#TheToughest Choice: Who’s going to win the Ulster Final, Donegal or Tyrone?
Two heavyweights collide, but only one can come out on top.
The football Championship of 2016 has been waiting for a real clash of the titans to kick it into gear and it couldn’t have asked for a better one than what’s coming in Clones on Sunday.
With three of the last five provincial titles going to the hills, Donegal have been the kingpins in Ulster in recent years.
There’s a real sense, however, that Tyrone are the coming team in the north and that Mickey Harte’s current outfit could turn out to be the successors to the great Tyrone sides that captured three All-Ireland titles between 2003 and 2008.
Will they prove it on Sunday or will Donegal show them that they’re not quite the finished article just yet?
Who'll come out on top? We’ll soon find out.
Conan Doherty says: Tyrone
They once said Mickey Harte's time was up - some of them - and now look. Here he is, back at the head of a Tyrone army that's ready to invade the capital.
The master of all masters took his time when he revisited the drawing board.
He nurtured and schooled a whole new group of men as the Red Hands, one by one, rid themselves of the old guard, but now they're prepped. Now they're Tyrone men.
There's an argument that the system Mickey Harte has developed in Garvaghey is even better than what Donegal's revolution boasted in 2012.
Personnel-wise, they might not be as strong the whole way through the team and Jim McGuinness had the advantage of using heavyweights like Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden to lead his scoring. But the nuts and bolts of what Harte has assembled are watertight.
Everyone knows what they're doing in Tyrone.
It began to show last year, eventually - it took relegation to get there.
It started with defence. It started with shutting up shop and making themselves hard to beat. Now, they look impossible to beat and a large part of that is down to how they attack. How they transform.
Against Cavan - who even had the benefit of getting a look at championship Tyrone two weeks previous - they still couldn't find the answers to silence them.
If they worried about Ronan O'Neill and Connor McAlliskey, then Cathal McShane popped up from nowhere and floated points over as if he could do it in his sleep.
If they consumed themselves with the perennial headache Sean Cavanagh has been providing Ulster teams for over a decade, then Mattie Donnelly, Tiernan McCann, and Niall Sludden were all there to break the lines instead.
If they were focused on Peter Harte like they should've been, it still didn't work. It never does.
Suddenly, Tyrone have this identifiable team that, if they went on to win Ulster and went on to beat Dublin, you'd look back and understand why.
You'd look back and notice the strength they command all over the park and how they've become this frightening, omni-explosion of a setup that looks ready to light the place up at any second.
They look ready to take on anyone. Donegal will just be the start of it.
Conor Heneghan says: Donegal
The outstanding team of the Football Championship so far? You’d have to say Tyrone.
What's not to like?
The incredible pace and counter-attacking ability of the likes of Tiernan McCann, Niall Sludden and Cathal McShane. Colm Cavanagh’s textbook illustration of how to carry out the role of a sweeper.
The finishing ability of Ronan O’Neill. The frankly ridiculous sustained excellence of Sean Cavanagh. Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte playing at the absolute peak of their powers.
I could go on. In truth, they’ve looked awesome at times.
But with all due respect to them and to Cavan and Derry, they haven’t had to overcome any huge obstacles so far. In fact, they haven’t faced Division One opposition since defeat to Kerry in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. They can only beat what’s in front of them after all, but it’s still a relevant point.
They certainly haven’t met anything like Donegal.
There’s a perception about Donegal that, because so many of the team have been on the go for a good few years at this stage, that they’re in danger of going stale.
Ten of the All-Ireland winning side in 2012, for example, were involved in the replay against Monaghan. And that doesn’t count Neil McGee, who was suspended and will return against Tyrone.
Down the spine of the team, meanwhile, the players wearing 3, 6, 9 and 14 will be the same as that 2012 final. If Paul Durcan was available he’d still be number 1, Neil Gallagher would be pushing to regain his number 8 jersey if he was fit and number 11, Leo McLoone, is still a part of the squad.
Some say it like it’s a bad thing. To me, it’s a sign of their consistency and a credit to their excellence.
Look at all the best teams of the last few years – Dublin, Mayo, Kerry – and it’s largely the same story. Think Frank McGlynn or Karl Lacey will gladly give up their place to some up and coming young tyke for the sake of it? Think again.
This is a team, after all, that has been in every provincial final since 2011. Considering that this is Ulster, don’t underestimate that achievement. In that time, they’ve won three Ulster titles and an All-Ireland title and contested another one. They’re the last team to beat Dublin in the Championship.
A team as good as Donegal didn’t need radical change, it just needed a sprinkling of freshness and vitality and they’ve got it.
Ciaran Gillespie proved an able deputy in Neil McGee’s absence. Eoin McHugh has proved that frightening pace really does run in the family. And Martin O’Reilly has come of age and has probably been Donegal’s player of the season so far, some claim given the typically classy displays of Odhrán Mac Niallais.
Faced with a defensive straitjacket against Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final replay, this team rattled off ten points in the opening half. Ten points against their fiercest rivals in 35 minutes!
Their angles of running were a joy to behold and must have been dizzying for the Monaghan defenders to try and cope with. Tyrone’s counter-attacking threat may be significant, but so is Donegal’s.
Although I still expect a cracking game in Clones on Sunday, neither team will let the opposition counter-attack to devastating effect like they have done so far.
No way will Peter Harte be allowed saunter up the pitch to crack in two goals and if Tyrone put up even half of the 5-18 they managed against Cavan last time out then I would be amazed (see Exhibit A at the top of the page for evidence).
In a game of such mammoth significance it could be experience that wins the day and the fact that Donegal have won the last four Championship meetings between the sides could give them the edge. When the game's in the melting pot with five or ten minutes to go, the psychological impact of those previous battles could be crucial.
The loser will still have a big say in the 2016 Championship after Sunday’s Ulster Final, but for me, it’s going to be Donegal’s day.