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Murphy will not freeze under the Tyrone spotlight: Gallagher

By Declan Bogue

When Tyrone named their side on Thursday evening to face Donegal, nobody was fooled.

There was no Justin McMahon or Cathal McCarron included in the starting line-up, but it would represent a huge shock if neither made it through a late fitness test tomorrow and took up the crucial role of man-marking Donegal captain Michael Murphy.

In the past, 'marking' has more or less meant exactly that. Tyrone's means of containing Murphy has included both fairly and by fouling. But Donegal manager Rory Gallagher is a realist and knows that Murphy must accept what is coming his way.

"He is a very talented player and there are very few days that Michael goes out and is not marked tightly," said the Fermanagh man.

"I'd say it is a relief sometimes for him to get playing county football and away from club football when there are usually two or three players marking him. But he rises to the challenge. He doesn't expect anything easy in life."

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte has operated a 'zonal' defence since defeat to Donegal in the 2015 Ulster Championship preliminary round. It carried them to the All-Ireland semi-final that year and an Ulster title in 2016.

However, some players do need special attention. Murphy is one of them.

"It is something that he has got used to dealing with over the last number of years. You don't see him complaining too often. He gets on with it and that is the way Michael plays," said Gallagher.

Since the first league game this year, Murphy has been stationed entirely at midfield, though he retains the No.14 jersey of a full forward, possibly through superstition.

To play in that role and perhaps inspired by Donegal's last quarter fade-out against Tyrone in last year's final, Murphy underwent an exhausting pre-season and has become a sleeker version of himself this summer, entirely injury-free.

"He understood at the end of the year where he was at and he understood where the team was at as well, and his responsibility in that, and he has carried that very well," explained Gallagher.

Reflecting back on last year's final and how that has influenced the refit of the Donegal team, he revealed: "It was a day where everything was hard-earned and I honestly think a lot of that was down to the zapping heat.

"The game was nearly like a punch bag. One team would go at the other, and then the other would come back the other way.

"Sunday could be quite different. First of all, it is supposed to be a lot cooler, and it won't be as energy draining.

"It could open up, or it might not. I think that (the heat) had a lot to do with last year, but games can open up very quickly without people realising."

The new Donegal is one of pace, power and fresh legs. Asked if he has noticed much difference in their GPS readings after games or training sessions, Gallagher smiled coyly and chuckled: "I have yet to see anyone reveal their GPS data and I'm not going to start.

"I'm very happy with the energy levels we have. We have to be aware as well that we had a very experienced, ageing team last year and that is why so many of them went.

"I would expect more energy. I know there is a very good level of fitness, speed and energy in our group."

The fear for Donegal is that they might not have the physical strength to cope with the Red Hands. That is the great imponderable.

"It is very hard for a 19-year-old to be as physically well developed as a 24, 25 or 26-year-old. But I would be very happy with where they are at," added Gallagher. "There is an awful lot made of the physicality of teams, but speed and power and their ability to cover the ground and their ability to read situations is very valuable.

"I'm happy that a lot of our boys tick the right boxes."

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