IT’S Ulster Final week and the buzz around the county has been fantastic.
It’s not often that we have both the minors and the seniors in Clones playing together on the third Sunday in July, and we shouldn’t take it for granted.
Our senior team will play in their sixth final in-a-row this Sunday and that is an incredible record.
I featured in five successive deciders between 1989 and 1993, and I take immense pride from that. They were great days.
The current crop have gone one better, and I hope both the team and the supporters enjoy the day, because unfortunately our great run will come to an end eventually.
After the 1993 Final, we didn’t make it back again until ’98, and provincial deciders were rare enough occasions until 2011 arrived.
There is no place better than Clones when you’ve just lifted the Anglo Celt Cup, but it is also a harrowing spot for the defeated side, and Rory Gallagher’s team will not want to encounter that again after losing last year to Monaghan.
This Donegal side has been written off so many times over the last couple of years, we have now lost count.
However, they keep coming back and have shown that they aren’t going to step aside for anyone. They have a steely determination and a huge will to win.
Tyrone also have huge motivation and they are unbeaten in 18 games this year, including O’Fiach Cup, Dr McKenna Cup, the league, and the Ulster Championship. It’s not a record to be sniffed at.
Mickey Harte’s team have been talked up this year and plenty of pundits consider them to be All-Ireland contenders. However, to make that next step they have to win Ulster this week.
It’s sure to be a really tight, tactical battle and it will be interesting to see how they match up come 2pm on Sunday.
Sean Cavanagh is Tyrone’s captain and leader, and they need a big performance from the Moy man. He’ll probably drift in and out the field, but when he is inside, I expect Eamon McGee to pick him up.
McGee has managed to keep him quiet before, and Donegal will be hoping he can do that again.
Ronan O’Neill has had his best season in a Tyrone shirt and he is likely to be the focal point of their attack. Paddy McGrath has had a great campaign, and he has a similar stature and build to O’Neill. He looks like a ready-made marker for the Omagh clubman.
Another man that Donegal will have to watch is Peter Harte. He is one of the finest players in the country and he makes Tyrone tick, while he is very dangerous at making late runs inside on goal. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Neil McGee given the task of marking Harte.
Tyrone have also got strong runners in Tiernan McCann, Niall Sludden, and Mattie Donnelly, and they have serious pace and power.
Harte will set up his team defensively, with the impressive Colm Cavanagh positioned as the sweeper.
They will try to suck Donegal into their web, turn them over and then break quickly on the counter-attack in waves of four or five players.
Donegal will need to box cleverly. They need to be careful that they don’t bring the ball into contact, as there is no better team at swarming you in seconds than Tyrone.
They also need to make sure that their shots go dead. Obviously, you’re hoping that their efforts will go over the bar, but at the same time, a wide is much better than a ball dropped short.
A lot will depend on how Donegal set up on Tyrone’s kick-outs. I think they would be wise not to push up and go man-to-man.
That’s what Tyrone want you to do. They’re quite happy to kick it long and battle for possession. Their half-forwards will run back into the defence, and that means if the Red Hands claim the ball, there is a big gap between the midfield and the Donegal full-forward line, which Tyrone will try to exploit with their runners.
I feel Donegal’s best option is to go zonal on the opposition’s restarts. It will be demanding on the forwards who will be trying to split defenders, but that’s what has to be done, and if Niall Morgan chips the ball out to his corner-back, then everyone can filter back and get into their defensive shape.
The Tyrone full-back line has not covered itself in glory this year, but I don’t think Donegal will bombard them with high balls.
Michael Murphy played inside at full-forward against Monaghan, but I believe he will play further out this week.
Justin McMahon is likely to pick him up and I hope he doesn’t get away with the kind of treatment he gave Murphy last year.
David Coldrick will know what went on in the MacCumhaill Park in 2015, and hopefully he cuts out the nonsense early on.
The game needs a strong referee because it is going to be a ferocious battle. It will be physical and tactical, and I would suspect that there will be plenty of systematic fouling going on.
If Coldrick doesn’t get a grip on things, there could be a segment dedicated to him on the Sunday Game, and it wouldn’t be first time a referee has been in the spotlight this season.
Donegal played reasonably well against Monaghan and they should have won by more in the replay.
Does the Farney county’s loss to Monaghan create doubts over Donegal? I don’t think so. It has been proven that the seven day turnaround puts huge pressure on teams, and Monaghan just struggled to lift it again after an energy-zapping defeat.
Donegal will be confident going into Sunday’s match, but they will also know that they have to be ruthless.
They kicked ten wides in the second half of the Ulster decider last year, and that’s why they lost the match.
I expect the game to go right down to the wire again, but I believe Donegal have the leaders to push them over the line, and I think they will win the game by a point or two.
Hopefully Sunday will get off to a good start with a victory over Derry in the Minor Final.
I remember in 2014 when we won the minors, it gave the seniors a great lift.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if our minors are doing a lap-of-honour as Michael Murphy and co come powering out onto the field?
Fair play to Shaun Paul Barrett and his team for getting to the final, because it wasn’t the easiest route and they had to dig deep at times to get through.
Derry weren’t tipped to make the final, as it was thought that Tyrone and Armagh were the strong counties on that side of the draw.
We were caught by the Oak Leaf county in the semi-finals last year, and their manager Damian McErlain is still in charge.
He is a shrewd manager and they will be well organised.
Derry will be wary of Donegal, and they will want to stay in the game for as long as possible.
They will slow it down at every opportunity and target Donegal’s key players, while they will also look to frustrate and stop their running game.
Derry will be more than happy to win 0-9 to 0-8 in a dour low-scoring game.
We didn’t have a strong ref in last year’s semi-final, and I hope that the official on Sunday, Niall McKenna, is prepared to make tough calls.
There is a big Donegal crowd heading to Clones on Sunday and there will be no shortage of party buses making the trip.
It’s easy to sit down the town and have a few jars and enjoy the craic, but the minors need the support and I would appeal to people to get to the ground early.
There won’t be a big contingent there from Derry, so it is an opportunity for us to outnumber them significantly and give our minors the support they deserve.
It’s a day that we’re all looking forward to, and it is a great time for the players in both teams and their families.
My own son Cillian is playing in the under 12 game between the matches and there has been great excitement in our house this week. Hopefully he will score a point or two.
I’d like to wish both sets of players and their respective management teams the very best of luck this week and here’s hoping we’ll have the Anglo Celt and the Fr Murray Cup at the Diamond in Donegal Town on Sunday night.