This was the weirdest weekend I have ever experienced in my lifelong involvement with Gaelic football. By the time I returned to a deserted Roscommon town on Sunday evening I was certain of two things. Donegal are the genuine article when we talk about All-Ireland contenders. And the weather is going to be a big, big player in this strange season.
I left home on Saturday evening for an overnight stay in Donegal. And it was just eerie: a three hour journey through the north west on Halloween night and every single town I went through was a ghost town. The bars shuttered, the hotels empty; only the takeaways had any sign of life.
The journey through Barnesmore Gap was genuinely spooky - nothing on the road. Not a place you’d fancy having a breakdown. We checked into Jackson’s hotel and the guests were all in their respective bedrooms. It’s normally a cheerful, lively place. Then the electricity went, not long after the start of the Ireland-France rugby game. I came out onto the corridor and all the other guests were exiting their rooms at the same time.
On normal championship Sundays, there is a particular Donegal buzz about Ballybofey. It’s very Ulster, very of its place. Everything was different this time. I sent my online Covid check form and was ticked off at the gate. I walked the park and it was sodden and bleak. Where the river curls around the back of the stand, I bumped into one of our TV guys and he showed me a video from Saturday of these four massive squeegee things just sucking up water. And it looked like a tributary of the Finn river flowing through the player’s tunnel. There was about a foot of water gushing through the tunnel. So if the game had been fixed for Saturday, there is no way it could have been played. It was a marvellous effort by the local ground staff.
We did a pre-game interview on the sideline and we got drowned. I committed a schoolboy error that my mother would scold me for - I put the wet gear on afterwards. In commentary, we were enclosed in Perspex and it was difficult to identify the players. Microphones were taken out of sanitised plastic bags. Everything about the day was disconcerting and strange. We limited our ambitions to keeping track of the scores and the players and a few basic statistics.
I say all this to highlight just how prominently the weather is going to feature in this All-Ireland championship. There is ice forecast for this week so the teams could be dealing with an entirely different set of circumstances.
Therefore the physique of your squad becomes a vital advantage. And this was borne out in Donegal's performance. I believe now they have all the attributes required to become All-Ireland winners. Michael Murphy, Michael Langan, Jason McGee, Caolan McGonigle and Hugh McFadden form a unit that gives Donegal a massively powerful central presence. They are all fine footballers but they are also big, rangy, powerful men who can win their own ball and remain tidy on it. McFadden's ability to keep it going over 70 minutes was outstanding. And I think Donegal have a lot of those players. It is a rare day when Michael Murphy doesn't score for Donegal but yet it happened and his team still came through. That bodes well for them.
I put them at third favourites for the All-Ireland but that is a modest placing
The scene was set for an Ulster dog fight and it became that - but with so much good football produced by both sides. And now, Donegal have been road-tested by Tyrone. I put them at third favourites for the All-Ireland but that is a modest placing. I can make a strong argument for them going the whole way. They have a very good manager, coach and backroom team. Then they have a very experienced cohort. They have two elite free takers in Thompson and Murphy and a modern high-standard goalkeeper in Shaun Patton.
Look at their defence: teak tough defenders in Neil McGee and Paul Brennan, top man markers in McGee and McMenamin and the pace of Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Ryan McHugh and McMenamin. What ties a lot of that area together is Murphy. He was quiet by his standards but he leads that orchestra. There is no job too small for Murphy. He will go do what has to be done. I saw him go and cover defensive spaces while his teammates attacked on Sunday. He sets the physical standard, he communicates with the referee and he works like a dog.
Then the forward line offers a lot of different qualities. I feel Oisin Gallen is a must starter. Jamie Brennan never stopped; he made errors but he really impressed me because he keeps on showing. Peadar Mogan looks like a big addition. Afterwards I bumped into Patrick McBrearty in the car park. He has two weeks to get ready for the Armagh game now. Throw him into that mix and that is one potent forward unit.
Two goals in five games is not the standard you need
But it was the manner in which they came back twice - 0-5 to 0-1 down and drowning and, again, from the sucker punch of Tyrone’s goal to leave them two adrift - that convinced me they have improved. They hit 0-4 against the elements without reply in response to Canavan’s goal. And they closed the game out when they needed to.
And yet, Tyrone could be smiling this week. They nearly did it. Their big failing is that they just do not score enough goals from the opportunities they create. They scored seven goals in the league. But five of those were in the last two games. Two goals in five games is not the standard you need. They opted for points against Donegal when goals were on - and the goal they actually got was handed to them. It was expertly finished by Canavan but it wasn’t created.
They don’t seem to recognise three-on-twos. Their approach smacks of safety first. I felt they had some really good goal opportunities. So therefore it is easy to make an argument that for all I have said about Donegal, they could have been taken out by a more clinical and ambitious Tyrone. Kerry and Dublin would walk the ball into the net if given those overlaps.
So this is a difficult week for Tyrone. They know deep down they have the makings of a very good team - and an added X-factor in McKenna. They have an issue at midfield and Colm Cavanagh was very badly missed on Sunday. They don't have a foothold there and they suffer under the long kick out. They don't have sufficient power and height to win their share of dropping ball.
The hard part for Mickey Harte is that whether he will be pressurised or feel it is time to go. It is difficult to walk away from something when you know the potential within the squad. He is a great man and a great manager. He has changed the football ambition within Tyrone - and has had a profound influence on the evolution of Gaelic football.
My view is that his leaving should be of his own deciding. That rarely happens. But it seems almost rude to even discuss it. Isn’t it Tyrone’s business? Or his business? It is amazing the space given to the future of Mickey Harte but that is the world we live in. It’s his decision to make whenever he chooses to make it.
Before the ball was thrown-in, people spoke of this as an early Ulster final. It is dangerous talk for the two teams involved. But it does mean that Donegal come through with an enhanced reputation. And Monaghan, their old nemesis, were suddenly removed from the equation on Saturday and the road looked a little bit clearer. Now, Armagh will have a lot to say about that but for some reason they continue to make life difficult for themselves. They seemed to be closing out their game against Derry comfortably but fell right back into a dog fight. I do think Armagh and Donegal are the two strongest teams left in the province now by some distance so their semi-final feels like another big test.
That is the killer of the knock-out. It is too brutal
Back in December, Donegal could be had at 14-1. They are not at that any longer. It shows how they have developed in the last few matches. If they go about their business properly, they will have a big say.
I was out of the town boundary a minute after I got into the car. The last time I was at a championship match in Ballybofey, I was stuck in traffic and I took an adventurous left that took me through woodland and hills and ended up putting two hours onto my drive. I had no idea where I was. But the emptiness of the countryside on Sunday evening hammered home the strangeness of this time. It’s half a miracle we are getting to see an All-Ireland in 2020.
Nine teams are now gone. By next Monday, another 10 will be gone. And everything will be suddenly narrowed. And the tough part for teams like Tyrone and Monaghan is that they are out of the equation on such fine margins. A bounce of the ball, a few calls, a miss or two and you are gone. It eats you up over the winter and spring, particularly if you watch the crowd that beat you keep on going.
That is the killer of the knock-out. It is too brutal. Many of my generation know that feeling and you wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But it makes for exceptional sport.