AFTER playing out an absorbing contest in Omagh last week, the Donegal and Tyrone under 21 sides will battle it out all over again this tonight in the Ulster Under 21 Championship quarter-final replay (throw-in, 8pm).
The sides couldn’t be separated after 80 gruelling minutes last week, when there was never more than two points between the sides.
The momentum swayed from team to team, and Donegal came desperately close to losing deep into injury-time, but Ethan O’Donnell made a sensational goal-line clearance.
They both posted three points apiece in the additional twenty minutes and by the time the referee Ciaran Branagan blew his full-time whistle, there was a palpable sense of relief from both camps that they were still able to fight another day.
Donegal manager Declan Bonner is anticipating another tense battle, and he says his team will have to improve if they are to make the semi-finals.
“It’s another big game for us and we’re glad to have it. It was a tough battle last week and we’re happy to get another bite at it to be perfectly honest with you.
“Listen, we know ourselves that we’re going to have to improve considerably if we are to win, especially in the final third.
“Tyrone were well set up and they made life difficult for us, but to be honest, I thought we shaded it on the night.
“It’s going to be another tough North-West battle. The weather doesn’t look to be great and the pitch will be heavy. It’s going to be another big championship tussle.”
You don’t have to be a GAA expert to pinpoint where Donegal fared poorly last week.
In normal time, they kicked fifteen wides to Tyrone’s three, while they also had three goal chances which they didn’t take.
Feargal Logan’s Tyrone didn’t register a single wide in the second half, and while their accuracy was off in extra-time, it’s unlikely that they will be overly wasteful in the replay either.
Bonner said: “Some of our shot selection was not good, but a lot of it was down to poor execution.
“We worked the ball into good positions at times, and we just didn’t take our chances when they came.
“At the same time, when you’re coming up against a swarm defence it can be difficult to get your shots away.
“But we know we need to be more consistent in front of the posts. We can’t afford to kick 15 wides again.”
Logan and his capable lieutenants – Brian Dooher and Peter Canavan – had their team well drilled and they stuck to their game plan throughout.
Bonner says Donegal know what to expect next Wednesday, but that doesn’t make it any easier to counteract.
“They don’t change. We had them watched numerous times over the last couple of months. That’s the way they play and that’s not going to change at this stage.
“There’s no doubt that they’re a good team. They’ve been there or thereabouts at Under 21 level and minors and you don’t do that with average footballers.
“You can also see that they are extremely well drilled, and the players all know what their job is.
“It won’t be easy to break them down, but that’s what our job is this week.
“We have to have belief in our own ability. The game is in MacCumhaill Park and that’s a boost, but it isn’t going to make a huge difference.”
Niall O’Donnell, Conor Doherty, Mark Coyle, Kieran Gillespie, Christian Bonner, and Jason McGee all missed out through injury last week, and the Donegal bainisteoir doesn’t expect to have any of them for the replay either, while he has added another player to the list of absentees.
Seven members of the Under 21 panel played in Saturday night’s match against Tyrone, and Bonner is praying that he doesn’t have any more casualties.
“We’re hoping that everyone will come though the senior match unscathed.
“At the minute, it doesn’t look like we will have anyone who wasn’t fit the last day back involved.
“In fact, we’ll be worse off because Caolan McGonagle has picked up an ankle ligaments injury and will miss out.
“That’s very disappointing, but as I have said before that opens the door for someone else to come in and show what they can do.
“We’re still working off a decent squad, but there’s no doubt that it’s being tested to the extreme.
“There are eight or nine fellas missing that would be in your matchday squad, fighting for starting places.
“The reality is that it leaves us short, and we need other lads to step up and be counted.”
On the plus side was Cian Mulligan’s excellent showing for the seniors against Tyrone.
The Gaoth Dobhair man hasn’t featured much in 2017, but he showed glimpses of his potential on Saturday night.
“He played for around 25 minutes for us on Wednesday, and then he got another 35 minutes on Saturday night.
“That’s really the first bit of action he’s got since January after picking up a quad injury.
“His return has been slower than we would have hoped, but it’s good to have him back out there.
“Hopefully he came through Saturday’s game ok, because he is an important player for us.”
Those in attendance at the match last week certainly got value for their money, and Bonner encouraged Donegal GAA supporters to travel to Ballybofey tonight and get behind his team.
“I’m appealing to people in Donegal to come to Ballybofey in their numbers and cheer us on.
“We saw on Saturday night that MacCumhaill Park is not an easy place to go when there’s a big vocal crowd in.
“We had super support in Omagh last week, and we want more of it on Wednesday. They could drive us to that extra point or two that we may need.”
Writing in his column 'No Bones About it', Bonner blasted the provincial body for starting their competition too late.
The days of celebrating Ulster titles into the night - and maybe most of the following week - are...