Ulster Championship: Donegal young guns will test Tyrone oldies
It has often been said within the GAA that if a player is good enough, then age should not prove a barrier to his inclusion in any side.
This theory will undoubtedly be put to the test when Tyrone’s gnarled defensive unit locks horns with Donegal’s youthful forward line in Sunday’s Ulster championship semi-final at Clones.
The Red Hands rearguard encompasses some of the county’s most venerable players, among them Conor Gormley, Philip Jordan and Ryan McMenamin all of whom have celebrated their 30th birthdays.
They will now pit their vast experience, renowned physicality and considerable stamina against a Donegal attacking machine that will for the most part depend on Michael Murphy (22), Mark McHugh (20), Dermot ‘Brick’ Molloy (20) and Patrick McBrearty (17) to play a key role in ruining their opponents’ plans to land three successive provincial crowns.
Yet even with such a wealth of talent up front, Donegal’s championship progress — they have beaten Antrim and Cavan — has been tarnished by jibes that they are rather too focused on defence.
Perhaps the best response to this has come from Tyrone boss Mickey Harte who seldom, if ever, allows his judgement to be clouded by populist opinion.
“Look, they got 2-14 against Cavan and if that’s being defensive I would take it any day of the week. Donegal can defend and they can move forward and get scores when they need them. They are a side that can get scores from anywhere,” insists Harte.
Such a succinct analysis suggests then that Harte will already have drawn up elaborate measures to curb the finishing power of the north-west side.
Tyrone’s tight marking, smart covering and ability to block avenues of attack by bringing their midfield and half-forwards back to form a cordon has been a constant in their strategy over the years.
Few teams either are as adept at translating defence into attack. Jordan is one of the best link-men in the modern game, Davy Harte is as comfortable going forward as he is in containing opponents, and the wily McMenamin is often the catalyst for scores.
Donegal may have overcome the Red Hands in the National League (1-10 to 0-6) but their manager Jim McGuinness accepts that this will make the reigning champions even more determined to ensure there is no slip-up this time.
“They were far from full-strength when we met them in the league. Tyrone in the championship are always a different kettle of fish anyway,” points out McGuinness.
A number of teams have, of course, discovered this to their cost since Harte assumed command at the start of 2003.
While the old guard can be expected to offer stoic resistance at the back, their seasoned colleagues such as Sean Cavanagh, Brian McGuigan, Brian Dooher and Stephen O’Neill are capable of disrupting Donegal’s defensive mechanism.
Karl Lacey, Neil McGee and Frank McGlynn have to date helped to establish Donegal’s template for frustrating opposing forwards — whether the formula will work against a side noted for its invention, poise and accuracy remains to be seen.
McGuinness’s side look capable of matching the Red Hands in one vital sector — winning break ball in the middle third. Kevin Cassidy, Rory Kavanagh and Kevin Rafferty are not afraid to get ‘down and dirty’ but they will need to be at their best to counter the threat of Dooher, Kevin Hughes and Co in this respect.
It is now accepted that championship football is a 20-man game and since both teams boast strong benches neither will be found wanting should remedial action be required during the game.
Given that the respective managers have such rich options at their disposal, expect Sunday’s clash to go down to the wire.
The Tyrone team shows two changes from that which started against Monaghan.
Joe McMahon, who sustained a broken jaw while assisting his club Omagh St Enda’s against Moortown in April, returns at full-back where he displaces Cathal McCarron while Kevin Hughes starts in midfield.
TYRONE: P McConnell; M Swift, J McMahon, R McMenamin; D Harte, C Gormley, P Jordan; K Hughes, S Cavanagh; B Dooher, B McGuigan, P Harte; M Penrose, S O’Neill, M Donnelly.