Red Hands cut loose to scale new heights
Tyrone 1-21 Donegal 1-12
Tyrone and Donegal in Ulster but not as we know it.
After all the claustrophobia and edginess of previous meetings in the current cycle, this semi-final was an outlier no one imagined possible. You had to shake yourself at times to establish were you really in Clones watching a game between these rivals producing a score almost every two minutes.
In five meetings since 2011 the most scores either side has registered has been 14 when Donegal hit 1-13 in 2015.
That's how tight and tense it has been for Gaelic football's equivalent of Kasparov and Karpov, Russian chess masters of the 1980s who tested so much patience with the strength of their rivalry.
Consider this - Donegal's 1-12 in Clones yesterday would have won every one of those five games.
And yet they found themselves on the receiving end of a nine-point beating, gasping badly for air as early as the second quarter when Tyrone made the key surge with seven unanswered points to lead by 0-12 to 0-5 at the break.
Donegal were playing for respectability after that and struggled to find it as Tyrone continued to find gaps and run through them with ease.
They created five clear goal chances throughout, taking just one when Tiernan McCann skipped by Karl Lacey early in the second half and bundled a shot past Mark Anthony McGinley.
On two other occasions, McGinley saved from Seán Cavanagh and substitute Rory Brennan as they poured into open space that is never a feature of these games while Peter Harte and Darren McCurry, who forced a goal-line clearance from Ryan McHugh late on, could also have added to McCann's 38th-minute effort. More evidence that this game was so much at odds with previous meetings can be found in the relative statistics. Four yellow cards, none for Tyrone, and, by our count, just 22 frees.
Tyrone's Mark Bradley was black-carded after he had scored a point to put them 1-13 to 0-6 clear in the 42nd minute.
Mickey Harte again lavished praise on referee David Gough for his handling, noting how it was a "really good performance" and that, with tackling and turnovers, he set "a certain standard which the players caught on to quickly." That's how different it was!
For Donegal, it was a sobering day. Since their opening league defeat to Kerry they built steady momentum with a new-look side that, at first glance, was equipped to deal with harsh environment the province can throw up.
But with six players starting against Tyrone in a championship match for the first time, the risk was evident and early on it was clear that they were struggling.Too often they carried into contact and were swarmed by aggressive tacklers.
Eoghan Bán Gallagher suffered in that regard and when he was stripped of possession going forward in the 15th minute, Tyrone countered so quickly for Peter Harte to level, 0-4 each, and give them a little psychological edge.
And yet Eoin McHugh's subsequent goal chance might have changed everything as he accelerated on to a Michael Murphy pass but hooked a shot badly wide. What value would a three-point lead have been to a young team at that stage?
They were level once more after that but soon Tyrone were clear and revelling in arguably their best attacking display since they were All-Ireland champions in 2008.
The platform for their dominance was laid by Colm Cavanagh's imperious midfield play. Donegal pushed up on the Tyrone kick-out quite often forcing Niall Morgan to go long and that, on such a dry day, suited the younger Cavanagh.
Off one of those kick-outs he sent brother Seán away in the 12th minute for one of those clear-cut goal chances that McGinley was equal to. That he had Murphy for company for much of it serves to elevate what he did.
But Tyrone's general control and movement of the ball through Mattie Donnelly, Kieran McGeary, and especially Niall Sludden, was so impressive.
Sludden kicked two of those seven unanswered points in the run-up to half-time and was such an industrious presence while Donnelly always looked like he could exploit a gap and should have finished with more than two points.
Just two of their 1-21 tally were from placed balls, a Seán Cavanagh free and Morgan '45, to underline fluency of their play and the game in general.
"It had a lot of things that people are saying are not in our game any more," said a delighted Harte, seeking to give the game some added context.
"Lots of fast break play, lots of play in open spaces. Of course, there were defensive set-ups too and times when it was very clustered or clogged, but I think it had a bit of everything. It had a bit of the old, a bit of the new, and what might be to come."
Had he sensed a performance like that was coming?
"I am the eternal optimist anyway. I have been seeing that coming for this last year and a half.
"I knew that some day we would deliver the kind of performance that we are capable of. And of course, conditions were fine for us. We do like the dry sod and hot days in Clones."
That sentiment was echoed by Seán Cavanagh who feels it's been three to four years in gestation.
"We haven't always received kind plaudits for it but we always believed that we had the quality to play football that could do damage. I feel we've been waiting and waiting for that performance to come together."
Having scored 21 points in their opening game against Derry, criticism of their blunt edge is losing significance.
McCann's goal made it 1-12 to 0-5 and they led by 13 points in the 54th minute, 1-16 to 0-6, but Donegal had chances of their own and eventually Michael Carroll squeezed a shot through. Paddy McBrearty landed six points, four from play, but the zip in players like Ryan McHugh and Frank McGlynn, replaced at half-time, was curiously missing.
Donegal manager Rory Gallagher felt afterwards they had defended too deep and invited trouble.
"We were not that naive to think that we would land into Ulster and play the Tyrones of this world and hit the ground running. But we showed a lack of fight as well which was disappointing," he said.
Scorers - Tyrone: N Sludden 0-4, T McCann 1-1, K McGeary 0-3, P Hampsey, P Harte, M Bradley, M Donnelly all 0-2 each, D Mulgrew, S Cavanagh (f), N Morgan (45), R O'Neill, C McShane all 0-1 each. Donegal: P McBrearty 0-6 (2fs), M Carroll 1-0, M Murphy 0-3 (2 45s), M Langan, M Reilly, H McFadden all 0-1 each.
Tyrone - N Morgan 7; A McRory 7, R McNamee 7, C McCarron 7; T McCann 8, P Hampsey 8, P Harte 7; C Cavanagh 9, C McCann 6; K McGeary 8, N Sludden 9, D Mulgrew 7; M Bradley 6, S Cavanagh 7, M Donnelly 8. Subs: D McCurry 6 for Bradley (43), R Brennan 6 for Mulgrew (47), D McClure 6 for C McCann (51), R O'Neill 7 for S Cavanagh (57), C McShane 6 for McGeary (57), J McMahon for Harte (71).
Donegal - MA McGinley 8; P McGrath 7, N McGee 6, F McGlynn 5; E Doherty 6, M O'Reilly 6, E B Gallagher 5; J McGee 5, M Murphy 7; C Thompson 5, R McHugh 6, E McHugh 5; P McBrearty 8, J Brennan 4, M Carroll 6. Subs: K Lacey 5 for J McGee (31), M McElhinney 6 for Brennan (h-t), H McFadden 6 for McGlynn (h-t), C Mulligan 5 for Thompson (39), K Gillespie 6 for Doherty (47), M Langan 6 for E McHugh (61), P Brennan for Carroll blood (63-64).
Ref - D Gough (Meath)