Colm O’Rourke: Donegal have potential but Tyrone have one key string to their bow

Mickey Harte, standing with his players. Photo: Sportsfile
Mickey Harte, standing with his players. Photo: Sportsfile

It was always going to come to this. Tyrone and Donegal playing for a place in the semi-final and players would not be human if they did not think there was a real possibility of getting to the All-Ireland final as Dublin are on the other side of the draw.

So this is not two dogs fighting over a bone, this is big-time championship football at a venue which will be jammed. The pressure on the players to perform will be immense. The wheat will be sorted from the chaff. As it should be.

After Dublin beat Tyrone I pointed out that Mickey Harte’s team only had to beat Dublin once this year – and that was not in Omagh. The same, of course, applies to Donegal, but they have to get to the All-Ireland final first. That is a long way away this morning.

These teams don’t like each other very much. When Declan Bonner was in charge of Donegal’s minors the relationship was ice cold and it has not improved since. All sorts of wild allegations abounded. None of it very pretty. Time moves on and players mature and often see how stupid they were when they were younger. After all, sport is supposed to add to life, not drag it down into the gutter.

Last year Tyrone gave Donegal a lesson in the Ulster semi-final. Many of the younger Donegal players were not ready for the sort of physical and mental challenge Tyrone bring to championship football and they were swept aside. They are better prepared now but still came out on the wrong side of the scoreline in the Allianz League earlier this year. So Tyrone have turned things around after suffering at the hands of Donegal during the McGuinness regime.

This will not be a normal game of traditional football. Tyrone will certainly start in their usual defensive structure. The only time they threw it off was when the game against Dublin was slipping away. By throwing caution to the wind they nearly pulled off an unlikely comeback.

Central to that was the approach to kick-outs. Everyone in the country is an expert on what to do with the opposition kick-out. Everyone now shouts, ‘push up’ as if it was just as simple as that. I know from coaching kick-out strategy just how hard it is to get it to work. It takes hours and hours of repetition to get players to know their positions and if one gets caught out in a different position then somebody else needs to cover for that man.

For instance, a corner forward is out the field when the ball goes over the bar. If the goalkeeper tries to take a quick kick-out then there has to be a series of movements from those further forward to cover for one missing body. A good goalkeeper will spot this and probably have the ball gone before a response is possible.

Donegal will try to push up as much as possible to force Niall Morgan to raffle the ball into the middle of the field where they have more men who are good in the air. It worked well against Roscommon but there is a different quality of shark on the Tyrone side. If they can break the ball they will snap it up and a wave of attackers will move. Of course, Tyrone normally transfer the ball by hand so it does give a chance for the defence to get organised.

The main ball winners in the middle third for Donegal will be a combination of Michael Murphy, Hugh McFadden, Michael Langan and Ciaran Thompson – with Ryan McHugh as the hoover. I thought Leo McLoone was washed up five years ago, but now he seems better than ever. The same is true for Frank McGlynn. A different voice and style can rejuvenate players. That voice does not have to be better, just different – and probably less training too. Donegal will rely heavily on Odhrán Mac Niallais, who plays as if it is just a kick-around in a public park. That languid movement only hides the fire within, while Jamie Brennan could stick one in the net very easily.

If Morgan’s kick-out gets a lot of attention from Donegal then the same will apply to Shaun Patton. He had his wobbles against Dublin and he will probably have between 25 and 30 kick-outs today. This is the most important method of getting possession so it is vital to the outcome. Perhaps Patton will just kick long and shout after it, ‘fight for that one’. It is not the worst thing in the world and modern football seems to absolve midfielders from standing under their own kick-outs and winning them. It is a test of manhood, as on your own kick-out your opponent will normally stand behind you, give you the knees in the back and fist the ball away.

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It takes bravery, toughness and skill to win that argument but there are plenty of midfielders who don’t want to contest dirty ball. They break away, move forward and hope their team win the ball and they are then in a position to score. They look good but it is a form of cheating, it is putting the individual before the team.

Tyrone are moving in the right direction, a rolling stone that is gathering plenty of moss in terms of creativity, even if they still play with a bit of fear. Colm Cavanagh will line up in front of the full-back line, especially if Michael Murphy stays in. Murphy was brilliant against Roscommon but over the last couple of years he has not played well against the top teams. Roscommon are not in the same league as Tyrone, and Donegal are unlikely to win without a performance from Murphy. But having said that, McHugh, Mac Niallais and McLoone are just as, if not more, important to the team.

For Tyrone, the best players at the moment are Niall Sludden, Mattie Donnelly, Frank Burns and Richie Donnelly, who has added a physical, ball-winning presence to the forward line. He can score too. Tiernan McCann and Peter Harte will attack continually from the half-back line, but teams now have men to pick them up when they move forward and they are less effective as a result. Tyrone’s scoring rate has gone up, even allowing for the number of teams whose backs were on a go-slow against them. This is a game where most things will be planned for, the sort of tactics to be employed if they are ahead, if they are behind, if they lose a man to a red card or if the opposition lose one, a sub for a man on a yellow card or just a general substitution policy. Then when it all starts a lot of that will go out the window and players will revert to instinct.

Great players do the right thing when the stakes are highest because they don’t have to think. In fact, by giving players time, it might cause mistakes as they start to think rather than just act. Going flat out brings the best out of the best.

Both these sides have serious designs on an All-Ireland. Donegal might get better with time but Tyrone have enough experience at a higher level now to either do the business or get off the pot. For a long while against Dublin, Tyrone did not look as if they had learned anything from last year, but in the end they appeared to have learned a lot while Donegal were a long way off the Dubs.

The atmosphere in Ballybofey will be hostile for both sides, but it is only like that for players if they listen to the crowd instead of getting on with their job. Good players shut out distractions and play. The evidence so far is that Tyrone are better in these situations. Donegal have to transfer potential into performance. The loss of Paddy McBrearty and Eoghan Bán Gallagher may come back to bite. Tyrone for me.

Sunday Indo Sport

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