Wednesday 16 October 2019

Comment: Bonner's open approach could be Donegal's undoing

Harte has got Tyrone running into form at the right time and that spells trouble for Ulster champions

Peter Harte has come back into form at the right time for Tyrone. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Peter Harte has come back into form at the right time for Tyrone. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

In what is certain to have the sulphurous smell of an Ulster derby, Donegal and Tyrone renew hostilities on Sunday for what should be the crowning glory of the inaugural 'Super 8s' programme.

For all of the previous provincial duels between the pair, there has never been a game played in Ballybofey with so much at stake. With a place in an All-Ireland semi-final on offer, it will guarantee a tense atmosphere between two counties with little love lost between them.

Donegal are unbeaten in MacCumhaill Park in both league and championship since losing to Down in 2010.

Included in this winning run were two spiteful victories over Tyrone in 2013 and 2015 that saw Donegal confirm their superiority at the time with ruthless effect.

Recent years have seen Tyrone tip the balance of power back towards the sterling side of the border, even allowing for Donegal's routine Ulster victory this year.

With so much at stake, Donegal supporters won't thank me for tipping Tyrone to turn over Donegal's outstanding home record this weekend and squeeze out a victory over their cross-border rivals.

Why? Simply put, Tyrone's effective, if sometimes unsightly, hard running game will be too much to bear for Donegal.

Donegal have been very impressive to watch this year, and Michael Murphy is having one of his best championship seasons in a few years. But Murphy is only one player, and you can be sure he won't get anywhere near the space or soft-hand approach in Ballybofey that he enjoyed against Roscommon and throughout this year's Ulster Championship.

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You can pick holes in both teams' runs to this juncture in the season, depending on your standpoint. Donegal had a handy passage through Ulster and their only win against Division 1 opposition all season was at home to a luckless Kildare in the league.

Tyrone flopped in their Ulster opener against Monaghan, after finishing the league strongly, but have gained momentum through the qualifiers, capped off with a credible showing against Dublin in Omagh the last day out.

On balance, Tyrone are coming into the game in better shape.

Tiernan McCann and Peter Harte have come back into form, with youngsters Frank Burns and Cathal McShane showing what an extra year of championship conditioning can bring.

The big question for Declan Bonner is not where he plays Michael Murphy, who will probably feature around the middle of the park, leading Donegal's first line of defence. It is whether they maintain their relatively expansive approach in the face of a relentless Tyrone running game that will look to exploit any unmarked blade of grass in Ballybofey. Or does he revert to a former defensive type? Does Bonner stick or twist?

While Declan has won many admirers with his more expansive style this year, it could prove to be his team's undoing this weekend should he choose to remain with it.

Tyrone's piercing runners, who are hitting form at the right time of the season, will exploit the extra space Donegal's more airy blanket defence now provides compared to seasons before.

In 2012 and 2014, their most successful seasons under Jim McGuinness, Donegal conceded an average of only 12 points per game. This year they are coughing up 16 points a games.

When you consider their cakewalk through Ulster against grossly inferior opposition, this represents a tangible departure in style from what greeted Tyrone in Ballybofey in seasons past.

Not for the first time, Mickey Harte has regrouped a panel of players to march through the qualifier route and come out the other end Croke Park-ready in August. His players will have gained huge belief from their tight contest with Dublin, whereas all Declan Bonner got out of Hyde Park was another cruel injury, this time to his star corner-back Eoin Bán Gallagher.

An explosive home support will help keep this game close but for me Tyrone will come out the other end of another potentially spiteful contest and provide semi-final opposition for whoever comes out on top in Salthill the night before.

The numerous sub-plots surrounding Saturday's contest between wannabe semi-final contestants Monaghan and Galway has made for endless debate.

Will Monaghan be able to lift themselves after their last-minute heartbreak against Kerry? How does Kevin Walsh keep complacency at the door, knowing a semi-final place is already guaranteed? Is it better for Galway to get Dublin in a semi-final than in a final? Dangerous talk, for any manager, but impossible to avoid this week.

If Walsh shows any signs of looking one step further ahead in terms of his team selection, it a clear mental chink in their armour, and one which Monaghan can capitalise on.

Malachy O'Rourke needs to hope that his players are still locked in top gear, and can deliver the level of performance we have seen from them so far in the Super 8s.

Monaghan can't play in third gear, as we have learned to our cost before, and anything less than a performance of the intensity and work-rate witnessed in Clones is a must at this stage of the season.

If they can deliver that, we can look forward to a Monaghan-Tyrone semi-final the following weekend. Christ . . . the thought of it!

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