling championship. A hundred miles an hour, end to end, and an out and out exhibition of skill.
Tyrone hinted at a more conservative approach by including defender Liam Rafferty and Kieran McGeary in their starting line-up but they weren’t about to circle the wagons.
Instead, both teams set a ridiculous standard in terms of pace and quality. It was 1-3 to 0-3 to Donegal after just eight minutes. Richard Donnelly opened the scoring after just 20 seconds and it was as if both teams forgot themselves after that score, attacking with absolute freedom and imagination from the get-go.
Tyrone should have had their a goal of their own during this period but Peter Harte, after being set-up by Cathal McShane, had his shot blocked by Ryan McHugh, who settled into his usual play-everywhere role.
That opening stanza suggested that this Ulster semi-final would ascend into one of those classic encounters that come to define an era. But Tyrone suffered a serious setback when Harte was black-carded after cutting across Ryan McHugh, who had just stolen possession. They would score just 0-2 for the remainder of the half and one of those scores was a free from goalkeeper Niall Morgan.
Instead, Donegal seemed to grow and mature before the highly engaged in the big canyon in Cavan town. They put together a sublime half hour of football. Jamie Brennan had 1-3 from play before he took his half-time refreshments, finishing his goal brilliantly after Eoghan Ban Gallagher cut the Tyrone defence apart with a lacerating goal.
The Bundoran flier has a frightening ability to create something from nothing and finished another point seconds later. And when Michael Murphy popped up in the left corner and carved a gorgeous score with his right foot, it began to dawn on the Tyrone supporters that this Saturday evening could be trouble.
The scoring rate slowed but Donegal’s defensive set-up completely thwarted the Red Hand. At the heart of this was Hugh McFadden, who gave a career performance. The Killybegs man was dominant at midfield but he constantly dropped back to double up on Cathal McShane, Tyrone’s inside threat.
With Neil McGee shadowing Mattie Donnelly, and Donegal dropping back and pressuring the Tyrone ball carriers, they could find no way through.
Their worries were compounded when they lost possession, with Leo McLoone and the McHughs leading the charge of the light brigade towards the other end of the field.
In the 37th minute, Murphy stationed himself in front of the Tyrone goal for the first time in the half. Gallagher found him with a long ball. Murphy rose, claimed possession and fired a point to complete a 1-9 to 0-5 half. A chill fell over the Red Hand county.
Almost inevitably, the second half was more ordinary in comparison. Tyrone kept vaguely in touch through frees without ever really eating into that first-half deficit.
The clouds further darkened when Tiernan McCann, shortly after becoming involved with Stephen McMenamin, was helped off after suffering a leg injury. Colm Cavanagh, a totemic figure in this Tyrone era, had already left the field.
Donegal sat back and forced Tyrone to play and kept their noses ahead by playing in spurts which yielded further beautifully worked scores. In the end, they were controlled rather than rampant and there was a sense here that they might have inflicted a more brutal lesson on the scoreboard on last year’s All-Ireland finalists. Hugh McFadden finished his excellent evening’s work with a point late in the day.
This was a very impressive tactical display from Bonner, who had the opportunity to send young Oisín Gallen in midway through the second half, even if there was no repeat of the division two league final pyrotechnics.
And yet for all the one-way traffic, when Richard Donnelly clipped a point in the 73rd minute, there was just four points between the teams. On a day when nothing went right for Mickey Harte’s team; in a game when they looked disconsolate at times, they weren’t a million miles away on the scoreboard.
Michael Cassidy flashed another over the bar to leave just a goal in it and a few grains of sand left still. The tension suddenly filled the amphitheatre again. After all the beauty and freedom of the opening 10 minutes, the teams and counties were back in that place they knew best: love and hate. They’ll meet again.
DONEGAL: 1 S Patton; 2 P McGrath, 3 N McGee, 4 S McMenamin (0-1); 5 R McHugh (0-1), 11 L McLoone, 7 EB Gallagher; 8 H McFadden (0-1), 9 J McGee; 19 E McHugh (0-1), 14 M Murphy (0-5, two frees, one 45) , 18 N O’Donnell; 13 P McBrearty (0-3, one free), 15 M Langan (0-1), 12 J Brennan (1-3).
Subs: 10 C Thompson for 9 J McGee (16 mins, inj), 6 D O’Baoill for E McHugh (39), 17 F McGlynn for L McLoone (49), 25 O Gallen for N O’Donnell (55), 21 P Brennan fo Brennan (66).
TYRONE: 1 N Morgan (0-2, one free, one 45); 4 M McKernan, 6 B McDonnell, 3 R McNamee; 5 T McCann, 2 P Hampsey, 20 B Kennedy; 25 K McGeary (0-2), 26 L Rafferty; 8 C Cavanagh, 9 R Donnelly (0-3), 10 M Donnelly (0-1); 14 P Harte, 12 F Burns; 13 C McShane (0-3, two frees).
Subs: 15 C McAliskey for P Harte (11 mins, b/c), R Brennan for Rafferty, 11 N Sludden for Cavanagh (h/t), 24 D McCurry (0-3, one free) for McDonnell (41), 7 M Cassidy (0-1) for Burns (51), 23 A McCrory for McCann (56).
Referee: D Gough (Meath).