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Fierce rivals Tyrone and Donegal set for defining tie

By Declan Bogue

Tuesday at noon, the Abbey Hotel, Donegal town. Neil Gallagher sits in the corner of the restaurant, answering questions, grabbing the spoon in front of him for fiddling purposes.

He doesn't do this sort of thing too often. He manages to say the words "I just can't be bothered" with complete charm.

He listens to every question and answers them. It's a rare interview with Gallagher, but it matters, because Donegal matter. And Donegal matter because of him.

In 2011, back in year one of what Jim McGuinness referenced as the Olympic Cycle, the then Donegal manager held Tyrone up as the touchstone. He was aware that should Donegal get past Antrim and Cavan, Tyrone would be there, ready for an Ulster semi-final, going for four Anglo-Celts in a row.

The sports psych in McGuinness went to work.

He came up with a phrase, 'Not today', that the Donegal players were to use if any Tyrone player tried to get a rise out of them.

He showed them inspirational videos of the extraordinary Rick and Dick Hoyt. Their message for the day was the one that flashed up after the video ended: 'YOU CAN'.

And after a while, they had, courtesy of Dermot 'Brick' Molloy's late goal. It became the start of an utter domination that Donegal have held over Tyrone since.

"Beating Tyrone gave us a bit of confidence and a lift because of the success that they had," recalls Gallagher.

For all intents and purposes, that was an unofficial Ulster final, especially after Derry's Eoin Bradley ruptured his cruciate a week out from the actual final. That was the moment Donegal felt the scales falling from their eyes. They became believers.

As well as having McGuinness, 2011 lit a flame under the squad.

"The players had to take more of a leadership role," continues Gallagher.

"You get fed up getting beat. When we won the Ulster title, we wanted to win more stuff. It is the same with every team, when you get a bit of success you want to go on and try to win a bit more. The players back in 2011 realised what it took to be successful."

The games since have been flavoured by a growing tension and Tyrone's clear distaste for their reduced circumstances.

They haven't featured in another Ulster final, or come close to it. Whatever about their league record, the perception of Tyrone now is of a team showing continual signs of slippage.

In 2012, Tyrone came hard again, but by now, Gallagher and Donegal were not going to surrender their champion status. Had Donegal taken on Tyrone's mantle?

"I would say so. Seeing the success that they had, we definitely tried to instil that will to win that they had and that came into play that year in 2012 when we went on to win the All-Ireland," says the Glenswilly man.

By 2013, Mickey Harte had to pay Donegal their dues. He required a free taker anyway, but with Stephen Cluxton providing the template, he went out and recruited Niall Morgan.

The sides met twice that year; Tyrone won the league encounter on March 3. Morgan kicked 0-3 from the dead ball and saved a Michael Murphy penalty. Murphy and Gallagher got the line that day and it finished on a sour note when Tyrone representatives apologised to Karl Lacey after a 'fan' had spat on him as he walked down the tunnel.

The scene was set for their Championship meeting in the first round in Ballybofey. Harte turned up the heat on the Ulster Council by suggesting a neutral venue might allow all the Tyrone fans to get in.

For sure the terraces were packed, but Tyrone were left red-faced by having to hand back a portion of their ticket allocation, unsold. They were sunk by goals from Ross Wherity and Colm McFadden, and bankrupt with ideas.

There was no meeting between the sides in 2014, a welcome break from hostilities, but Tyrone corner-back Aidan McCrory refutes the suggestion that by this stage this Donegal team have the upper hand.

"People before last year might have said that we had the same thing on Monaghan," points out McCrory.

"It is not like you are going to play a team and suddenly you don't play well because of who they are. This game in context is a relegation battle, we need the points to stay in the league and that is the real element."

Perhaps there will be markers laid down. With both sides in relegation trouble they both need a victory.

"If we were both safe," explains McCrory, "you might see a bit of chopping and changing but staying in Division One is important. It will be as important to Donegal as it is to us."

Gallagher goes along with that: "Both teams will not be giving too much away. There is nothing you can do but get on with it and prepare."

This week, Donegal PRO Ed Byrne sent out an email enquiring how many members of the media would show up. He was flooded with replies.

Because this one matters. It might even define the season for both teams.

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