Mickey Harte: ‘As bad a performance as I have been involved with from a Tyrone team’

Donegal run out easy winners in Ballybofey as Tyrone left with huge task to avoid relegation

Donegal 1-13 Tyrone 0-6

"I said to the players afterwards that this was as bad a performance as I have been involved with from a Tyrone team over all the time I have been involved, at any level, and at any age," said Mickey Harte as the Tyrone fans peeled away from Ballybofey to ponder a comprehensive loss in this prelude to their Ulster championship visit in May.

Nothing about Tyrone’s league performance suggested that they would be so completely bossed by Donegal, the county who have had the Indian sign on them in recent years. But in physique and smartness and pure hunger, Donegal won on all score cards on a bleak afternoon, harnessing a strong wind – the constant theme of this league – in the first half and then seeing the game out in the second.

Their day was slightly blighted by a black card handed out to Michael Murphy; his third dismissal of the league means he will miss next week's visit to Mayo. On the flip side, it leaves him with a clean license for the summer drive through Ulster.

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Donegal were excellent here for large periods and their willingness to play for one another was evident from the start. Martin McElhinney got a late call-up and shone all afternoon, banging over two excellent points in the first quarter of the match and constantly breaking Tyrone’s defensive wall.

The brothers McGee controlled the full-back line and didn’t seem too upset when both were flashed yellow cards. Murphy was again a tour de force and Ryan McHugh managed to contribute 1-1, draw an excellent goal-line block from Justin McMahon and get through a mountain of defensive work.

"I thought we probably played with more quality that we have at any stage in the league," said a relaxed Rory Gallagher afterwards.

“Just pleased with the overall attitude from everybody.”

For Donegal, this comprehensive win put further distance between them and the nadir of the Monaghan performance. But for the visiting Tyrone support, this was a harrowing afternoon. Six points in 70 minutes and some 32 minutes without a score did not bode well. For long periods, they simply seemed at a loss as to what to do when they had the ball.

“We didn’t come up here to lose by 13 points,” said an ashen-faced Tiernan McCann before leaving the field.

“Even if we had played a tough, tight game and lost by a few points, we would have taken that. This sets us back a wee bit and yeah, a bit shellshocked. We played into Donegal’s hands in the second half.”

In truth, they struggled from the off. Murphy landed Donegal’s first point on 15 seconds and followed up with a monster free which set the tone. They used Murphy as a go-to man down the centre, they used three up front and kept the Tyrone full-back line penned in and ran the ball smartly.

Donegal’s goal, on the half hour mark, had a small element of luck. Frank McGlynn’s attempted point fell off the post and into the arms of the waiting Hugh McFadden. He was smothered by converging white shirts but when the ball popped loose, the timing of Ryan McHugh was, as ever, immaculate. He arrived to crash home from close range, leaving the home team 1-8 to 0-3 to the good.

Donegal had time for one more dispossession and a collective gallop across the prairie, with Murphy heading the pony express before delivering a pass for Odhran MacNiallais – quietly brilliant all day – to crash over from close range.

This was a blitz on the Tyrone senses. Their cause was not helped by the late withdrawal of Seán Cavanagh, leaving them without a real focal point and menace in their full-forward line.

Conor Clarke was drafted in and acted as a sweeping defender and ball carrier but once the Tyrone men hit the 50 yard line, they faced both the massing Donegal defensive lines and that damnable wind.

Their early burst of creativity, which yielded two frees and a point from play from Darren McCurry in the 13th minute simply stopped on the 15 minute mark. The half became a kind of score-limitation exercise. With Murphy in a mood to land a series of dead-ball marvels – from 55 and 60 metres respectively – their cause wasn’t helped.

Neil McGee, in an imposing, dominating performance at full back, supported the attack at every opportunity and clipped a fine point from 30 yards. Donegal's shifting configuration and Tyrone's defensive diligence meant that some of the home team's brightest lights – Patrick McBrearty saw very little ball while others – Ryan McHugh, Karl Lacey – seemed involved in every attack. Where was McHugh playing? Everywhere, seemed to be the answer, as the Kilcar man tidied up Donegal's house and carried ball along the wing and harassed Tyrone's designated ball carriers.

The central question of the game soon made itself evident: would Tyrone be able to catch up in the second half? Those odds lengthened after they lost their long-range free specialist, Niall Morgan, through a first-half injury. (His first choice opposite, Paul Durcan, withdrew as he was involved in a car accident on Saturday while travelling home for the Donegal).

Even Cavanagh's appearance made no difference. Two Peter Harte frees was as good as it got for Tyrone. They need to beat Kerry by two points or more in Healy Park next Sunday if they are to stay in division one.

“I was amazed by that,” smiled Mickey Harte.

“I thought as we left the field we were Division Two bound. I couldn’t imagine a situation where we could save ourselves. Then again, beating Kerry by two points is not an easy thing to do either. But at least it is not a dead rubber and it gives us a chance to show something of what we are capable of and if we can do that, it will help get over the hurt of this today.”

DONEGAL: 16 M Boyle; 5 F McGlynn (0-1), 3 N McGee (0-1), 2 E McGee; 12 R McHugh (1-1), 6 K Lacey, 7 E Doherty; 20 M McElhinney (0-2), 8 N Gallagher; 9 C Toye, 14 M Murphy (0-6, four frees), 11 O MacNiallais (0-1); 10 M O'Reilly, 13 P McBrearty (0-1, free), 15 H McFadden.

Substitutes: C McFadden for N Gallagher (56 mins), A Thompson for M Murphy (58 mins), M McHugh for R McHugh (66 mins), D McLaughlin for M McElhinney (black card, 65 mins), G McFadden for N McGee (68 mins), D Walsh for M O'Reilly (70 mins).

TYRONE: 1 N Morgan; 2 A McCrory, 3 R McNamee, 4 C McCarron; 5 R McNabb, 6 J McMahon, 7 P Harte (0-2, two frees); 8 C Cavanagh, 9 P McNulty; 10 T McCann, 11 M Donnelly, 25 R O'Neill (0-1); 13 D McCurry (0-1), 17 C Clarke, 15 C McAliskey (0-1, free).

Substitutes: 16 S Fox for 1 N Morgan (20 mins), S Cavanagh (0-1) for R O'Neill (half-time), PJ McLavery for C McAlliskey, 21 C McCann for P McNulty (both 40 mins), R McKenna for C Clarke (43 mins), 18 P Hughes for C Cavanagh (63 mins),

Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan).

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times