Donegal dig deep to prevail in trench warfare
History relates that on the first Christmas Day of WWI, British and German troops emerged from their trenches and in a remarkable truce convened a game of football on No Man's Land.
Much the same thing happened on Saturday in Clones for this clash. Both teams came with much the same intent and blueprint -- to dig in, to concede no ground past a certain point and to climb out of the trenches only when they knew it was safe to do so.
In the end, however, quite a decent game of football broke out. Mickey Harte described it afterwards as "intriguing" and that was probably most apt.
You don't come away from games like this buzzing or exhilarated -- unless of course you are from Donegal on the cusp of first ever successful defence of an Ulster title.
In their previous matches they had been much more expansive. Tyrone's quarter-final victory over Armagh was arguably the best game of the championship so far.
But here they just cut their cloth to suit the needs of the day. When two of the top six teams meet, perhaps this is what we should expect.
The team formations attached to this report have never felt so irrelevant. They are a loose guide, a reflection of the general vicinity where the players were when David Coldrick threw in the ball to start the game. But after that, the systems kicked in on both sides.
Ryan McMenamin planted himself in front of Michael Murphy as an extra defender as Peter Harte dropped to the half-back line. Martin Penrose came away from the full-forward line and positioned himself around his half-back line.
At the other end, Mark McHugh did his usual routine and when they hadn't the ball, just about everyone else -- except Colm McFadden -- became a defender.
The trenches were dug around the 45-metre line in each case and the warning signs were erected. You took your own risks if you dared to pass.
You know the type of game it is when Stephen O'Neill -- one of the most gifted forwards of his generation -- is on hand to take a short pass from his goalkeeper Pascal McConnell.
Retention of possession and patience became paramount. The levels of concentration required to execute the strategy on both sides was extraordinary. In the end, Tyrone blinked first.
You could see it in the way Penrose coughed up possession so often during a sequence of plays late in the third quarter. Donegal just had more faith in their system, more endurance for it and more patience.
It would be wrong to conclude that this was all about defence. As pointed out, they did break from the trenches to play good football at times.
One of the striking features was the number of scores kicked from 40 metres and further out. Six of the 11 first-half points came from that range. It was only when bodies tired in the second half that gaps appeared. Donegal were best placed to exploit them.
Donegal are a better team than they were 12 months ago. They are even more comfortable with their system when they have to play it this way and the ease with which every one of their defenders can carry and pass ensures retention. Players like Frank McGlynn and Paddy McGrath are playing more central roles.
Ryan Bradley is also growing in stature as an architect in the team and the greater numbers they are committing to attack was another feature in Clones, one Harte had certainly planned for.
"We set up to counteract that they would come in waves. They do come much more in waves forward than they did last year," he said.
"Last year they had two men up front or one sometimes and they depended on that player to hold the ball up and win a free or whatever. They've moved on a bit now, there are people arriving to take the ball off them.
"They have moved on, they are a slightly different proposition than they were last year, but still a serious proposition."
Harte felt Tyrone didn't convert enough chances in the first half to justify their territory and possession when they had wind advantage. They led by 0-6 to 0-5 at the break, but needed a better cushion.
When Joe McMahon sliced over a second 45-metre-plus free early in the second half, it was the first time that two points separated them. But Donegal closed quickly, with Rory Kavanagh twice threading rare gaps.
The decisive score was Ryan Bradley's point to lead 0-9 to 0-8 in the 48th minute. The build-up reflected everything about the game, the requirement for patience as Donegal worked the ball from left flank to right flank and back to left flank under enormous pressure before Bradley struck impressively.
Tyrone didn't score from the 40th until the 71st minute and in that time the defensive press from Donegal was at its most extreme. You simply had to be impressed by it, the levels of energy and diligence that it required.
Their cynicism in committing fouls in the right areas of the field to buy them time, however, wasn't always punished by referee David Coldrick. More Donegal players could have been on yellow cards going down the home stretch. In the end, only McFadden paid the price with red.
The finish was frantic, with goalkeeper Paul Durcan pushing a Penrose shot on to the crossbar and out to safety to deny a replay. But it would have been rough justice for Donegal. They have everything right to dare to dream beyond a second successive Ulster title now.
Scorers -- Donegal: M Murphy (3f), C McFadden (2f) 0-3 each, R Kavanagh 0-2, K Lacey, R Bradley, P McBrearty, M McHugh 0-1 each. Tyrone: Stephen O'Neill, J McMahon (2f) 0-2 each, C Clarke, D Carlin, Sean O'Neill, C Gormley ('45'), Mark Donnelly, M Penrose 0-1 each.
Donegal -- P Durcan 8; E McGee 6, N McGee, P McGrath 7; A Thompson 7, K Lacey 7, F McGlynn 7; N Gallagher 7, R Kavanagh 7; R Bradley 8, David Walsh 6, M McHugh 7; P McBrearty 6, M Murphy 6, C McFadden 8. Subs: Declan Walsh 6for N McGee (3), M McElhinney 5 for Gallagher (55), M O'Reilly 5 for David Walsh (55), L McLoone for Bradley (69), C Toye for McBrearty (73).
Tyrone -- P McConnell 7; C Gormley 7, C Clarke, A McRory 7; R McMenamin 6, Sean O'Neill 7, D Carlin 5; J McMahon 8, C Cavanagh 5; Stephen O'Neill 6, P Harte 7, Mattie Donnelly 7; M Penrose 6, Mark Donnelly 7, O Mulligan 5. Subs: R McNabb 5 for Mulligan (49), B McGuigan for Mattie Donnelly (61), N McKenna for McMenamin (65), A Cassidy for Mark Donnelly (65).
REF -- D Coldrick (Meath).