THE latest instalment in the stormy rivalry between Donegal and Tyrone’s underage teams will take place tonight when the counties meet in the Ulster Under 21 Championship quarter-final in Healy Park at 8pm.
There has always been a bit of needle between the neighbouring counties, but that has been heightened by a couple of controversial underage games in recent years.
In 2015, Tyrone prevailed by one point against Donegal in the Ulster Under 21 Final and went on to land the All-Ireland title.
Later that summer, Donegal claimed the honours when the counties met in the Ulster Minor Championship, in a game that was dominated by sledging allegations made after the game.
It was said that Donegal captain Michael Carroll had been taunted about the death of his father by an opposition player, and his manager Declan Bonner describing the incident as ‘toxic’.
An investigation was launched, with the Ulster Council deciding to keep their findings confidential.
The counties met again last year in the Ulster Championship semi-final, with Tyrone winning a close game that was marred by a mass brawl after the match.
Both counties were fined for their involvement but that was later scraped, while Donegal boss Bonner was handed a 24 week ban for ‘abuse of the referee’, which was halved on appeal.
Tyrone manager Feargal Logan said he was delighted to win on the night as it was more than a game of football to him following the way ‘some Donegal officials dealt with some stuff last summer.’
With all that history between the sides, neither panel will be lacking in motivation this week, but Bonner has urged his team to leave the past in the past, and focus on tonight’s game.
“We have to park all that stuff, and just concentrate on the game.
“We knew it was going to be tough from the moment the draw was made. It doesn’t get much harder than Tyrone in Omagh.
“We have prepared for it as best we could. It hasn’t been ideal – far from it – but we’re happy enough with where we are at.
“We would have felt that we had a decent squad, but the depth of it has been really tested with all the injuries we have picked up over the last six to eight weeks.”
Bonner has a number of injury concerns, and with 15 under 21s on the senior panel, he hasn’t seen as much of his panel as he would have liked.
“Logistically it’s difficult when your players are spread all over the country.
“We have 14 players in Dublin, three in Galway, one in Dundalk, one in Athlone, and one in Belfast. That’s 20 players that are outside the county during the week.
“Obviously we have a lot of lads involved in the senior set-up and that’s far from ideal too.
“Listen, we have a decent body of work done and we’re happy enough with that. The injuries are what they are.
“I have no doubt that the lads that will represent the county on Wednesday night will do their job, and hopefully we can get a performance that will be good enough to get us over the line.”
Donegal took the unusual step of fielding their Under 21 team in the McKenna Cup this year, and they lost to UUJ, Cavan, and Tyrone.
It was said at the time that how the Donegal seniors started the year, and how the Under 21 side fared in their championship would ultimately decide if that experiment was successful.
Rory Gallagher’s seniors have shown no ill-effects from missing the pre-season competition, and Bonner feels it was beneficial to his panel as well.
“One of the reasons that we took on the McKenna Cup was to get the squad together. Yes, we didn’t have them all because of college commitments and everything else.
“We had a depleted squad for most of the games, but when you look at the fact that we’re depleted this week, it was good that we got a lot of lads game time.
“You had players that maybe wouldn’t have seen a lot of action if we were at full-strength, but they got that experience and have done well since.
“We faced good quality opposition and fared reasonably well. I definitely think it was beneficial for us and if I got the offer to do it again, I would.”
Bonner brought this crop of players to the county’s first ever All-Ireland Minor Final in 2014, where they lost out to Kerry.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to enjoy another fine run at Under 21 grade.
“It doesn’t always work out like that, and there have been changes along the way.
“A lot of the squad from 2014 are still there, and we’d be fairly happy with the development of our players.
“When I first became involved five years ago at Under 16 level, it was about developing a group of players and giving them the best possible chance to go on to represent Donegal at senior level.
“We wanted to create a winning environment and I think we have done that, and you can see the amount of players that are being called into the senior squad now.
“That’s brilliant, but at the same time, we’re very focussed on the Under 21s and we want to win an Ulster Championship.
Central to Donegal’s cause on Wednesday will be the players that have made an impression at senior level already this term.
Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher has been solid in defence, and Jamie Brennan caught the eye against Cavan.
Michael Carroll has also featured in two league games, while Michael Langan, Stephen McBrearty, and Ethan O’Donnell have all been called upon by Rory Gallagher during the opening four rounds of the NFL.
That experience should stand to them, and they’ll be key to Donegal’s chances, but Bonner is quick to stress that it’s not just about the senior men.
“Those lads have done very well, and we will be looking to them of course, but we need everyone to stand up.
“In my opinion, there’s leaders all over the pitch, whether they’re involved in the senior set-up or not.
“We don’t treat anyone differently. Everyone knows the job they do, and the role they play for us.
“I want to see our guys really take the game to Tyrone on Wednesday night and leave nothing in the tank.”
Bonner identified Tyrone senior panellists David Mulgrew and Lee Brennan as two men to watch, and added that six or seven players from last year’s team that defeated Donegal are still eligible.
He is expecting a huge challenge, but feels his side have the right mentality to get the win.
“We haven’t looked past Tyrone. They have been our sole focus since the draw was made.
“We know the challenges that they will bring. We know they’re going to be very difficult to beat.
“They have Feargal Logan, Brian Dooher, and Peter Canavan on the sideline, and they have already won an All-Ireland at this level.
“It’s going to be difficult, but this is where you have to stand up. This is the cauldron of championship football.
“Omagh is not an easy place to go, but I think our lads are ready and if we can deliver a performance we’ll not be far away.
“It’s going to be a real ding dong championship match, and I would appeal to Donegal people to come out and support us.”