All-Star Donnelly insists black card had silver lining
Tyrone ace says his replacement turned Ulster final
He was sitting in the air-conditioned lobby of a five-star hotel in Dubai, but a bead of sweat appeared on the brow of Tyrone's Matthew Donnelly as he recalled the sweltering heat of Clones on that Sunday, July 17th.
Tyrone were facing Donegal in the Ulster final. The same Donegal that had their number when they met four times in the last five years of the Ulster Championship. Two minutes remained of the first half and Tyrone - only registering four points, were already three adrift.
And then, disaster. Donnelly tried to cut out a pass and his momentum carried him into Donegal's Eoin McHugh. Referee David Coldrick immediately held the black card in the air. One of Tyrone's most potent weapons was gone and all looked lost. That's if you want to see it that way, of course.
Time has allowed the 26-year-old to see things in their proper context. Employed by Pricewaterhouse Coopers, he is equipped with an appreciation of risk and reward.
"If we had have lost, we would have been asking ourselves big questions," he recalls.
"Did you cost the team? But thankfully, that conversation was one we never had."
The main reason for that, Donnelly credits his black card replacement and Trillick clubman, Rory Brennan, who he believes altered the chemistry of the game.
"Maybe me going off changed something," he suggested.
"The big turning point in that game was Rory Brennan's introduction. Would he have been held off too late if I had stayed on?
"But, when I seen the reaction after I went off, it gave me great pride in watching them, especially my clubmate and good friend coming on and the impact he had. That was satisfying, the way he pulled me out of a hole that day."
The awarding of the black card was flagged up by analysts and columnists in the weeks after as precisely the kind of challenge that referees can get wrong. Donnelly may be biased, but he goes along with that view.
"I remember thinking afterwards, the black card was brought in to eradicate cynical play and there wasn't time for any cynical thoughts to enter my head. There was no intention that way," he protests.
"I was on the ground, it was quite a heavy collision between the two of us, and I'd got winded, so I couldn't even defend myself.
"I heard noises, men looking [for] cards and that, which is frustrating, and I couldn't defend myself or make any sort of reply."
He continues, "Eoin got quite a nasty knock too, I didn't know until I got to the bench, there was blood on my shorts and it was coming from my elbow - there was a tooth mark on it. I know Eoin had to get some sort of work done on his teeth."
Donnelly toured Dubai having picked up his second consecutive All-Star. The only others to achieve that were Lee Keegan, Philly McMahon, Brian Fenton and Ciaran Kilkenny, all players that reached or won the All-Ireland final in the last two years.
Another man in the travelling party of the Middle East did not get that individual recognition, but was there as a replacement All-Star - Colm Cavanagh. It is Cavanagh's game-sense, probably unfairly married to his hunger for the less glamorous duties of the game.
"Collie could be sitting on two. That's how highly I regard him," states Donnelly.
He explains: "We have a really good relationship in the middle. I might be up kicking scores and that, but it's usually a move he has started off or a move he has swatted out back there.
"The work that man does for the team is even more invaluable than anything that happens in the last third."
Tyrone's very next match after that sunny day in Clones was the All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Mayo.
Going back to last December and their wins over Louth and Derry in the O'Fiaich Cup, through the McKenna Cup and that fiery final win that went to extra-time over Derry, and the National League campaign that brought promotion and a Division Two title against Cavan, Tyrone had never felt the sting off a loss all year.
Fine margins is what it comes down to. In the sprint to the line against Donegal, Sean Cavanagh and Peter Harte produced scores from long range that were simply for the ages. Kieran McGeary's clincher was also highly impressive.
Against Mayo, a man down after Sean Cavanagh's red card, Tyrone actually swamped the westerners in the final minutes. But the chances fell into the wrong hands with Tiernan McCann, Cathal McCarron and - most surprisingly - Darren McCurry spurning chances to level the game at the death.
On McCurry's miss, Donnelly explains: "Probably the way that chance materialised caught him on the hop. I have no doubt if he got that chance next year he would split the posts.
"Maybe that is a lesson learned. If we get in those situations again, you really need to be nailing them.
" Maybe manufacture a better scoring option."
Tyrone are gearing up again. Next weekend, they face Louth in the O'Fiaich Cup. Some panel members are already in the wind and rain of Garvaghey laying foundations, getting the strength into their legs for more sunny days in Clones, more fraught encounters in Croker.
"The big thing all year was that this team needed to win an Ulster Championship in order to arrive. That was a big thing in itself," adds Donnelly.