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Peter Canavan: Tyrone must halt Donegal's 'Little and Large' show

Michael Murphy-Ryan McHugh double act holds the key to blockbuster in Ballybofey

By Peter Canavan

A sixth championship meeting in seven seasons for Tyrone and Donegal but in each of those collisions the key to success for both sides remains the same: What to do with Michael Murphy?

It's an unusual conundrum in that it's a question for Declan Bonner as much as it is for Mickey Harte because how Bonner deploys his star man and how Harte choses to cope with him will go a long way towards deciding who keeps their season alive and progresses to an All-Ireland semi-final.

Murphy's lavish skillset is both a blessing and a burden for Donegal. He is used by them in a variety of ways. You'd see him starting counter attacks, contesting throw ins, playing as a midfielder, an orthodox centre forward and sometimes as a good old fashion full forward. A lesser player just couldn't be effective in all those different roles but Murphy is an exception. He can do almost anything you ask of him and do it well.

Jim McGuinness summed it up nicely in the Sky studio a couple of weeks ago when he said that Donegal needed two Michael Murphys. He pointed out that he's so good on kick outs that he's needed out there to both secure their own restarts and contest the opposition's. And he also said his experience and guile was crucial with Donegal's midfielders in the early parts of their career. In between kick outs McGuinness reckons he does his best work on the edge of the square. In effect, McGuinness said there is no easy answer to the question as to how to best use Murphy.

The debate as to whether Donegal are using the jewel in their crown correctly was ignited again when Murphy dismantled Roscommon from the edge of the square. Kevin McStay's side had no answer to his mix of poise and power on the edge of the square.

In an ideal world, I think Bonner would put Murphy at the edge of the square and leave him there. His presence alone would give defences plenty of headaches. Sweepers would likely stick closer to him and defenders in general would take less chances if he was around.

However staying put just isn't his game and even against Roscommon when he was totally in charge inside, he wandered out towards the middle. I think he's important to them out there too. He brings physicality, organises things and directs operations and helps them put serious pressure on the opposition kick outs. With the exception of the Dublin game in Croke Park, Donegal have been brilliant at turning over opponents on their own restarts.

I wrote last week that Donegal would love to have the likes of a Brian Fenton in their squad so they could leave Murphy in field full time but still think they have enough around midfield without sending Murphy out there for prolonged periods.

Between the likes of Leo McLoone, Hugh McFadden, Michael Langan who is six foot and Odhran MacNiallais Donegal have no shortage of big mobile fellas.

The thing is, I think Murphy quite enjoys the hustle and bustle out there. As an inside forward, you need to be patient because you could go 10 or 15 minutes without touching the ball. Murphy enjoys being more involved than that so I think he naturally wanders out to try and influence the game.

The other factor in Bonner's decision to leave him close to goal for longer periods was the absence of Paddy McBrearty. Jamie Brennan has enjoyed a very good season but having Murphy in beside him will ease some of the pressure and help him along. Bonner probably decided that with the likes of Ryan McHugh, Frank McGlynn and Eoghan Ban Gallagher out the field there is enough legs and intelligent footballers there to do damage.

So in the end I think we'll see Murphy play in the way he generally does. He'll move around and follow his instincts. And that means Tyrone will have to have a plan for him.

I think Harte will detail one man to follow him no matter where he plays. Ronan McNamee might have been a option but he's set to miss out. The same is true of Cathal McCarron so I think Tyrone will turn to Paudie Hampsey once again. He is strong and pacy and did an excellent job on Murphy when they met in the Ulster semi-final last year. Hampsey will be comfortable operating in whatever part of the field Murphy brings him too.

However this is a different, more adventurous Donegal team. And Murphy is just one half of the 'Little and Large' show that Tyrone will have to curb if they are to make the last four.

If Murphy is the brains and the brawn then McHugh is the brains and the engine. McHugh has pace and a great sense of when the right moment to go is. He's as brave as a lion too and he really pulls it all together for Donegal.

If you look at the goal he scored in the Ulster final, there are very few players who could have done that from that starting position. It was a goal from nothing.

Tyrone will have noticed the job that Eoin Murchan did on him in the Dublin match. Those two are almost carbon copies of each other in terms of their size and mobility and that's key if you are stealing someone to try and stick with McHugh. They need to be able to go all day and then when that is done go again.

Rory Brennan has marked him before in games while Conor Meyler certainly has the engine for him. Whoever is given the job will have a crucial detail.

There'll be very little in it at the end because Donegal just don't lose in Ballybofey. They haven't been turned over there since May 2010 so it is a fortress in the truest sense of the word.

Still, Tyrone will know they only need a draw and I think they will have learned so much from the Dublin game. They played with huge intensity for most of that game and it will stand to them. They'll know they went toe-to-toe with the best in the country for long periods. They lost nothing in defeat that day.

And then Tyrone have their bench to call on. Harte's men came strong in the final quarter and that was thanks to the quality of player they could call off the bench.

The winners will play either Monaghan or Galway for a place in an All-Ireland decider. At the start of the year, both of these sides would have taken your hand off for that chance. With so much on the line, it's set to be a brilliant game. Tyrone to squeeze home.

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