Ulster showdown looming early for Donegal and Tyrone

Counties who have won eight of the last ten titles between them to meet in semi-final

Ulster’s football showdown may be coming early this year. They’ve won eight of the last 10 titles between them, meet for a third successive year, and there’s also a couple of fresh scores for Donegal to settle when they meet Tyrone on Saturday week.

“I’m not sure it will have any bearing, no” says Declan Bonner, the Donegal manager talking about last year’s final game in the Super-8s, when Tyrone beat Donegal in Ballybofey to clinch a place in the All-Ireland semi-finals.

With that they ended Donegal’s eight-year unbeaten run at Ballybofey, 21 games in the league and championship, going back to 2010, and the Ulster championship defeat to Down; Tyrone also beat Donegal in the 2017 Ulster semi-final.

So, even if only deciding one semi-final, the game at Kingspan Breffni Park may ultimately decide the provincial title too, particularly with Armagh and Cavan on the other side of the draw. They meet in Clones the Sunday to decide the first semi-final, Armagh last winning the Ulster title in 2008, Cavan as far back as 1997.


Indeed Monaghan, in 2013 and 2015, are the only other county to get a hand on the Ulster title since 2008. Bonner did guide Donegal to the title last year, his first season back in charge of his native county, and even without looking past the semi-final, knows full well the sort of challenge Tyrone will present. Losing three showdowns in succession would be hard to take.

“Yeah, it’s going to be a huge task, no doubt about it,” he says. “But that’s what the Ulster championship is all about, and we’re really looking forward to it. Donegal against Tyrone always matters, no matter what else is happening, it’s always a huge match.”

Sunday’s patiently earned win over Fermanagh was notable on a few counts beyond the final score; it was Paddy McBrearty’s first game for the county since tearing his cruciate in the Ulster final last year, and he finished top scorer with 0-5, three from play. Rising stars Caolan McGonagle and Oisín Gallen didn’t feature because of injury, but Bonner reckons they may be back on Saturday week.

“In football you never know. They’re not too bad, we’ll see how they get on, there’s probably four or five training sessions between the game, so we’ll see how it goes. We have to improve and we know that. There wasn’t much to pick from the Fermanagh match, and we’ll probably need a fair bit of improvement to get over the line against Tyrone.

“Paddy getting a game under his belt, he’ll be much improved. He’s been out of football a long, long time. It’s one thing training, playing club matches and that, but the white heat of Ulster championship battles, that will bring Paddy on, and in the second half I thought he was outstanding, hit a couple of great scores, got on a lot of balls for us.”

Tactical affair

Bonner got a fresh preview of exactly what Tyrone will bring, watching their quarter-final win over Antrim on Saturday evening, winning 2-23 to 2-9; Mickey Harte is making no secret of his change towards an attacking philosophy.

“Yeah, definitely, they changed a bit towards the end of the national league, and it should be interesting, no doubt, in terms of styles, and I think it will be a teal tactical affair, a real cracking match.”

Donegal did most of the attacking in Ballybofey last year, only for Tyrone to close out with 2-5 off the bench, winning 2-17 to 1-13.

“No doubt, that did hurt,” says Bonner, “because we felt we actually played very well for maybe 50, 55 minutes, and went four points up at that stage. But we just didn’t finish the game out, and Tyrone deservedly went on a kicked two goals and I think two points in the last 10 minutes, and that was disappointing, to lose that match, in Ballybofey.”

In keeping with the perilous nature of Ulster football, two beaten quarter-finalists, Monaghan and Fermanagh, were drawn straight back against each other in the first round of the All-Ireland football qualifiers, those games also to be fixed for Saturday/Sunday week.

Monaghan will have home advantage in Clones, as the first drawn team. That game also brings back memories of last year’s Ulster championship when Monaghan were knocked out by a late Fermanagh goal at Healy Park.

The draw involved the 16 teams that failed to reach their provincial semi-finals. Longford’s draw with Kildare in Sunday’s Leinster quarter-final means the sides will meet again this Sunday, with the losers then facing into round one of the qualifiers the following weekend, away to Carlow.

All times and venues will be confirmed by the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) on Tuesday, with the games taking place on the weekend of June 8th/9th, extra-time and a shoot-out required if any match ends in a draw.

Home venues shall be subject to approval by the CCCC and shall meet the criteria set down by the National Facilities/Health and Safety Committee.

SFC Qualifier Round 1 Draw (to be played June 8-9th).
Louth v Antrim
Tipperary v Down
Leitrim v Wicklow
Wexford v Derry
Offaly v London
Monaghan v Fermanagh
Carlow v Kildare/Longford
Westmeath v Waterford

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics