Ulster Championship: Harte alive to Donegal danger
The extent to which recent history is being mocked has already contributed to what is suddenly proving an intriguing and indeed fascinating Ulster senior football championship.
With last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists Down and Armagh, champions seven times since 1999, already out of the hunt for the title there is the possibility that there could be a significant switch in the balance of power within the province.
Derry have now won back-to-back championship matches for the first time in 13 years and tomorrow Donegal will bid to take a giant step towards what could prove to be their first provincial crown since 1992 when they meet Tyrone.
Yet while the Red Hands have been a constant presence in terms of contesting finals for the best part of the last decade, this in itself is proving insufficient to breed real buoyancy in advance of a potentially explosive Clones showdown.
No one is more acutely aware of the changing face of Ulster football than Red Hands manager Mickey Harte.
“I don’t think you can read too much into past histories in relation to this year’s championship. This is about a new year and a new game,” observes Harte.
The expulsion of Down and Armagh in particular from the title race, along with Monaghan’s submission to Tyrone, means that three counties who were initially among short-odds runners to lift the provincial crown have already been consigned to the Qualifiers.
Derry’s new-found confidence and rekindled ambition have added a fresh dimension to the trophy race and with Donegal expected to pose considerable problems for Tyrone tomorrow, the complexion of Ulster football could be significantly altered.
It must not be forgotten, though, that Tyrone remain unbeaten in their last seven matches (six league, one championship) and are displaying their now traditional hunger for more glory.
Yet manager Harte cannot disguise his admiration for a Donegal side that is thriving right now under the dynamic management of Jim McGuinness.
“Donegal clearly have a new belief in themselves and they seem to be working on a system of play that works for the players they have at their disposal at the minute,” points out Harte.
“Their players believe in their manager and they believe in the system and that is always useful in any team.”
When Derry stunned Armagh last weekend, Eoin Bradley and Conleith Gilligan combined to serve up a master class in finishing, just as Stephen O’Neill did for Tyrone when his scoring artistry shot down Monaghan.
With Ulster football having been rubbished in some sections of the media recently, Harte is one of several managers anxious to pinpoint that total emphasis on a defensive strategy does not win matches.
“There is no point in being defensive if you can’t score. You need to be able to defend — and Donegal do defend in numbers — but that’s no good if you sit back and try and win a game by seven points to six or something like that,” insists Harte.
“Donegal have been getting good scores despite the fact that they have been playing well at the back, so they have a good mix.
“They have players who can finish and any team that has players who can finish is always going to be dangerous.”
Tyrone’s desire to make it three titles on the trot is matched by Donegal’s thirst to occupy the provincial throne for the first time in 19 years.
Little wonder then that there is an element of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object to tomorrow’s contest.