I ended up watching the Ulster final at Royal Troon, which was not something I ever imagined would happen. It was accidental. I knew I wasn’t going to make it to Clones because on Saturday I was involved with Celtic Under-20s who had a game, and I had some work to do on Sunday morning.
It was tough to accept because I’d been excited about the thought of this Ulster final since the teams came through. As it happened, Paul McGinley has been working at the golf for Sky all week, and I met him in Glasgow on Saturday evening, so he invited me out to see the final day.
As I drove out to the Ayrshire coast with the thousands of others, my mind was constantly on what the Donegal boys would be doing.
I felt very nostalgic about the day if I’m being honest. I kept looking at the clock and imagining what time the boys would leave the hotel, and when their meeting would be. When I was arriving at Troon it was just after 12pm, and I could picture them pulling into St Tiernach’s Park.
Sky set up a television in one of its studios so I could watch the game. Paul was sneaking a peek as best he could even though he was engrossed in the golf. But it was great to be able to see it.
And I have to say just prior to the throw-in, and seeing our team in a circle and then the two teams in lines facing the flag, I got real butterflies because of how much was riding on this. It was an occasion of real magnitude.
Yet the game struggled to take fire in many respects – it was very much cat and mouse. The teams spent a lot of time sussing one another out.
Then, having been 0-2 to no score down, Donegal pushed on to score four points without reply. And a lot of that was to do with the brilliance of Ryan McHugh. It is quite a while since I have seen a performance like that. For a player of his stature, his ability to drop the shoulder and get on to his good foot and deliver a quality score is exceptional. He was the driving force for Donegal, along with Odhran MacNiallais.
So Donegal got a grip on the game. Then the black card scenarios emerged. The black card interpretation is so nuanced. And I felt neither of them were black cards.
So when I saw Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane going off – two young powerful players who epitomised what this new Tyrone were supposed to be about – I felt it left Tyrone in a very difficult position. Trailing 0-7 to 0-4 is significant in a game of that nature. Because not only was McHugh causing mayhem, Peter Harte was being man-marked and hardly touched a ball in the first half.
So Donegal had placed themselves in a very good position at half time. Seconds after the restart, Michael Murphy fetched the ball and drove through the middle with unstoppable momentum and handed the ball to Patrick McBrearty, who kicked a score of real quality.
And it seemed like game over.
But Tyrone’s response was exceptional. From that moment, four points down, Tyrone dominated.
From that position, one minute into the second half, they kicked nine points, eight from play, while Donegal kicked two from play and 0-3 in total for the remainder of the game.
So you have to ask the question: what happened to Donegal from that point?
For me it seemed like they couldn’t penetrate. But there is a rhetorical question to be asked here as well: were they not able to penetrate or did they not want to?
Donegal’s game plan worked against Fermanagh and Monaghan, but they struggled to implement it against a team as defensively orientated as Tyrone.
had worked out what Donegal were going to do, and placed seven, eight, nine players across the 50.
In that second half Donegal tried to draw them out but they weren’t biting. The reality was that there was loads of space inside, and Donegal’s unwillingness to exploit that was their undoing.
For me Donegal fell into the same trap that caught them in last year’s Ulster final. Their game plan is to support from behind the ball. And the players are extremely disciplined in the implementation of that. And when it works, as it did previously, they are a handful for any team.
But I feel it is a one dimensional game plan in that it does not pose enough problems for opposition teams. They are not playing the long ball or getting ahead of the ball or running the ball aggressively. All the support is from behind.
So if you are not going to kick it long and kick it on the diagonal or run the ball or get ahead of the ball, then everything has to go lateral or backwards.
And the more Donegal did this in Clones, the more Tyrone realised that this is what they were going to do. That became the problem for Donegal. For me, championship football is about asking as many questions as you can.
Donegal, to my recollection, kicked one long ball in to Michael Murphy in the whole game. It was in the first half, and it caused mayhem. Niall Morgan came to meet it under pressure and thumped the ball anywhere: it spilled out over the sideline.
The point I am making is this: in terms of asking questions of the opposition, there has to be an unpredictability to what you are doing, yet it has to be 100 per cent predictable within the game plan.
