Tyrone v Donegal is about giving nothing and relinquishing nothing

Suddenly, the Ulster championship finds itself at the height of fashion and celebrated

In 1989, the actor Daniel Day-Lewis played Hamlet in the National Theatre and left the stage during a performance reportedly disturbed after seeing his father’s ghost. Also in 1989- and not directly connected- Donegal played Tyrone in the Ulster football championship.

If the cast of that particular on-going play was ever to be concerned about ghosts, then they’d never leave the dressing room. Because the old faces and voices are about them all the time.

At five o’clock on Saturday comes the latest version of the Tyrone-Donegal enmity. Suddenly, the Ulster championship finds itself at the height of fashion and celebrated by high society, shrugging off the old prejudices of spite, taunting, dragging and prolonged bouts of claustrophobia to produce a series of riveting games.

Saturday afternoon’s game is expected to be the high point of a gripping provincial drama. Since 2010, Donegal have appeared in seven Ulster finals, winning four. Tyrone have won three championships.


The teams only met in one final throughout that time: an anxious, broiling affair in 2016 defined by two late points by Sean Cavanagh. But for the most part, their summers were largely defined by gargantuan first round or semi-final meetings when they sought to mortally wound the other's ambitions.

"When Jim McGuinness first came in, Tyrone were always on our radar," says Rory Kavanagh, the former All-Ireland winning midfielder with Donegal.

“We always knew we would be meeting further down the line and we always knew our defining moment would be against Tyrone and as such we were tapering and planning training with Tyrone in mind. Think back in 2011 and 2012, we started in the preliminary round but it was Tyrone we were building towards.”

There is so much anticipation surrounding this game that it almost seems fated to be contrary and ugly: for the teams and the occasion to reject the hype and remind the watching world of why they used to give out about the Ulster championship in the first place.

But it is a mistake to think that Saturday’s game is merely about getting a result and a path through to the Ulster final for either team. It has always meant so much more. Last summer, former Tyrone midfielder Enda McGinley recalled on Off the Ball what he felt to be the origins of this rivalry. “A non-game in Edendork, a secondary pitch because the main pitch was waterlogged” is how he described the surroundings.

And you can imagine it: the squelch under-foot, a few thousand sodden supporters, raw air and the mood on the pitch pulsing with mutual dislike. Tyrone winning, of course. And Ryan McMenamin, then, unable to prevent himself from stating his mind to the Donegal men: “You’ll never amount to nothing. Youse are chokers.”

McGinley said he winced when he heard the remark and thought to himself “Ah Christ, don’t tempt fate.” And Donegal took the words with them back into the dressing room and they made sure they were bouncing around in the back of their minds when they served up championship beatings in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and 2015 when, out of nowhere, they became the obstacle that Mickey Harte’s team couldn’t clear. That flipped with that 2016 final and since then, Tyrone have had the squeeze on Donegal.

The teams avoided one another in the Ulster championship last summer and Donegal ended up as champions. But when they met in the All-Ireland series, Tyrone finished up on top. That’s what these games are about: giving nothing and relinquishing nothing.

“Yeah. It’s a huge game, “ Kavanagh states. “We don’t really know where Donegal are at yet. We kind of know that yes, they got over Fermanagh and Tyrone got over Derry and Antrim. But even though Donegal are Ulster champions they still have a lot to prove in many people’s eyes because of the way last year ended with the Super 8s and Tyrone beating us and ending the home record in Ballybofey. So even though we are Ulster champions, that balance of power hasn’t shifted.

“For Donegal it is a massive game because on the last three occasions we have met we have been on the losing side. And that balance of power has to shift if we are going to be taken seriously among the elite teams. Because that is where Donegal want to be.”

Damian O’Hagan belongs to a Tyrone football dynasty and is the manager of the current county champions Coalisland. He had been manager of the team that won its last senior title in 2010. Scroll through the list of Tyrone senior winners over the last decade and what jumps out is the number of strong contenders: appearing in two consecutive finals is an achievement, let alone winning it.

