Donegal’s bid for a fourth Ulster title in six years ended in disappointment and of the three recent final defeats, this one hurt the most.
In a frenetic period of stoppage time, Peter Harte sent over a sensational point to put his side ahead after Donegal had led for almost the entire game.
The previous decider losses to Monaghan had seen Donegal playing catch up throughout but it was roles reversed today as Rory Gallagher’s team looked accomplished for long spells and led by four at one stage.
After that lead was established though, Tyrone racked up a tally of 0-9 to their opponents 0-3. They were composed and patient in this spell and a far cry from what they were in the first half – erratic and ill-disciplined.
Donegal on the other hand had total belief in what they were doing early on. Chances were carefully created and taken. Ryan McHugh’s performance was simply stunning. He terrifies defenders with his pace so Tyrone stood off him to ensure he couldn’t run at or around them. With this space offered to him, the Kilcar man was quite happy to take on his shots and he made hay while they sun shone high in the Clones sky. It’s a sign of a footballer of the highest intelligence when he can read what’s going on around him and take decisive action in reacting.
Odhran MacNiallais had brought his shooting boots too and he helped his team into a three point half time, which was a fair reflection of how things had transpired.
Tyrone’s inside forwards hadn’t posed much of a threat and generally most of their scores would be expected to come from the counter attack. That left the Donegal full back line with the task of starting attacks rather than shutting down Tyrone’s. Neil McGee got on a huge amount of ball and carried with purpose into the opposition half of the field.
Donegal had kept their heads while Tyrone seemed to be losing theirs. Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane went off on black cards while player after player hacked woeful shots into the clouds. In the claustrophobic setting, it was Donegal who were finding room to breathe.
Then came the half time whistle. After that it seemed to be a cliché-strewn disaster for Donegal. Half time came at the wrong time; a game of two halves; whatever was said in the Tyrone dressing room worked – take your pick.
Michael Murphy brilliantly created a point for Paddy McBrearty straight from the throw in but then Tyrone proceeded to wring the life out of the men in green and gold jerseys. They waited and waited, content to let Donegal have the ball. They waited some more and once the slightest error came they pounced.
Donegal just could not get through their defence and rather than take on pot-shots against the breeze they pressed and probed, hoping an opening would come. When it didn’t they were turned over and hit by waves of Tyrone attackers.
There will no doubt be frustration amongst Donegal supporters at how insistent the team were in holding onto possession in the second half. Certainly there was a case to be made for more shooting, even if it resulted in more wides than points, but such was the reluctance to offer Tyrone chances to counter, they felt it was simply a case of ‘when we have the ball, they can’t score’.
It is likely though that the only way that the retaining the ball plan would have worked would have been to keep possession much deeper, retreating back and in doing so force Tyrone to come out. Or would it have been better to simply give Tyrone the ball and set up the defensive screen as they had done?
Despite being behind, Tyrone’s tactics were that of a team defending a lead – sit back, wait for a mistake and then swarm forward. Donegal meanwhile were ahead but played the match as high up the pitch as they could.
Interestingly, it was the victorious minor team who managed to hit on the right gameplan. They defended their lead deep and with magnificent ball players and runners like Niall O’Donnell and Aidan McLaughlin they tagged on the extra scores they needed to win.
As frustration grew, Donegal resorted to running at the Tyrone defence in the hope of drawing frees but none were forthcoming from David Coldrick. This reinvigorated the Red Hand men and their leaders came to the fore with Sean Cavanagh in particular producing an immense second half. The gloriously decorated Moy man proved again that he is one of the game’s greats; his two points off his right boot were nothing short of spectacular.
With Tyrone pushing up on Mark Anthony McGinley’s restarts, thus forcing him to go long, Donegal were then ironically starved of the possession that they had almost sole control of for so long. Cavanagh junior, Colm, lorded the midfield battle and what Donegal would have given for Paul Durcan and Neil Gallagher to be on the field for those closing minutes.
Instead it was thousands of Tyrone fans who raced onto St Tiernach’s Park to celebrate at the full time whistle and they can now dream big for 2016. They have placed themselves in the hot seat as Dublin’s main challengers and should those two sides meet further down the line, it will make for a fascinating encounter.
For Donegal it’s the back door again and the record of beaten provincial finalists over the past few years wouldn’t fill anyone with too much optimism. We’ll be heading back to Croke Park in a couple of weeks but not via the planned route.