So you have a number of strategies: every time you see an attacker isolated inside, let’s go long. Every time you see space to exploit, run into that space. Next time, support from behind. Next time kick it on the diagonal. It is varied, but it is still a script.
Donegal came with only one strategy and that’s why people were looking at their players hand-passing and going over and back across the pitch for most of the second half.
Tyrone just put all their concentration into dealing with that and they were highly disciplined and were rewarded with countless turnovers. All their points from play originated in turnovers in their side of the pitch. So I felt the predictable nature of Donegal’s play made them stall.
Tyrone still had to go and win this game from an unpromising position. And their mentality was very strong. It looked to me as if they made a decision that they were not going to get beaten on Sunday: we must win the game regardless of what happens.
So they had that indefatigable look. Nothing fazed them. They responded to Michael Murphy’s huge free. They responded to Christy Toye’s big point with two minutes left. You have to give that group of players and Mickey Harte great credit.
It has been a very hard road for Mickey on a personal level in recent years. And on a sporting note, this is a guy who has won five Ulster titles and three All-Irelands. He expects to be involved in days like this.
And I thought it was a really nice moment to see Mickey holding his grandchild and standing beside his son as he watched Seán Cavanagh lifting the Anglo-Celt.
I have no doubt that loss has played a big part in this crusade or drive to get another Tyrone team over the line. And I thought it was interesting that Cavanagh spoke afterwards about those who weren't there: Michaela Harte and Cormac McAnallen and Paul McGirr.
I felt their drive and mentality was coming from something bigger or beyond themselves. They have a cause or an emotional attachment which was bigger than a game of football.
They had to win for their county. And they had to win for people who are no longer there.
And sometimes that emotional attachment can get people to push to the maximum and keep on believing even when all the circumstances are telling you something different.
Interestingly, when I met Paul McGinley on Saturday night, he spoke about Henrik Stenson. And Paul said it was a long time since he saw him that focused.
He called it: he said if Stenson was that focused on Sunday, he would win the Open. And the interesting dynamic was that after Stenson won, he dedicated the tournament to his friend Mike Gerbich who passed away during the week.
And you wonder if that is one of the factors as to why the determination was there when he most needed it; when he was trying both to win his first Major and face down an extraordinary round of golf from Phil Mickelson. And he was able to find a record-setting round within himself.
So you wonder about the inspirations which can make athletes believe in themselves when they most need it.
Over the line
Tyrone were trying to get over the line here for the first time in a while. It was never going to be polished. But they might well improve now. That’s why the Ulster championship matters so much to the competing teams: winning it confers a kind of status on teams. You suddenly feel two inches taller.
Given Tyrone’s recent history they will feel like they are going back to the place they belong. You could see that in the celebrations afterwards. It was all new.
It wasn’t perfect but their mentality was. It was a game of fine margins but they generated momentum from within. If Donegal tagged on another point at 0-8 to 0-4 they might have gone away. But maybe that’s unfair because they responded to everything else.
Like all Donegal people, I was absolutely dismayed for the boys on Sunday. This team will always be loved within Donegal. And it is another tough final loss for them to absorb because there was nothing in it.
Run the bench
I do feel Rory could have run the bench a bit earlier. A lot of the times the reason we won big games was because of our bench. Go as hard as you can for as long as you can on a sweltering day like Sunday. When you have players like Leo McLoone, Colm McFadden and
on the bench who have won All-Irelands on the field of play, I don’t understand why they weren’t involved earlier or, in Leo’s case, at all.
It meant there was a situation where the same players were asked to do the whole job so you didn’t have that spike in intensity. And it is tough because it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see Donegal as back-to-back Ulster champions this week.
This will be a special title for Tyrone, not least because Seán Cavanagh guided them home with his inspirational points. It was suitable, after his magnificent contribution to Tyrone football, that he showed the next generation the way. And Peter Harte reversed his fortunes in the second half by stepping up when his county most needed him.
So it was a game-changer. Tyrone have seized the initiative from Donegal and they are champions.
In Troon, where the crowd was there to appreciate the good play of all the golfers, it was all very cordial. So it was difficult to imagine the wild celebrations of the victors in Clones and the absolute silence on the Donegal side. But like Donegal people everywhere, I could hear it anyway.