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Rory Gallagher unhappy with 'targeting' of Michael Murphy as Donegal march on


Tyrone and Donegal players and officials make their way off the field at half-time STEPHEN

Tyrone and Donegal players and officials make their way off the field at half-time STEPHEN McCARTHY / SPORTSFILE


Tyrone and Donegal players and officials make their way off the field at half-time STEPHEN McCARTHY / SPORTSFILE

In his column for this paper last Friday, the former Kerry footballer Tomás Ó Sé ventured that winning an Ulster title involves the equivalent of climbing Everest twice but what Donegal and Tyrone were facing from the preliminary round constituted a third ascent.

Donegal set off from 'base camp' and reached 'camp one' just after 5.30 yesterday evening - exhausted, battered, mentally drained.

They'll pitch their tents for a couple of weeks, dry themselves out, rest up and restock before glancing up at the next treacherous stretch ahead.

Any exhilaration at taking out Tyrone in an Ulster Championship match for the fourth time in five years will have been quickly quenched by the sight of what is in front of them now.

Armagh's Athletic Grounds will present them with another daunting challenge in four weeks time. More of the same, not a moment to draw breath or to take your eye off the ball or the man beside you for fear of slipping through a crevasse.

Games like this in Ulster can only have that effect on a player, but for Donegal to have to potentially repeat this three more times seemed almost incomprehensible in the immediate aftermath.

It was everything you expected it to be - rugged, hard-hitting, tactical, eventually spiteful with two red cards, a black card, 11 yellow cards and many more offences that went unpunished by the officials.

To record it as just 'one of those Ulster games' would be somewhat misleading however.

For sure it had that sinister edge. But there was more to it, much more. Donegal quite often brought back every team member into their own half and invited Tyrone to pick their way through the barbed wire and land-mines.

Thus, it was fascinating to watch both sides try to pick their way creatively through the bodies and the net result was some scintillating support play.

Donegal, in this regard, thrived, especially in the first-half when their approach work required precision engineering.

The angles of support they took to breach little gaps hardly visible to the spectators brought a welcome dimension to the contest. As a consequence the rate of goal opportunities were far higher than normal for this fixture.

Two were taken but both Paul Durcan and the impressive Michael O'Neill were pressed into action far more often than they might have expected behind such security lines.

"We were renowned for not scoring goals against Donegal (in the three previous Ulster Championship games against Donegal they didn't score a goal) and our first score was a goal.

"We created at least three more good goal chances so I suppose that's encouraging for us," said Mickey Harte afterwards.

Harte's own nephew Peter almost goaled twice and was involved in the creation of 1-4 of their 1-6 in the opening half. But essentially the result came down to Michael Murphy's late intervention off the ground and Donegal's slightly better threshold for attrition.

That first-half had a little something for every taste, even a 'tunnel' incident that saw altercations between Donegal players and a member of the Tyrone backroom as they went off for the break.

"It's easy for us who are observing the game to be well in control of our emotions but the people who are out there in the thick of it, they just might not be in control of it," reflected Harte. "So it took some of us to try and settle them down. I don't think it was going to develop into anything too rowdy," he added, suggesting there should be no disciplinary fall-out.

The great sub-plot was how Tyrone sought to police Murphy, delegating Justin McMahon to stalk him with an approach that was 'hands on' in the extreme.

Tyrone can point to success on that front, Murphy was held scoreless from play and for a long time was a peripheral figure, his only real impact in defence before those wonderful late strikes from two long range frees gave Donegal some daylight.

Somehow the perception has built up among opponents and, it seems now, officials that in the contact zone around the Donegal captain it's 'open season' with him. Because he is big, physical and can hit hard, it seems that everything is 'fair game'. He did after all pick up three black cards and a red card during this League.

Maybe that's why the officials here turned a blind eye to McMahon's 'chaperoning' of him for so long until the 62nd minute when linesman Maurice Deegan eventually called Joe McQuillan and the Tyrone defender was issued with a yellow card to one of the most audible cheers of the day from the 17,435-strong crowd.

Typically Murphy took a diplomatic line afterwards, just as he had done for much of the game while manager Rory Gallagher was only a little more expansive on the issue.

"I felt that while the officials did a good job, Michael was targeted," he suggested. "That is the way that it is. It is up to other people to deal with it. Michael comes in for a lot of attention off the ball which isn't allowed."

Gallagher will feel some relief that he has navigated a safe course through his first championship match as manager. The spectre of Jim McGuinness was always going to hover here and that pressure will have lifted ever so slightly.

He set his team up just a little differently from recent years, giving Colm McFadden more freedom as a half-forward instead a lone role as the team's most advanced forward. That fell to Patrick McBrearty this time and it worked well on both fronts.

"We value Colm as an inside forward as well but we thought the nature of Tyrone, the way they set up that he might have a bit more freedom out the field and I thought he was excellent today for long periods."

For Harte there was comfort in the performance which he described as Tyrone's best for a few years. "People tended to look at the poor games we had and that we got a bit of battering in or didn't perform as we ought to. But I knew there was as good a performance as that in this team. That was as good as Tyrone have played in a number of years, in any game."

For them, ironically, their climb gets that bit easier away from the snow glare of Ulster's great peak.

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