O'Hagan was very appreciative of the work his predecessors had done and inherited a committed squad. When he returned with Pete Ahern he was convinced that a more attacking game would best suit his team. He had trained most of them on and off since they were 10: he knew their strengths and weaknesses.

The risk is that those little flashpoints will become so common that black smoke will eventually occlude the football match

“I was confident that the team was good enough to beat anyone in Tyrone regardless of what way they played.”

So Coalisland came out blazing with an attack-first mindset last year. And their approach mirrored the way the Tyrone senior team have played this year, abandoning the defensive shell for a more expansive, attacking game. O’Hagan says that coaching the defensive patterns out of his Coalisland squad required patience.

“It is difficult because a lot of the time you are on the line and no matter what you say beforehand they can slip back into that defensive role. It took a lot of time and it still hasn’t evolved yet fully because players were in that habit. And that is no good if you are playing with a breeze and down five points.”

The startling thing about Tyrone is that they appear to have adapted to the more adventurous attacking game without a glance backwards. The plaudits have been general for Mickey Harte- who couldn’t care less for them anyhow.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Tyrone fans are much happier with the way they play now,” O Hagan agrees.

"But in saying that. Tyrone - even though RTE and Pat Spillane and Joe Brolly have hammered them at different times- have been no more defensive than a lot of teams. But they now have an outlet in young [Cathal] McShane where they see him and Mattie Donnelly, if they are pushed up front, as players they can afford to let long ball into because that they have ball winners.

“The one thing about young McShane is that he never quits showing for ball. It is not in his make up to hide. And I have to say his skill level has come on tenfold compared to two years ago. He is no longer aimless . . . he is very direct and plays very smartly at times.”

Equally, Donegal have changed their approach dramatically since Declan Bonner took over from Rory Gallagher. They have been playing man-on-man defence, using the totemic Michael Murphy in a more overtly attacking role and giving license to the stream of talented young attacking players to express themselves. Again, the praise has been general. What makes this evening's encounter intriguing is whether the managers will be willing to persevere with the new way when faced with such an old and troubling adversary.

“It’s an interesting one,” says Kavanagh. “When the pressure comes on players usually revert to type, which in the case of Donegal and Tyrone is a defensive shell. But we have seen evidence with Tyrone in the All-Ireland final last year that they had the courage to push up. And they got a good start and went five up but probably didn’t have the overall strength that Dublin had to see the game out.

“There is definitely evidence they are going to play an inside game. We have often criticised Tyrone for not having that inside forward line and target man and they have kind of answered that question in McShane and he has been playing very well. I think he has 13 points in the last couple of games. He is a true threat now to probably Neil McGee in there picking him up. So it is another string to their bow.

Whatever manager is brave enough to say: look, we are going to attack this game will probably deserve to win

“In the past, we never really took Tyrone seriously in their kicking game. And I do feel that Tyrone have an advantage over Donegal in their physicality so when it comes down to a real aggressive physical game I see them having an edge in those hand to hand close quarter battles.”

The risk is that those little flashpoints will become so common that black smoke will eventually occlude the football match. Kavanagh is still bothered by the memory of Tyrone “emptying the bench” in the Super 8s match in Ballybofey last year and just twisting the knife in the last 15 minutes. “Hopefully Donegal have learned from that.”

Like most Tyrone people, Damian O’Hagan is fascinated to see to what extent Tyrone will exhibit the courage of their convictions. “It is down to what manager has the balls to not be afraid and not be conservative,” O’Hagan says.

“Can I see this be a totally open game as both teams were playing before? I think if Tyrone play their own game and have the two boys inside they can win this. Do I see Declan Bonner sticking his neck on the line and playing open? I don’t know. It is a wee bit high risk now but 10 years ago it wouldn’t have been seen high risk in any shape or form. So whatever manager is brave enough to say: look, we are going to attack this game will probably deserve to win.”

It comes down to the old Ulster championship truism then. This above all: to thine old self be true.

Try taking your eyes of it.