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Tyrone must do it the Donegal way

By Declan Bogue

Who were the two men celebrating on the pitch when Tyrone beat Monaghan to win the Ulster title in 2010? Nobody quite knows, but those figures have become part of the narrative surrounding Tyrone's jaded relationship with the Anglo Celt Cup at that time.

Perhaps it was 'The Midnight Callers', the pair of lads who once called Mickey Harte's house phone to criticise his tactics and team selections in his first year in charge of the Red Hands. Rather than hang up, Harte built a relationship with the anonymous duo and an unlikely relationship began.

In the aftermath and amid the emotion of that win on the Croke Park pitch, Harte felt a tap on his shoulder - it was 'The Midnight Callers' offering their congratulations. It was a heady time and while a lot of people enjoyed a lot of success, it was inevitable that it would be taken for granted.

A captain from either Armagh or Tyrone raised the Cup for 12 consecutive years. Somewhere in the middle, it became a mere point of reference - a step on the road towards greater glory.

Raising the silverware briefly above your head with your face held in a grimace became the etiquette. Quickly patronise the losers, thank the management and backroom team, drop the microphone with a thud and get back up the road with the trophy hidden from sight.

Jim McGuinness changed that.

Whenever the final whistle went in the 2011 final, the then Donegal boss ran into the middle of the pitch and embraced his players.

The scenes were repeated the following year when the Donegal support truly began to mobilise after that paltry Ulster final attendance of the previous year.

In 2014, a year after losing the provincial crown to Monaghan and Malachy O'Rourke, there was no post-match handshake as McGuinness ran straight across their path, whooping and punching the air. By accident or design? Who knows.

But he made your own province something worth treasuring again. When the Donegal team bus would eventually snake its way to the Diamond of Donegal town, the now county Chairman Sean Dunnion would act as Master of Ceremonies. McGuinness would then deliver an impassioned speech.

And then each and every member of the playing, management and backroom teams were introduced on the stage, right down to the kitmen and bus drivers.

But then again, McGuinness changed everything.

To change everything, he had to innovate. But what is innovation? Taking what you see and adapting it to your requirements.

So he studied Tyrone's principles. He took the 'swarm tackle' and turned it into the 'blanket defence'. Donegal would defend in numbers - but in their own half - wearing down teams before bounding forward in counter-attacks that sucked the legs and morale out of the opposition.

Videos of Sean Cavanagh 'buying' frees were shown to Donegal players. They were told to learn from it.

Mentally, Donegal and Tyrone were at opposite ends of the scale with their complexes. When Tyrone were awarded a free, they had a number of players who would shout in the faces of the opposition. It could crush a man's spirit.

So when Donegal met Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final of 2011, McGuinness coated his players with an armour. They were to say 'not today' to their opponents when they tried to get inside their minds. They scraped through that afternoon, after briefly threatening to go under in the first-half.

In the Ulster final this Sunday, it will be the Tyrone players who have to say 'not today' to their more celebrated, successful opponents. Only five current Red Hands aces have an Ulster medal. Now, it's Tyrone who have the inferiority complex. Donegal have moulded their opponents by defeating them.

Take Mattie Donnelly for example. He is one of the finest players in the game, but his Championship debut was the 2012 defeat to Donegal. Before this season, he had won just two games in Ulster.

That's why to this mind, the favourites tag granted to Tyrone is a false reading. Up against Donegal in isolation, the gap between the duo has grown wider with the Red Hands losing to their rivals four times in the past five years.

Working in Omagh the day after Tyrone beat Monaghan in the 2010 final, my then boss expressed his amazement at how low-key everything was, recalling a time when an Anglo Celt would prompt days of celebration.

Should Donegal win, they will mark it in their now time-honoured fashion. If Tyrone manage to overturn the hold their neighbours have on them, the entire county will be filing a sicknote on Monday.

Belfast Telegraph


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