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Harte's Red Hands to pip Donegal in war of attrition

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3 March 2013; Michael Murphy, Donegal, in action against Conor Clarke, Tyrone. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Tyrone v Donegal, Healy Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

3 March 2013; Michael Murphy, Donegal, in action against Conor Clarke, Tyrone. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Tyrone v Donegal, Healy Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

3 March 2013; Michael Murphy, Donegal, in action against Conor Clarke, Tyrone. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Tyrone v Donegal, Healy Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

SEAN Cavanagh's depiction of what to expect in Ballybofey tomorrow isn't exactly encouraging.

Try the following comments from Cavanagh and weep for Gaelic football. "There'll probably be a lot of off-the-ball stuff going on."

"It's going to be negative."

"It will be a difficult game to referee. He (Joe McQuillan) is going to need plenty of help from sideline officials and umpires."

"Tackles are going to be more important than kicking points."

It's most unusual for players to predict such a dismal engagement, so you wonder if his comments about "off-the-ball stuff" were carefully considered in an attempt to alert the referee to the possibility of chicanery by Donegal.

After all, he was hardly advising McQuillan to keep a particularly vigilant eye on Tyrone, although that may well be the outcome arising from his remarks. After all, referees don't take kindly to advice about how to handle a game, least of all from one of the players involved.

Whether Cavanagh's grim forecasts come true remains to be seen. Sometimes, games which appear to have a large quantity of combustible materials in the mix never ignite, a situation which, hopefully, will emerge tomorrow.

Instead, the fervent wish of a public fascinated by the possibilities this game offers, ever since it was drawn last October, is that it will develop into a contest where the broad range of talent across both panels will be deployed with maximum creativity.

That doesn't apply merely to the setting up and taking of scores, but also to the defensive side of the game which, if honestly discharged, will be extremely interesting.

Former Down manager, Peter McGrath, a man who knows more than most about intense Ulster clashes, predicts a low-scoring affair in line with the last two games between the counties which produced a total of 2-37 and where a total of 12 points was enough to win both for Donegal.

And yet you wonder. Previous patterns are not always a reliable guide to the future and, from a Tyrone perspective, there's a realisation that they have got to do something to move this game away from the low-scoring zone where they were out-defended by Donegal over the last two years.

Tyrone returned an average of 16 points in the recent league campaign – including 1-13 against Donegal – a target that would probably be enough to win tomorrow.

However, Donegal haven't conceded that much in any of their 13 championship games under the Jim McGuinness system so clearly the onus on Stephen O'Neill, Peter Harte and Co to unpick the tightest locks in the business is great.

The same goes at the other end for Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and the various others that Donegal work into the scoring area. Donegal are more proven in that department but the question still arises as to how they will cope with the pressure of being All-Ireland champions.

CONCERN

They have dismissed the league as being largely irrelevant, but it still has to be source concern that they became the first All-Ireland champions to be relegated to Division 2 since Kerry in 2001.

In fairness to Kerry they had the excuse that the league started just a few weeks after their All-Ireland final replay against Galway at a time when four games were played pre-Christmas.

Donegal had no such background to a disappointing campaign where their only wins from seven games were against Down and Kerry, the latter success coming before the Kingdom turned their season around.

Home advantage is a considerable plus for Donegal, but the seasonal momentum is with Tyrone. So, too, is the law of averages (they lost to Donegal in 2011 and 2012), which can never be discounted as a factor.

Verdict: Tyrone

Donegal – P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee; A Thompson, K Lacey, F McGlynn; N Gallagher, R Kavanagh; M McHugh, L McLoone, R Bradley; P McBrearty, M Murphy, C McFadden.

Tyrone – N Morgan; PJ Quinn, C Clarke, C McCarron; Justin McMahon, Joe McMahon, C Gormley; C Cavanagh, S Cavanagh, Matthew Donnelly, P Harte, Mark Donnelly; M Penrose, S O'Neill, C McAliskey.

Donegal v Tyrone,

Live, RTE2 & BBC2, 4.0

Irish Independent