Tyrone skipper Stephen O’Neill could be forgiven for harbouring grave fears in relation to his team’s mouth-watering Ulster Championship semi-final against Donegal on Sunday.
Not only has the long-serving scoring ace taken only a limited part in training because of a hamstring problem, but for the first time “in about five years”, according to O’Neill, the Red Hands will take the field as underdogs in a provincial tie.
And with five players — Sean Cavanagh, Kyle Coney, Justin McMahon, PJ Quinn and perhaps Ronan McNabb — set to miss out because of injury, manager Mickey Harte will find his resources stretched to the limit for this alluring showdown.
“I honestly cannot remember precisely the last time we were underdogs but it might have been about five years ago,” reflects O’Neill. “But we have to accept the situation that Donegal are the reigning champions and the manner in which they have already beaten Cavan and Derry thrusts them into pole position to win the title again — you could not argue with that.”
Yet while the pendulum has swung in favour of Jim McGuinness’s side, O’Neill remains upbeat, conscious that his team has drawn renewed energy and confidence from their thrilling quarter-final win over Armagh.
“Maybe our injuries and the fact that Donegal have built up a head of steam are seen to militate us but there is still a great spirit within this Tyrone team. The players still have their pride and they will bring passion and commitment to the table on Saturday, you can be sure of that,” said O’Neill.
It was in last year’s semi-final that Donegal ambushed the Red Hands, second half goals from Colm McFadden and Dermot Molloy sounding the death knell for their title aspirations.
The absence of McMahon and Quinn from the defence on Saturday coupled with the current form of Donegal forwards Patrick McBrearty, Colm McFadden, Michael Murphy and Mark McHugh suggests that the north-west side could flourish again.
But Tyrone officials are united in the belief that their team’s desire to overturn last year’s result and maintain their fine record to date this year — one defeat in 14 outings — will prove major spurs in their bid to come out on top.
“Sure, Donegal are in the driving seat,” acknowledges PRO Damien Harvey, “but we were delighted with the way we played against Armagh.
“If we can get up another notch then we will be well able to test Donegal on Saturday.”