BY common consent Ulster football has undergone something of a renaissance this season, the exciting series of Championship matches reflective of a more enlightened philosophy.
However it would naive to think some of the more Machiavellian darker arts have disappeared altogether and today’s meeting of Tyrone and Donegal in the Ulster semi-final promises to deliver its usual intoxicating blend of the good, the bad and the ugly.
This fiercest of modern days rivalries will feature the last three winners of the Anglo-Celt Cup and together with Monaghan the two counties who have dominated football in the northern province for over a decade now.
The Tír Chonaill come into the latest instalment at Breffni Park as defending provincial champions but also fuelled by a burning desire for revenge after losing their most important Championships clash last season against Tyrone- that stunning Super 8 showdown in Ballybofey.
It was Donegal’s first loss in league or championship at MacCumhaill Park in 21 matches as Micky Harte’s men rallied from a four point second half deficit to outscore their hosts 2-7 to 0-2 in the final 15 minutes, goals from subs Harry Loughran and Declan McClure sealing their triumph.
The Red Hands also took the spoils in the 2016 Ulster Final and 2017 Ulster semi-final meetings, painful setbacks which may act as additional motivational tools for Donegal to reverse the recent trend.
From when the draw was made last October, this date would have been pencilled into the diary by the rabid followers of both counties, with each side expected to progress beyond their opening engagements into the last four.
Tyrone did endure a mini fright against Derry first time out, before belatedly kicking into gear in the closing straight, inspired by Darren McCurry’s sublime goal. On the last day they breezed to victory over Antrim, fourteen points the winning margin after a predictably lop-sided contest.
Donegal took their time to solve the uber-defensive Fermanagh tactical riddle, but with Patrick McBrearty back to spearhead their attack (injury ruled him out of last year’s Tyrone clash) they eventually ran out comfortable six point victors.
Declan Bonner’s charges are definitely carrying more of a threat than last year and their younger players are a year older and wiser from that sobering Ballybofey defeat.
Likewise Tyrone have been winning plaudits for their more expansive, direct style of play, though that tactical shift will face its stiffest examination yet against wily defensive warriors such as Neil McGee, Paddy McGrath and Frank McGlynn.
At the other end of the field the Red Hands were afforded the luxury of ‘slackening up’ on their sweeper system against Division Four opposition (who were still able to puncture alarming holes down the centre at times) so expect Colm Cavanagh to be back fortifying that sector once again today.
While the losers should still have a significant say in this summer’s Championship, on any occasion these two great foes collide, winning is the only currency that counts.