Donegal turn the screw
Champions show they're still the team to beat after exposing Tyrone's flaws
Published 27/05/2013 | 05:00
There had been telltale signs about Tyrone's right to be named among the best six teams in the 2013 All-Ireland race over the past few months, despite their fine achievement in reaching the National League final against Dublin.
There was that shattering defeat, particularly the manner of it, at the hands of Kerry in Omagh in the league. But more relevant was the clear indication that some of the older Tyrone players would not be able to last the pace in a high-grade, physically and mentally demanding game over 70-plus minutes later in the year.
And so it turned out, with Tyrone failing to score for all of 33 minutes in the second half against a younger, fitter Donegal side, which by having the facility to bring in leading players like Karl Lacey in the second half, really turned the screw on a fading Tyrone team.
Donegal's victory will be seen by their players and management as second best only to their All-Ireland success, because so many experts had stated that Tyrone were good enough to stop the champions.
They were no such thing and Donegal inflicted a major blow to Tyrone football and, in the process, have pushed themselves into being favourites to retain the Sam Maguire Cup.
This was always going to be a game dominated by physical battles on a personal and team basis and though Tyrone matched their opponents for the first half, they were in retreat after that.
They used their strength unwisely when they should have placed more emphasis on their undoubted skills and in the process played right into the hands of the most physical team in the country.
And despite all the tensions and hoopla beforehand about this game, which threatened to dominate over the actual footballing skills, one young man did stand out among the morass that often afflicted this contest.
Paddy McBrearty set up the two goals for Donegal, which, in the first half particularly, settled his team's nerves in a very tempestuous scenario in Ballybofey. The second goal in the 52nd minute was created for newly-arrived sub Ross Wherity and it was a mortal blow for Tyrone.
McBrearty's run in along the endline through three Tyrone defenders showed him to have the ideal components of a brilliant footballer – skill, physical courage and peripheral vision – and that allowed him get that difficult, tightly-angled pass to Wherity.
The inclement weather played a big role in the tenor of the game and increased the physical content, but, in general, the tough stuff was manly enough in the circumstances.
Referee Joe McQuillan did remarkably well to control the game as efficiently as he did and he helped to keep it flowing to good effect from the spectators' point of view. Hopefully, the usual whingers who often blame referees will desist on this occasion.
From the outside we don't know whether the changes made before the start by Jim McGuinness were acts of sheer genius or merely inevitable decisions.
But leaving off Lacey and Mark McHugh certainly turned out to be a key factor in the result, particularly having the mere presence of Lacey on the field of play for the final quarter.
Indeed, while Donegal's substitutions paid handsome dividends, the array of changes made by Tyrone did not achieve anything like that.
Notable too was the fact that the two best full-forwards in the game, Michael Murphy and Stephen O'Neill, played less critical roles than many had expected thanks to careful planning by the respective managements.
Murphy, of course, did make a major contribution with his points and in the final quarter his increased work rate, which on one occasion near the finish saw him taking the ball out of defence from about 14 yards from the Donegal endline.
Again, this improves self-confidence, and that quality throughout the team and the sideline is the most important element Donegal have going for them against all the other contenders this year.
Most of the other leading lights have doubts on and off the field, but Donegal, as of now, have none.
The atmosphere in Ballybofey was electric around the ground, despite the weather, and proves how important these games are when staged at local county grounds.
True, the Ulster Council paid heavily financially for their brave decision to leave the game in Ballybofey instead of Clones, but if the word local means anything in the GAA, then surely bringing games such as this to home venues is central to that.
And if Donegal and Tyrone come out of the first-round draw next year, there will be another huge occasion in Healy Park, Omagh.
It is never safe to tempt fate regarding the future, unless you are a bookie of course, but looking ahead to next August and the All-Ireland semi-finals, it will be surprising if some Donegal fans are not already booking accommodation for an autumn weekend or two.
Their team should certainly reach the quarter-finals on the Bank Holiday August weekend and even the All-Ireland semi-finals, where the draw will see the Ulster and Connacht champions meet this year.
That should see Donegal and Mayo reach the last four if they maintain their current impressive form, but I won't be betting on that just yet.