Thursday 8 December 2016

Harte can finally crack Donegal code and end losing sequence

Published 16/07/2016 | 02:30

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte poses for a portrait. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte poses for a portrait. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

A wide sweep of public opinion may be blowing strongly behind Tyrone but Mickey Harte knows better than anybody that no county is more adept at letting the wind out of Red Hand sails than Donegal.

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While Harte can boast three championship wins over Kerry and two over Dublin - returns that were unheard of in Tyrone before he took over in 2003 - he has had serious trouble with the Donegal puzzle.

Tyrone have tried six times in the championship under Harte's guidance but apart from an Ulster semi-final win in 2007, Donegal have held the advantage every time.

Tyrone failed to score a goal in four of those six games and managed just one in the last four clashes, so there really is something about Donegal's defensive alignment that, up to now at least, has baffled Harte and his lieutenants.

Donegal restricted them to an average of 10.5 points in the last four games, an incredible level of security that simply has to be breached if Tyrone are to win tomorrow.

Adding to the intrigue is the manner of Tyrone's approach route to the final, a swashbuckling, high-scoring drama which has seen them average 3-15 against Derry and Cavan (draw and replay).

Read more: 'When it is Donegal, it does make it extra-special because they knocked Tyrone off their perch' - McNamee

Rory Gallagher will, no doubt, have shown re-runs of Tyrone's spectacular enterprise to his squad, reminding them that unless they get their long-trusted defensive fundamentals right, they are heading for successive Ulster final defeats.

Of course, he can also play them reminders of how they have choked Tyrone in recent years.

Tyrone's excellent run of results this year - they are unbeaten in 16 McKenna Cup, Allianz League and Ulster SFC games - has hoisted them into third place on the All-Ireland odds behind Dublin and Kerry - and fuelled optimism in the county that a new empire is being built.

Yet, caution needs to be counselled. Tyrone were in Division 2 this year, while their two wins in Ulster also came against Division 2 opposition.

So this is the first time that they are encountering Division 1 class.

It's usually quite a step up, although Galway, Tipperary and Longford have all bridged the gap beating Mayo, Cork and Monaghan respectively.

Donegal were at their dogged best against Monaghan in the draw and replay, squashing suggestions that weariness might have descended on a squad which has been working flat out since early 2011.

Reaching six successive Ulster finals is a feat not previously achieved since the Down side of the 1960s, yet there have been no indications of fatigue in Donegal's game so far this summer.

Nonetheless, their defensive systems haven't been quite as well primed as in previous Ulster campaigns.

Clinical

With more clinical finishing, Fermanagh would have done a lot better in the quarter-final, while Monaghan scored 2-10 in the semi-final replay and also missed some good chances.

Donegal are well aware that predictions of their imminent decline abound but, in anything, it motivates them into stern reaction.

"People can snigger and laugh all they want but then they have been doing that on a weekly basis. It hasn't taken a bit out of the team - nor will it," said captain Michael Murphy after the win over Monaghan.

Quite where he heard of the sniggering or laughing is unclear, not least because it's unlikely to have happened since Donegal continue to be admired for their remarkable consistency over six seasons.

They have lost only two of 21 Ulster games - both to Monaghan - in that period whereas Tyrone have won only five of 12 games, having failed to reach the final even once.

It makes their 4/7 favouritism difficult to substantiate.

It looks far more like an even money contest, with Tyrone the most marginal of fancies to squeeze through.

Read more: Seems to me there's a perfect storm brewing and it's not bringing good news for the GAA

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