Comment: Bedgrudgers can complain all they want but bravery won day for Tyrone
Donegal hesitated when it mattered and Tyrone talisman led by brilliant example, writes Declan Bogue
Published 18/07/2016 | 02:30
This is how Ulster finals are meant to be.
Forget the football for a minute. There are enough out there that can call it out for lacking in spectacle, while they watch it through a television monitor, 100 miles away in Donnybrook.
Those present in St Tiernach's Park could see the action in full colour. Two teams having the most honest conversation they could have with each other. A game not mired in spite or too obvious sledging, lacking in the levels of poisonous gamesmanship we have come to expect.
This came down to raw bravery. Tyrone chanced their luck, Donegal were hesitant. It told.
A finish to a game like that needed heroes. When Tyrone went looking for one, they came back to the man who has always been there: Sean Cavanagh.
Last year, you might remember his sending-off against the same opposition in the Ulster preliminary round. For his yellow card, he had been prompted into self-preservation mode when an opponent began grabbing his fingers. Shortly after, he was gone with a black card from a high challenge.
In a game such as this, the best any player can hope for is to make four decisive plays. Cavanagh drilled three second-half points from play. A rampaging run punched a hole in a wall of Donegal defenders before Peter Harte scooped up the loose ball to point.
At the final whistle, Cavanagh exited the arena like a boxer, punch-drunk and exhausted, held up and escorted off the pitch by an Ulster Council official.
In no time at all he regained his composure to deliver a speech to stir any Tyrone native in Clones in which he paid tribute to his recently deceased father in law, Charlie Vernon, along with the names of Tyrone Gaels who are always remembered in times of triumph.
"(It's a) proud day to be a Tyrone man and it's a long time coming," he said.
It didn't go unnoticed that the preceding six years was the longest Tyrone had gone without featuring in an Ulster final over the past four decades.
"It's very emotional! I remember standing on the Hill watching (Ciaran) Corr, (Feargal) Logan and (Peter) Canavan lifting them on hot summers days. I definitely took it for granted."
And Cavanagh admitted to a creeping doubt as the game went down the stretch and his counterpart, Donegal captain Michael Murphy, boomed over a free to assume the lead with three minutes left.
"You have your doubts," he said."(Michael) Murphy kicked an amazing point, then I thought are we ever going to get in front? But honestly I had faith when the game opened up we knew we had the guys to come on."
Talk will turn to All-Irelands and the possibility thereof. Tyrone in Croke Park will be a different animal, but they showed their pragmatism here, engaging with Donegal on their own terms.
"We know in open games we have players who can tear any team apart but in games like this is when we needed guys to do that, and that's what's so special about today," noted Cavanagh, before issuing a warning: "And we know it will take a special team to beat us in Croke Park."
The Donegal machine appeared to be functioning remarkably well. The oil was fresh and the pistons were moving freely, but there were signs that they had to paddle furiously under the water line.
On several occasions, manager Rory Gallagher exhorted his players to sprint forward and join the attacking effort. Perhaps the heat played a part in their reluctance.
In any case, the individual brilliance of Ryan McHugh threatened to do everything for them as he shot three impressive points in the first half, Tyrone failing to detail a man-marker to the diminutive Kilcar man.
It would seem in the final analysis, that the most forgotten of factors - the breeze - had the greatest say in things.
How else would Cavanagh's dipper at the end have carried over the bar? And how about Donegal goalkeeper Mark Anthony McGinley's kickouts catching the breeze to allow Tyrone attack them from the front foot?
It's been said and repeated ever since the All-Ireland U-21 win last year that the new breed have become an enormous influence on the chemistry of this group. Watching Jonathan Munroe, Rory Brennan and Kieran McGeary make telling contributions when the game needed to be pulled out of the fire was instructive.
However, when Donegal needed something fresh, they introduced 33-year-old Christy Toye and 32-year-old Colm McFadden, and put Anthony Thompson back on the field of play, 14 minutes after withdrawing him.
A sunny day in Clones. No country for old men.