New-look Donegal have no fear of Red Hands
Impressive record over Tyrone in Mickey Harte era gives Gallagher’s men the edge, insists Tony Boyle
It may have been the fifth time he presided over an Ulster title success, but Mickey Harte had no hesitation in declaring it "absolutely the best" after Tyrone beat Donegal in last year's final.
"We got back to back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 and nobody cared a jot but you can see what this one means. This is a reality check for people. These Ulster titles are important and they don't come easy," he declared.
He didn't specify who the 'people' in need of a reality check were but it took no great powers of deduction to work out that he was referring to some Tyrone supporters, who had grown presumptuous about the county's status after enjoying so much success between 2003-10.
Indeed, some of them would have been quite happy to see Harte depart at the end of 2015.
Harte's sense of delight at ending the six-year wait for an Ulster title was heightened by having finally out-manoeuvred Donegal, who had beaten Tyrone in their previous four clashes.
It's 5-2 to Donegal in the sides' seven Championship meetings since Harte took over in Tyrone, reflecting a dominance which is totally at variance with the rest of Ulster.
Tyrone are well ahead of all the others in their head-to-head clashes. Of the 10 defeats they have suffered against Ulster opposition since 2003, five have been by Donegal - four in the last five seasons.
Indeed, it looked as if Tyrone were heading for a fifth successive setback when they trailed Donegal by a point heading into stoppage-time last year.
However, a wonderful point by Seán Cavanagh brought them level before Peter Harte and Kieran McGeary added two more.
It was desperately disappointing for Donegal, leaving them with a sense of loss which has nagged them ever since.
"Donegal people would have felt that it was one that got away. A few tight calls went against us late on and then we got caught for those points in stoppage-time. But overall, we felt we should have won," said Tony Boyle, full-forward on the first Donegal team to win the All-Ireland in 1992.
Quite a lot has changed for Donegal since last year's Ulster final as the team goes through a transition phase which, so far, has run exceptionally smoothly.
Supporters were prepared for a difficult Allianz League but instead Donegal finished third in Division 1, losing out to Kerry for place in the final on a three-point scoring difference.
Among their better performances in a campaign that yielded three wins, two draws and two defeats was a six-point win over Tyrone in Ballybofey in mid-March, a result which convinced the Donegal public that the changing of the guard could be achieved without any major loss of power.
"(Manager) Rory Gallagher deserves a lot of credit for how he's handling the transition. Donegal are in a much better place than a lot of people thought they would be at the start of the year," added Boyle.
"He brought in quite a few U-21s so the workload was heavy because they had other commitments too but they all coped very well. And there are a few more to come in too. Rory knows them all well, which makes for an easier transition. He know what he's doing."
One of the changes in the new order is Michael Murphy's more permanent role around midfield.
Previously, he alternated between attack and midfield but Boyle expects him to be a central anchor from now on. That adds to the responsibility on the attack, especially on the likes of Paddy McBrearty who, despite being only 23, is in his seventh inter-count season.
"He has the talent and now he'll have to show leadership as well. There's a really nice mix in the squad now. Whatever happens on Sunday, they are on the right track" said Boyle.
Despite Donegal's optimism, Tyrone are the more experienced outfit and now find themselves third All-Ireland favourites behind Dublin and Kerry. Still, Boyle remains unconvinced that about them, especially in attack where they continue to rely heavily on Cavanagh.
"Donegal would feel that if they get their game right, they can win. The lads certainly don't have any hang-ups about Tyrone. They had a great run against them up to last year and even if they lost that one, it was so tight as not to do any psychological damage," said Boyle.
Donegal are attempting to reach the Ulster final for a seventh successive season, underlining how remarkably consistent they have been.
However, one-point defeats by Tyrone and Monaghan in the last two Ulster finals have raised frustration levels in a county which has grown accustomed to success.
Boyle says that high expectations are a positive sign, demonstrating a self-confidence that wasn't always there.
"It's a tribute to what everyone has done. No-one would have thought in 2010 that by 2017, Donegal would be one win away from reaching a seventh successive Ulster final," said Boyle.
"It's unbelievable consistency and there's no reason to believe it won't continue."