Red Hands braced for Donegal revenge bid

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

IT IS the biggest game of the Championship to date, and a huge test for both teams as Tyrone and Donegal go into battle in Sunday's Ulster SFC semi-final.

Having finally broken the dominance of their fierce rivals in last year's provincial final, the Red Hands will face an angry, wounded opponent at Clones.

No-one is expecting a classic, laced with open, attacking football, but this is certain to be a fascinating, compelling contest built around carefully constructed tactical plans.

The strategies of both teams are likely to be built upon defensive discipline, but with the offensive talent available to both managers, there will be no shortage of attacking action or a huge St Tiernach's Park crowd to enjoy.

Rory Gallagher's new-look Donegal side has won many admirers in recent months, but Sunday's encounter will present it with its first major examination as they go toe-to-toe with the Ulster champions.

Tyrone have been criticised for a lack of finishing power, but a 22 points return in the quarter-final win over Derry has gone some way towards allaying those concerns and misgivings.

However, Donegal will be much more difficult to break down than an Oak Leaf side that showed little resistance as it crashes to an 11 points defeat for the second year in a row.

Donegal had an equally facile win over Antrim in the last round, and learned little from a Ballybofey canter. Both teams will move to a different level this weekend.

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte is confident his attack has the firepower to shoot down a young and talented Donegal team, and pointed to the big return at Celtic Park, where Derry were put to the sword in the opening round.

"I think any day you score 22 points in a championship match at the venue of the other team I don't think that's such a bad performance, and if you were to get 22 points any day you go out, you probably wouldn't be beaten very much," he said.

"So people can pick on whatever they want - goal-scoring opportunities, you could talk about that all day.

"Last year we scored three goals and that was considered the reason why we won the game.

"So we weren't getting enough points then, there's some people you can't satisfy."

Harte feels his squad is maturing and growing stronger, and he has high hopes for the young players who are making their mark.

"We have a decent squad. A lot of newer, younger players have come in, some of them in their first year, some in their second, third.

"They're all getting experience each year that they're there, they're all becoming better players, I'm quite sure of that, and it is a very difficult situation, a difficult challenge to pick the first fifteen, and B, the 26 that can be named on the day.

"That's the biggest challenge that we have right now. It's a difficult one but it's a very good one.

"If you automatically know who your fifteen was, and who the 26 were, then there wouldn't be a challenge to get into those categories.

"So I think it's a healthy thing to have that, but it's a challenge for us in management to actually make those selections."

Last year's final was a cagey affair, with neither side prepared to commit to all-out attack, before Tyrone produced an explosive finish to finally end a run of defeats at the hands of Donegal.

 Harte was not prepared to predict the nature of this weekend's encounter.

"I can only suggest how we might think about playing, I can't really be sure how Donegal will play, so we'll have to wait and see.

"We kinda' know what we would like to do, but at the same time, you have to adapt and adjust when the opposition plays a certain way.

"So people might think that it's going to be more of the same. I'm not quite sure that it's going to be that. I don't think any two games mirror each other precisely.

"Basically, maybe you will have the same kind of style of play that prevailed maybe in the Ulster final. I'm sure that there will be bits of difference in that as well, but I don't think it will be a shoot-out at the OK Corral."

Harte was pleased with the performance at Celtic Park, where his side had 11 points so spare against Derry, and he hopes to build on the positives from that game.

"You play what's in front of you on any given day, and I'd say that we probably expected Derry to put up a fight for longer.

"You could say that they had a spell at the start of the second half which kept them in the game longer than they did the year before, but ultimately we were capable of getting scores to go on and win the game with some degree of comfort.

"Donegal were the same, they had some degree of challenge from Antrim in the first half, and perhaps if Antrim had scored one or two of the goals that they created, then it would have been a longer time for them to put them out of their way.

"We both have had first round experiences, we have got a championship match behind us, now we have got to face another one.

"This is a semi-final, there's a big prize for the winner of this, and obviously there's a bit of history between us."

And the Tyrone boss is looking to turn to his advantages the lessons learned from a heavy NFL defeat to Derry earlier this year.

"It's not about what you learn, it's about what you do with what you lean that will ultimately make the difference.

"Yes we know things that we should have done better and perhaps could do better, now if we can translate that into different action, then there's a possibility that we can get a different result."

