BY CHRIS MCNULTY IN BALLYBOFEY
FROM the frying pan and into the fire.
It was every bit as tetchy, touchy and tense as had been predicted, but Donegal showed enough experience to overcome Tyrone in an engrossing Ulster Championship match in Ballybofey yesterday – and set up the hardly-appealing, yet appetising prospect of a quarter-final away to Armagh in four weeks time.
After taking Tyrone out in each of their last three Championship encounters, Donegal were firm favourites heading into this one, but they were asked the hard questions at times, especially when Tyrone launched a ferocious bid to get back into the game late in the day.
Both sides finished with 14 men, with Neil Gallagher and Sean Cavanagh dismissed, the former having picked up a pair of yellow cards and the latter getting a black card to follow an earlier booking.
The niggles were everywhere on a day when Justin McMahon spent most of the afternoon eyeballing Michael Murphy, the Donegal captain. For long spells there was a game going on around McMahon, whose sole interest appeared to be rising a reaction from the Donegal skipper.
As the sides parted ways at half-time – with Martin McElhinney’s goal helping Donegal to lead 1-8 to 1-6 – the temperature rose and in a scuffle at the tunnel’s mouth Tyrone selector Gavin Devlin pushed Murphy.
“It’s tough out there, but these things happen,” said a diplomatic Murphy afterwards.
“You just try to keep pushing forward and keep your head.
“All you want to do is put yourself against the best players and the best teams in the country – you’ll get that against Tyrone. You’re pitting your wits against someone; that’s all it is really.
“It was two teams going at it hell-for-leather as best they could.”
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte dismissed a suggestion that the Central Competitions Controls Committee (CCCC) could review the footage from the skirmish.
He said: “I wouldn’t expect that they should. I don’t think it is anything too bad to be talking about. I think it is just the rough and tumble of the intensity of a Championship. I don’t think anything untoward happened in it.”
In all, referee Joe McQuillan flashed 14 cards – 11 yellow, one black and two red – on an afternoon that got the 2015 Championship off to a real high-octane start.
“That is what we expected it to be,” said the Donegal manager Rory Gallagher after seeing his side win in what was the first Championship game of his tenure.
“Nobody for one minute thought it was going to be any different. There was going to be very little between the teams and that is the way it turned out.
“It was good to go in ahead at half time and it looked as if we had the momentum but probably didn’t kick on then in the second half and had to grind it out again.”
Darren McCurry’s 10th minute goal helped Tyrone lead 1-6 to 0-7 only for the pendulum to swing with McElhinney’s three-pointer.
Tyrone kept coming, but the story had a familiar ending.
Despite having McMahon for company all afternoon – he was held (actually ‘held’), scoreless by the Omagh man until the 57th minute – it was Murphy who steered Donegal over the line.
As he has done so many times, Murphy found the magic. A close-range free was wedged between two majestic efforts: The first, when he nailed a 45-metre free and the second when he arched over a ’45 off the outside of his right foot.
Tyrone had chances late on, but Donegal survived.