By Niall Gartland
CHAMPIONSHIP defeats are always difficult to stomach, but there was something particularly galling about today’s narrow Ulster Championship quarter-final loss to Donegal at a baltic Ballybofey.
In normal circumstances, there’s the luxury of a backdoor, but on this occasion there’s no opportunity of redemption – this year at least.
Losing to bitter rivals Donegal doesn’t help matters either, but perhaps the most bitter pill to swallow of all is knowing that things could’ve been oh-so-different had they managed to squeeze past their main rivals for provincial supremacy.
As for ‘why’ they lost, there are no easy answers. Referee Joe McQuillan didn’t do Tyrone any favours, but that alone doesn’t explain Donegal’s victory.
Some panicky play in the closing stages was a major factor – but the rain was beating down on the Ballybofey pitch at that stage so it was always going to be difficult to mount a late charge – while talk on social media centred around whether it was the right decision to take off Darren McCurry and Darragh Canavan when composure in front of goal was badly needed during a nerve-jangling finale.
But all the debate and discussion in the world won’t change the fact that Tyrone’s championship campaign is over, and one assumes that Donegal can look forward to a lengthy championship run. If only it were us instead.
The pre-match favourites looked strangely lethargic in the early stages, while Michael Murphy cut a lonely figure on the edge of the square with only Mattie Donnelly for company.
The Red Hands, whose only distraction at Ballybofey on this occasion was a very vocal Donegal subs bench, doubled their advantage when McCurry tapped over a free, and when Mattie Donnelly left it 0-3 to no score, it was looking like it could be a great day out for the visitors.
The water-break came as a Godsend to Donegal, and the dynamics of the game altered dramatically in the remaining 15 minutes of the half.
A fine point from Michael Langan kept them in touch, and even worse was to follow from a Tyrone perspective.
Shaun Patton went for the jugular as he boomed an outrageous kick-out deep into Tyrone territory. Peadar Morgan didn’t even need to break stride as he gathered the ball, and Langan administered the killer blow with a fantastic finish into the roof of the net.
All of a sudden Donegal were in the ascendancy and they edged into the lead for the very first time as Jamie Brennan pointed in the very next attack.
Donegal ended up leading 1-5 to 0-6 going into the second-half, but Tyrone came out fighting with an excellent strike from Darragh Canavan, who was making his first championship appearance.
Even better was to follow as Canavan, who was later substituted, found the net after a calamitous error from the usually reliable Eoghan Ban Gallager, but Donegal’s response was excellent as they hit four points on the trot from Thompson (two of them), Langan and Jamie Brennan as they regained a 1-9 to 1-7 lead.
Nerves were jangling with Tyrone’s championship hopes on the line and substitute Mark Bradley and Frank Burns knocked over points to draw matters level with nearly 50 minutes on the clock.
But as the rain lashed down, Donegal were faring better in the slippy conditions and led by two points heading into four minutes of injury time after a string of frees from Thompson and a particularly inspirational score from Oisin Gallen.
Try as they might, Tyrone couldn’t get a late goal and that was that – their championship campaign was over almost as soon as it started.
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