Peter Canavan: Harte's young guns inching ever closer to giving Dubs a run for their money
Published 18/07/2016 | 02:30
This compelling Ulster SFC final turned into a real 'game of inches' and the good news for Tyrone folk is this hard-earned win showed that Mickey Harte's team are inching ever closer to the big guns.
How far can Tyrone go this year? It's impossible to predict at this stage, but I have no doubt that they are now in the Kerry bracket - in that they are capable of giving the Dubs a run for their money in Croke Park.
Being forced to dig deep in 'Fergie time' yesterday by a team with such experience and 'big-game' know-how as Donegal will have taught the players plenty about themselves. Peter Harte and Sean Cavanagh kicked monster points down the home straight, but their lesser experienced team-mates also stood tall down the home straight.
Mickey Harte will also have learned plenty. Having rebuilt, he now has a relatively young team at this disposal, and I can't stress enough how much getting the Donegal 'monkey' off their backs will do for the confidence of the players. No doubt there is still ground to make up on Dublin, but they are bridging the gap to the champions.
Tyrone won this match because they were prepared to roll up the sleeves, but I feel they were helped by Donegal's negative approach in the second half. Rory Gallagher's men were deserving of their three-point half-time lead, but once they extended it to four within seconds of the restart, they seemed intent on defending their advantage for the next 35-plus minutes.
I think this ploy, whether instinctive or planned, was the wrong option because it gave the Tyrone players more time on the ball and the space to thrust forward from the back. There was visibly more aggression in the Tyrone tackle after half-time as well, and I don't think it would have been too hard for Mickey to motivate his players in the dressing room. His team didn't play well in that first half, allowing Donegal to dictate most of the opening 35 minutes, but it must be remembered that it was the first senior provincial final for the majority of his players. It was also their first time coming up against a Division One team this year, so it didn't come as a huge surprise that they allowed themselves to be bossed in many areas of the field.
Tyrone needed to be playing the game at a faster pace and, crucially, with far more aggression. Donegal kicked seven first-half points, six wides, and dropped about four short into Niall Morgan's hands, so that was 17 efforts on goal - defensively it was simply not good enough and I'm sure the players were told that at half-time in no uncertain terms.
Ryan McHugh was able to waltz through the Tyrone defence on at least four occasions without hardly a hand being laid on him, and it was noticeable how that changed. His path forward was nowhere near as clear in the second half.
Significantly, Tyrone also showed they had the legs of Donegal, and also had the stronger bench at their disposal. On the home stretch, these two factors proved the difference between winning and losing.
There was one incident that happened with about eight minutes to go which stood out. Johnny Munroe, who had come on as a sub for Ronan O'Neill midway through the second half, put in a big, legitimate hit on Frank McGlynn which turned over possession.
Tyrone quickly launched a counter-attack and McGlynn was taken off moments later. You can't underestimate how much a collision like that has on the morale of players when the game is in the melting pot.
For the 20 or so minutes that he was on the pitch, Munroe ran around like a bull in a china stop - playing without fear in the middle third of the pitch and not giving Donegal players a moment's peace. Like every one of the other four Tyrone subs introduced, he exerted an influence at one stage or another, and three of them - Rory Brennan, Darren McCurry and Kieran McGeary - managed to get on the scoresheet.
Now, contrast that with the limited impact made by the Donegal bench. It was well heralded beforehand that Rory Gallagher did not have the same depth of resources at his disposal, and the best example of this came with what happened with Anthony Thompson.
The wing-forward was substituted in the 53rd minute, yet he was re-introduced 14 minutes later to replace Eoin McHugh. That did not say much for the faith the Donegal manager has in his extended panel.
This will be a difficult defeat for Donegal to bear. They had the winning of the match in their own hands, but as often happens in the cauldron of an Ulster final, they lost their way in the key collisions.
The intense heat in Clones certainly didn't help their veterans. Rory Kavanagh, Thompson and McGlynn were all taken off, and the influence of a player like Karl Lacey was not as prominent as it has been in the past. That probably can be put down to tired bodies and minds.
However, Donegal have the wherewithal to pick up the pieces from this loss and bounce back in the fourth round of the qualifiers. They still have strong characters and leaders to call upon in their hour of need, and neither Mayo nor Cork will want to draw them.
Meanwhile, it's full steam ahead for the All-Ireland quarter-final in three weeks for Tyrone.
This was a big statement of intent from them and they are sure to reap the psychological benefits of coming through this battle when they head for Croke Park.