Harte knows that his defence must hold a talented Donegal attack in check, and he sees Paddy McBrearty as a major threat.

"You would expect Paddy McBrearty to start for sure, because he's a very young player and he's their key inside, and a lot of experience despite his youth.

"Karl Lacey, despite his fitness levels, he's at a different end of his career, and it will be a question, if he starts him, does he last 70-odd minutes?

"Or will he hold him and put him in at a time of the game that there's a need for composure, a need for somebody with that experience.

"I can't second-guess what Rory Gallagher is going to do, but I would be included to think that Paddy McBrearty will be starting."


McCrory believes Tyrone have learned lessons

DONEGAL have the upper hand on Tyrone in the current season, having scored a resounding win in the NFL tie.

The Red Hands lost heavily when the sides met in the league at Ballybofey, but that painful experience has been parked, according to defender Aidan McCrory.

"We'll try to learn from it as best as we can. They were the better team on the night," he said.

"We have no complaints about anything that happened. Donegal beat us and beat us well.

"But we have another game to play now, so we can't dwell on that."

The Red Hands have struggled to establish a settled defence this year, and will see further changes this weekend, with Justin McMahon and Cathal McCarron available again after missing the quarter-final win over Derry due to injury, while Ronan McNabb has been ruled out by a damaged ankle.

"If you look through the league, we probably had different boys missing at different stages. I didn't play as few of the games, Justy didn't play a few of the games, Ronan McNabb would have missed a few games, so boys have filled in there.

"We have a couple of really good boys there that maybe haven't had a lot of game time, that were very unlucky to not get that game time.

"This is an opportunity for them. You're sorry for the boys that are missing out, but at the same time, everyone there is there because they're fit for it, and that's what they want to be playing, so it's an opportunity for someone to step up to it."

Tyrone have been criticised for their lack of potency in front of the posts. They scored just three goals during the league, and failed to hit the net against a limited Derry side in their championship opener.

But McCrory is confident they have sufficient firepower to repeat last year's Ulster final win over Donegal.

"We have created chances. We know ourselves that we maybe have had chances that we didn't take.

"You would prefer to have goals, but you can't be going for goals the whole time.

"Sometimes it just doesn't work out for you. If you win the game with points you'll be happy enough as well."

And corner back McCrory, a goalscorer in the Croke Park draw with Dublin in the league, will be pushing forward once again at every opportunity.

"We're always given licence by Mickey, whenever we have the ball, our aim is to score, and we do what we have to do to try and get that.

"Sometimes there's space there for whoever gets up the pitch and gets on the ball. There's nothing really instructed about it, it's just the way that the game flow happens.

"I'd be happy enough to carry it up the pitch and lay it off for someone else to tap it into the back of the net."

McCrory expects this year's championship to be just as close as last year's Ulster final, when Tyrone pulled away in the closing stages to score a narrow win.

"Whenever you're playing you sometimes don't realise what time has gone by.

I think it will be close for much of the game, I think there won't be much in it.

"At times it could be like last year, but both teams have new players playing, new things happening, and I think they'll be trying to adapt to those new players and see how things go."

The build-up and preparation has been solid, and less fragmented than the weeks leading to the championship opener against Derry.

"We waited so long for the Derry game from the end of the league. It had been six or seven weeks, and we had been playing club football.

"Now we're back in the mood of playing county games every few weeks, and that smaller gap definitely helps you get back in tune with what you're used to doing.

"Donegal have been one of the better teams in the country for the last number of years.

"But we're just worrying more about what we can improve on from the last day. We had what was a good enough win, but at the same time it's not going to be good enough when we come up against Donegal."

Some opposing players may get up close and personal on Sunday afternoon, but McCrory says he has never experience sledging in previous local derby clashes with Donegal.

"I have never had an issue with it. No-one has ever said anything to me, and I have never bothered saying anything to anyone else.

"But I can't say that for everyone. There could be instances out there where someone has maybe said something. Everything has to be taken on its own merit."

And as they prepare for a much tougher clash than the comfortable win at Celtic Park, McCrory believes they will draw confidence from the big win over Derry.

"It was late on when we tagged on our scores and pulled away from them. We were prepared for a tight game, and we got away with a comfortable enough win in the end, so we were happy enough with that."


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