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Donnelly: Reaching a hat-trick of semi-finals is real feat

 

On ball: Mattie Donnelly is proud to be back in the All-Ireland semis, but is first relishing a crack at Dublin
On ball: Mattie Donnelly is proud to be back in the All-Ireland semis, but is first relishing a crack at Dublin
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

The exacting professional standards expected of Gaelic footballers in an amateur game was exposed during Tyrone's Super 8s victory over Cork on Saturday, according to Red Hands captain Mattie Donnelly.

The win guaranteed a third consecutive All-Ireland semi-final for the first time for Tyrone.

The Red Hands still have Dublin to come in Omagh in the final Super 8s game, but have a free weekend coming up.

Prior to Saturday, they had four games - against Longford, Kildare, Cavan and Roscommon - in four weeks, with Cork their fifth game on the trot. All of them were away from home.

It led to a predictable tail-off in terms of performance as they fell five points behind at half-time, early goals from Luke Connolly and James Loughrey delivering a dream start for Cork. Tyrone would recover with 2-1 in a devastating four-minute spell in the second half to wrestle back control of the game and win out.

"The first half, our energy and intensity, everything you need to perform at Croke Park was missing," acknowledged Donnelly.

"We were very happy to get in at half-time, funnily enough, five points down - that's how well they were going, and how poor we were going.

"So once you get in five points down, you're still in the ball game and we addressed all the things we needed to address at half-time. We put them to practice in the second half."

Asked if the bigger surroundings of Croke Park took some getting used to, Donnelly replied: "You can never, ever pinpoint one thing in football, such are the amount of things at play. Maybe it was the five weeks on the trot, or maybe when we played Cork last year, maybe that was on our mind.

"We spoke all week, we had identified how dangerous they were, and how they performed against two of the best teams in the country - the best side in Ireland last week. We can't say it was complacency.

"Their start was the best start you can get in Gaelic football - that goal gave them a pep in their step and maybe deflated us a little bit. It took us a while to react well to that. Before you knew it, you were seven points down and we were happy it was only five at half-time."

After half-time, Donnelly was pushed up into the full-forward line to give Tyrone a much more offensive look. He accounted for three second-half points from play and was fouled for a string of others.

"We reverted to the way we set up in the league," he admitted. "I was giving Cathal McShane company and it worked well in the second half. A lot of the footballers in that team are comfortable in a number of positions. That's what we pride ourselves on.

"The way we played, you find yourselves in a lot of positions and a lot of situations, so versatility has always been a trademark of Mickey Harte teams and that's something we try to focus on. I would like to think I could play any role Mickey hands me, week on week."

With Tyrone safely into the semi-finals, they are in a curious scenario now. Do they go all out to beat Dublin in Omagh and therefore secure top place in their group - handing them a semi-final against the second-placed team in Group One - or do they rest key players with the semi-final just seven days later?

Harte said: "I haven't thought much about it or how I'll approach it.

"The semi-finals are the week after and I'm sure there are fellas on both sides carrying knocks. You just have to assess it but you never go out to take it easy in any game. If you take it easy against Dublin, the scoreboard won't look too pretty."

Dublin coming to Omagh last year brought a certain flavour and Donnelly is relishing the prospect again.

"It was a deadly occasion last year - just the buzz about Omagh, the novelty of it. A Championship game in Omagh in your home grounds, a great buzz," he said.

"The best team in Ireland coming, everyone likes to come along and watch it. That is the beauty of the Super 8s, that you have games like that."

They are also in a healthier position than the last game of the 2018 Super 8s, when they needed a win against Donegal in Ballybofey.

"That's why we were extremely keen to get the result against Cork, to be in that position, a semi-final in three weeks. If you didn't get the result, you have to go and beat the best team in Ireland in a knockout game, essentially," said Donnelly.

Donnelly admitted that the Ulster semi-final defeat to Donegal was the perfect opportunity to learn from.

"There were so many learnings from that Donegal game and it was just about getting momentum again through the back door," he said. "We always had faith and belief that we would give ourselves a chance to be back in this position.

"I think we're probably the first Tyrone team to make three semi-finals in a row. That in itself, considering the teams Tyrone have had, is an achievement."

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