The hatred is alive and the hatred is well. One again in this incendiary rivalry, Donegal and Tyrone tumbled into one another as if life itself depended on it.
After a whirlwind of broken bodies, splendid scores, shredded jerseys, 14 assorted referee’s cards and a simmering atmosphere of naked hostility, it was left to Donegal to raise their fists in triumph for the fourth time out of five summers. They manufactured 1-10 from play on a May day for umbrellas and hot tea in Ballybofey in a performance illuminated by a revitalised Colm McFadden.
The teams have changed somewhat since Donegal began bossing this thorny feud in 2011 and this occasion marked a first Ulster championship victory for Rory Gallagher on his debut outing as manager against a modern master. But the mood music hasn't changed one bit. It is still death metal. There is no point in denying the shared emotion between the two. These teams truly loathe one another.
It finished 1-13 to 1-10 and, after executing a smart strategic game of patient approach play and precise attacks which created four goal chances, Mickey Harte once again discovered that the Donegal fortitude runs exceptionally deep.
Michael Murphy, Donegal's captain and figurehead, endured the kind of attention from big Justin McMahon not witnessed since slow-sets were last played in mid-Ulster night clubs but kept his composure to land a 45 and an absurdly brilliant free in the last 10 minutes which killed the sense of rebellion in the Red Hand.
McMahon’s shadowing of Murphy was a match within the match. From the beginning, he draped himself around the St Michael’s man and completely ignored the football match taking place around him. It was a direct extension to the kind of spooking to which Aidan O’Mahony subjected Murphy to in the All-Ireland final. It is menacing and it is effective.
“I felt probably that while the officials did a good job that Michael was targeted,” said Gallagher when asked about it. “There is no doubt about that. But look, that is the way it is. It is up to other people to deal with it. The officials had a great game but Michael comes in for a lot of attention off the ball which isn’t allowed.”
Gallagher’s debut could not have been more pressurised. In March at this same venue, Harte had expressed magisterial disappointment in his players after watching Donegal brush them aside in the league fixture here.
This time, they stood up, with Darren McCurry opening their account with a comet of a goal which sent a surge of confidence through the side with Peter Hare and Mattie Donnelly then directing attacking traffic for the visitors.
“I knew there was a good performance in this team,” Harte said. “That was as Tyrone have played in a number of years, in any game.”
Something of the old Tyrone hauteur returned to their play here and when Ronan McNabb slipped a 34th-minute point to leave them 1-06 to 0-7 ahead.
But that was just the eye of the storm. The half closed in a way true to its character: beautiful passages of play conjured up through furious defensive cover. Donegal broke at pace and after with Neil Gallagher on hand as playmaker, Martin McElhinney hammered Donegal's only goal from a broken ball. Seconds later, McFadden floated what must have been one of the best points ever scored at this ground, a sensational floating point on the run with that magical left foot.
The second half was a street fight. Neil Gallagher saw the line with six minutes remaining and Seán Cavanagh followed shortly afterwards. Impromptu wrestling bouts broke out around the field. Frank McGlynn put in a preposterously brilliant afternoon, making all the right moves all the time and the challenges becoming more abrasive with every passing minute.
“It was tough,” said Ryan McHugh. “It was very physical. Wee niggles here there and everywhere and scores very tough to come by.”
Tyrone were level at 1-10 with 14 minutes remaining, defying all predictions and doubters. They never quit: a young team may have grown up here. But Donegal did not blink either.
“We were edging it patches but that is the nature of us and Tyrone,” Rory Gallagher said. “They get a few scores, we get a few scores. But I was delighted with the response.”
The prize couldn’t be sweeter for Donegal: an away trip to the Athletic Grounds in one month. Sitting among the 17,645 interested spectators was the Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney. Gallagher smiled darkly when asked if Donegal were likely to be served up similar afternoon delights when they visit the city of saints and scholars.
“I expect so,” he said. Into Ulster proper for Donegal, then.