Retaining the Barrett Sports Lighting Dr McKenna Cup had never been high on Donegal manager John Joe Doherty’s shopping list, but while this early trophy coup is welcome, the real bonus lies in the substantial boost in morale which coincides with the start of the National League.
While Doherty can now view his team’s potentially hazardous route through a challenging Division Two, his Tyrone counterpart Mickey Harte is left to ponder what he hopes will prove nothing more than a temporary blip prior to the Red Hands assault on the title in the more rarefied atmosphere of Division One in which they will launch their campaign against fierce Ulster rivals Derry in a hugely appealing opener on Saturday.
If the climate at an immaculate Brewster Park, Enniskillen was frosty, the exchanges were searing hot virtually throughout as Donegal’s frenetic work-rate and unrelenting tenacity eventually trumped Tyrone’s fluency and economy.
In a match which saw some of the more senior citizens on both sides underline their enduring value, it was the more youthful pretenders who effectively thundered out the message that the national stage rather than subsidiary competitions is real platform on which they are zealous to parade their skills.
That’s why Donegal’s David Walsh, Adrian Hanlon and Leo McLoone along with Red Hands young guns Niall McKenna, Kyle Coney and Peter Harte can expect a generous ration of action over the course of the league with championship selection perhaps still within their gambit when we get to the real business end of the season.
Stephen O’Neill’s dislocated elbow, though, is a much more serious setback to Mickey Harte than losing for the first time this year and indeed his absence in the closing phase of the game appeared to sap at Tyrone’s concentration.
They had looked comfortable at one stage when they led by 0-11 to 0-7 with O’Neill landing four of their scores and the elusive Martin Penrose bagging three exquisite points from play, but when Donegal, who trailed by 0-9 to 0-7 at the break with Michael Murphy surprisingly restricted to just two points from frees, sustained their momentum in the last quarter it was to prove significantly rewarding.
The experience and craft of veteran Colm McFadden allied to the energy and enterprise of the busy Walsh and the lively Hanlon allowed the north-west side, who fell from grace spectacularly last year before regaining a measure of credibility in the All Ireland Qualifiers, to draw level in the 72nd minute after they had briefly appeared to be sagging on the ropes.
And in a protracted period of injury time, necessary because of O’Neill’s unfortunate injury, Donegal produced a killer-blow when the alert Walsh pounced to drill home the only goal of the game and replicate his team’s success of last year in the competition.
Yet no-one is more aware than Donegal boss Doherty that January success can be consigned to the history-books before February has run its course. He will be treading even more cautiously than last year, earnestly hoping that lightning, in the form of abysmal league form and Ulster championship ignominy, does not strike twice.
Mickey Harte, meantime, will now be forced to lean rather more heavily on the wannabes than he might have originally intended — but his team is unlikely to be the poorer for that.
DONEGAL: P Durcan; J Keeney, N McGee, P McDaid; E Wade, F McGlynn, K Cassidy; F McNulty, N Gallagher (0-1); E Kelly, D Walsh (1-2), L McLoone (0-1); A Hanlon (0-2), C McFadden (0-2, both frees), M Murphy (0-3, 0-2 frees). Subs: M McGowan for Kelly (46 mins), M McGuire for McNulty (71)
TYRONE: J Curran; C McGurk, Justin McMahon (0-1), M Swift; Joe McMahon, C Gormley, D Carlin; K Hughes, E McGinley; K Coney (0-1), T McGuigan (0-1), P Harte (0-1); M Penrose (0-3), S O'Neill (0-4, 0-3 frees), N McKenna. Subs: B McGuigan for McGurk,A Cassidy (0-1) for Justin McMahon (both half-time), Mark Donnelly for O'Neill (45 mins), N Gormley (0-1) for McKenna (69), Mattie Donnelly for T McGuigan (69)
Referee: Jimmy McKee (Armagh).