Was that the greatest and most shrewd example of shadow boxing ever or have Tyrone really suffered such a fall from grace? The Red Hands were awful yesterday and for a county which such an esteemed recent tradition it was somewhat alarming.
What, if any, effect it has on the Championship joust in seven weeks’ time remains to be seen but surely Tyrone won’t be as bad again.
The last league meeting between the teams two years ago ended up in a four-point win for Tyrone, yet Donegal turned the tables and ended up with a six point victory in the Championship opener two months later.
For Rory Gallagher it was probably the most complete performance the team have delivered under his tenure, leading and dominating from start to finish. In the opening minutes, the home side just seemed that bit sharper, more powerful in the tackle and in general more in tune with each other. The two week break was well utilised by the management team.
The new Tyrone are a more basic re-incarnation of their former selves – plenty of skilful and willing ball carriers sprinkled throughout the team, tough and talented defenders and a couple of decent forwards. It’s all at a much lower level though than what we're used to seeing from Mickey Harte’s team and his younger charges were taught some harsh lessons.
Padraig McNulty has been impressive in the league this year, particularly against Dublin in Croke Park but on numerous occasions he was stripped of possession when he tried to break Donegal tackles. It is one thing galloping up the field in training but it’s an entirely different story when hungry, vulture-like defenders have their eye on you in an inter-county match.
One of those ravenous raiders was Karl Lacey who gave a vintage display of hassling, harrying, dispossessing opponents without fouling and surging up the field to help his colleagues in attack. It is often overlooked last year that after an injury-ravaged 2013 season, Lacey was back to something approaching his best, most notably in his Championship shackling performances against Derry’s Mark Lynch and Kevin Dyas of Armagh.
Yesterday he spent time marking Mattie Donnelly, who is fast becoming Tyrone’s go-to man as Sean Cavanagh’s influence begins to wane. Cavanagh didn’t make the starting line-up in what may have possibly been another example of his side holding fire until May. The Moy legend cut a frustrated figure when he was introduced in the second half, becoming involved in separate altercations with Michael Murphy and Christy Toye and getting very little ball in open play.
Overall Tyrone’s setup was nowhere near as defensive as it had been in recent matches against Dublin and Mayo and they were quite open at times and vulnerable to the counter attack. Anyone watching football these days knows that the counter-attack is a team’s most potent weapon so for an astute mind like Harte to be caught out by it would suggest he was simply keeping his cards close to his chest.
Gallagher, conversely, now has so many options at his disposal that he can show a certain amount of his hand yet still hold an ace or two up his sleeve. A key part of Donegal’s run to the All-Ireland Final last year was the injection of youth and fresh options in the form of Ryan McHugh, Odhran MacNiallais and Darach O’Connor; this year Hugh McFadden, Martin O’Reilly and Eamonn Doherty are providing the same impetus.
Names missing from the starting line-up in Ballybofey included Paddy McGrath, Paul Durcan, Colm McFadden, Mark McHugh and Anthony Thompson – regardless of what the perception may be, Donegal currently have a very strong match day panel. McFadden did enter the fray in the second half to become his county's record appearance holder.
Last year’s young guns, McHugh and MacNiallais, appear to be relishing their more senior roles in the setup and have consistently delivered so far this year. The Gaoth Dobhair stylist gave a wonderful display of high fielding while his exemplary ball-carrying and control were of the usual high standard.
Meanwhile McHugh added another goal to his tally, following on from his major in Tralee a fortnight ago and that last gasp strike in the Cavan U-21 encounter. The underage captain is a nightmare for opposing players to face, his raw speed and comfort off either foot make him very difficult to read and he makes beating players look so easy.
The skill that the Kilcar youngster possesses is similar to that of Frank McGlynn and one score in particular yesterday showcased an important facet of Donegal’s play. With the Tyrone wall having formed across their own 45’, Donegal patiently transferred the ball from one wing to the other and back again. You often see teams doing this but with little or no clue as to where they’re going. In an instant, McGlynn moved up a gear, accelerated past one defender and broke the first line of backs. Suddenly Tyrone defenders are unsure of their role and who they should mark and within three passes McGlynn had got the ball back in front of the posts and had plenty of time to pop over a point. That transition from near walking pace to slick movement is one way to break down modern defences and another example of how Donegal are working hard preparing for the challenge of facing their own game plan.
A lot of work has also been done on tackling technique and it goes back to the point on counter attacking being perhaps the most important ploy in football today. If a side can get their tackling right and dispossess a team who have committed bodies forward it gives them the best possible chance of scoring themselves. Mayo, under manager James Horan and coach Cian O’Neill, worked tirelessly on their tackling method and Rory seems to have improved his team’s ability in the tackle this year.
In recent years, the ‘choke’ tackle has been in vogue in rugby; the fact that it slows the player in possession but doesn’t bring him to ground the key benefit to a defending team. Similarly Donegal’s tackling, indeed most teams’, attempts to slow the man with the initial impact before trying to rid him of the ball - a bit of a variation on the traditional near-hand tackle.
For example, initially a player running with the ball is being chased from behind by a defender. The runner is tackled with an arm coming from behind his right shoulder; he is slowed down slightly but crucially he also instinctively transfers the ball away from the tackler, i.e. from the right side of his body to the left - the defender’s other arm then comes around aiming a direct hit on the ball. So it’s essentially the classic one-two from boxing circles - the player with the ball braces himself for the first hit, leaving himself ever so slightly susceptible to the second. Lacey demonstrated this wonderfully against both Derry and Monaghan in last year’s Ulster campaign but others such as MacNiallais and Martin McElhinney are now becoming more au fait with the technique.
Captain Murphy is widely regarded, much to the chagrin of many commentators, as one of the team’s best tacklers though it could be said that his black card was as a result of this technique. In essence he tackled too well, dispossessing Cavanagh with his initial hit rather than the second. As his second arm followed to wrap around the player, both went to ground Joe McQuillan deemed it worthy of an early shower. The actual wording of this particular black card offence is a ‘deliberate pull down’ so Michael could probably count himself unlucky but with a one game ban to follow and a clean slate for the summer he won’t be too bothered about missing next week’s trip to Castlebar.
St Michael's man McElhinney also received a black card and he too could feel hard done by as he could claim that his tackle wasn’t a deliberate pull down but rather a jersey pull with the attacker then going to ground. They’re small details but the rule is framed in such a way that it makes every call ambiguous; even referee chief Pat McEnaney has admitted that his men haven’t got to grips with the implementation of the pull down rule as of yet.
Black card apart, Murphy gave an outstanding display - his free taking in particular was breath-taking at times. Three of his first half efforts were from the ground and from sixty yards plus while in the second half he nailed a stunning strike from his hands – fifty yards out, against the wind, with the outside of his boot - it didn’t make any sense to see the ball sailing over the river end crossbar but over it went.
Seven weeks out from another championship battle with Tyrone, it’s difficult to gauge just where the teams are at such was the non-contest nature of yesterday’s game. You’d find it hard to believe that Harte’s troops will be as poor again and there’ll surely be a lot more in the tank on May 17th.
Then again when this Donegal side clicks they can be unstoppable, was that what happened? It was certainly reminiscent of our better performances over the last few years.
The bumper partisan home crowd certainly enjoyed handing out a beating to a local rival; the decibel levels rising with every hit and turnover while each player being substituted was given a thunderous reception coming off the field. With the clocks going forward and that date in May etched in everyone’s mind, the appetite has certainly been whetted for high summer.