Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Clash of titans can become classic tie

Matthew Donnelly is proving an able successor to Brian Dooher in the Tyrone side in terms of work-rate and inspiration
Matthew Donnelly is proving an able successor to Brian Dooher in the Tyrone side in terms of work-rate and inspiration

Time waits for no man. It's an old maxim yet it carries a greater ring of truth now than ever given the pace of change in all aspects of our lives.

As the biggest sporting organisation in the country, the GAA has not been immune to change even allowing for its conservative stance on many issues.

Indeed the association today is scarcely recognisable from the implacable, firmly-rooted body that appeared impervious to alterations of any sort for so long.

And just as the GAA overall is slowly but surely being transformed, so too are many of its component units.

Further compelling evidence of this will be provided on Sunday when Donegal host Tyrone in the Ulster Senior Football Championship at MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey.

What makes this particular match so fascinating is the fact that both teams have successfully re-invented themselves to such an extent that the winners will be thrust forcibly into the frame not only for the Ulster title but also for 'Sam', while there is not a team in the country that will relish facing the losers in the qualifiers.

To digest the full scope of the process of re-invention, cast your mind back just two short years.

Then, Tyrone's strategy revolved round Brian Dooher's feverish beavering for second-phase possession, Philip Jordan's lung-bursting runs from defence, Owen Mulligan's penchant for plundering spectacular goals and Ryan McMenamin's ability to galvanise the defence through sheer strength of character while not being short of a word or two thousand at the same time.

Fast forward to today and it's Matthew Donnelly who is following in Dooher's footsteps by proving the ideal link between defence and attack while Cathal McCarron is a defensive mainstay, Mark Donnelly is perpetual motion personified and Conor McAliskey is the kind of forward every manager dreams of unearthing.

Of course, the constants are still in there doing the business in their usual quietly efficient – Sean Cavanagh, Joe McMahon, Conor Gormley, Martin Penrose and Stephen O'Neill certainly show no sign of withering with age.

And then there's Niall Morgan, already odds-on for an Allstar award with the season just half over because of his splendid reflexes between the posts and marked ability to almost nonchalantly pot points from frees irrespective of angle or distance.

If the wind of change has blown through the Red Hands line-up, then a strong breeze has swept through Donegal's psyche.

In his first year in charge in 2011, manager Jim McGuinness was derided for adopting an ultra-defensive mantra that was both unedifying and cynical. But McGuinness, seemingly impervious to criticism, persevered and delivered a first Ulster title for Donegal in 19 years ensuring that he who laughs last, laughs longest.

Then last year Donegal shook off their defensive shackles and embraced something approaching a spirit of adventure as they galloped to Ulster and All Ireland glory with players such as Frank McGlynn and Anthony Thompson who had up until then be viewed as out-and-out defenders in McGuinness's cast-iron locker-room actually getting among the scorers!

To date this year, there is no indication that Donegal might bring an even more expansive formula to the table and it's this element of intrigue that is proving beguiling.

McGuinness has, of course, tweaked his line-up slightly with players like Ross Wherity and Ryan McHugh given the chance to stake their claims for regular recognition.

But it's to skipper Michael Murphy and long-serving foot-soldiers such as Rory Kavanagh, Neil Gallagher, Eamon McGee, Colm McFadden, Neil McGee and Karl Lacey (if fit) that McGuinness will look to on Sunday to drive his side on in a match which RTE pundit Joe Brolly has already labelled as "a war of attrition".

Be that as it may, Donegal's desire to show their true worth is obvious if we are to take on board the current sentiments expressed by McGuinness.

And could his side perhaps sustain their position of eminence this Championship season?

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte has indeed already expressed the notion that Donegal could add yet another dimension to their strategy and this is an opinion I would endorse.

I would not anticipate that McGuinness will wish to see his side stand still and will lay his plans accordingly given Tyrone's new-found momentum and razor-sharp work ethic.

Should McGuinness's side unveil a fresh blueprint, then Sunday's game could earn the 'classic' label.

Harte wisely dismisses Donegal's league form as an irrelevance in the context of this Championship showdown, suggesting that McGuinness has instead been patiently biding his time in the lead-up to Sunday's confrontation with the side that ended his team's Ulster title dream in each of the past two seasons at the semi-final stage.

McGuinness and his players have been preparing quietly away from the spotlight even playing challenge matches behind closed doors in an obvious bid to keep their tactical blueprint very much 'in house' – and their injury worries under wraps.

But Harte will expect the unexpected and will be prepared to adopt his plans to facilitate the course the game takes.

He is seeking maximum effort from his players – that's why indeed he will not take the slightest risk with any player who is currently coming back from injury without having quite attained full Championship-standard fitness.

Such players are understandably ravenous for action but Harte rightly believes that there is too much stake on Sunday to take the slightest risk.

It will very definitely be a case of it you can't stick the heat then stay out of the kitchen!

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