A sweeper covering touchline to touchline in front of a disciplined, dogged and durable back row. A high-energy, swarming defence, featuring a half-back line that break with pace, incision and ruthless precision. An inside forward line that blends power, pace and deft skill seamlessly.
That was Donegal in 2012. This is Tyrone in 2016.
It’s taken him five years, but Mickey Harte has finally built a Tyrone team that are capable of matching and exceeding the Donegal side that usurped his charges as the dominant force in Ulster. Mark McHugh was 5’ 10”, Colm Cavanagh is 6’ 4”, yet the ability to read the game, the pace to allow them to be in the right position and the ball playing ability to use possession once in their hands means that the role McHugh takes up and Cavanagh currently plays is strikingly similar.
Donegal had a half-back line of Karl Lacey, Frank McGlynn and Anthony Thompson and this line in particular was the catalyst for so many of their counter attacks. Running from deep by Lacey, and McGlynn in particular, caused havoc in many defences, resulting in a Player of the Year award for Lacey and a nominee for McGlynn.
Thompson was the unsung hero – the enforcer if you like – but often ghosting forward and finding himself in scoring positions, and although nominated, was overlooked for an All-Star. Now, the Tyrone half-back line consists of Tiernan McCann, Peter Harte and Niall Sludden. We only have to look at the weekend thrashing of Cavan to see the damage that half-back line inflicted.
Again, running from deep they sliced through the Cavan defence, with Harte in particular wreaking havoc. Of the three, Sludden hasn’t had the plaudits his compatriots have had, but he gets forward a lot and opened the scoring for Tyrone on Sunday.
Under Jim McGuinness, Rory Kavanagh was transformed from a tall, rangy half-forward into a powerful, athletic midfielder who could get forward and score off both feet. Much was made of Kavanagh’s eating plan under McGuinness, which allowed him to gain the physique required to match up to the physical requirements of wearing number nine and, over the last few years, Mattie Donnelly has undergone a similar transformation.
Bulking up considerably since breaking onto the scene, Donnelly initially seemed to be struggling to carry the new physique, but it would seem that his mobility has improved to the point that he is now close to the complete package.
Finally, we have the full-forward line. Donegal had Player of the Year nominee Colm McFadden, who finished the year as top scorer and Paddy McBrearty with Michael Murphy lining out at 14. McFadden was on his way to a 4-32 haul and the top scorer honours while McBrearty didn’t turn 19 until August, but had strength that belied his years and a great turn of pace.
Murphy had licence to drift in and out of the line, sometimes operating as the target man, sometimes as midfielder, sometimes as playmaker, much in the same way that Sean Cavanagh now operates for Tyrone.
Cavanagh wore 14 last Sunday, and was targeted inside for several early balls, before coming out and being employed in the middle of the field. Conor McAliskey and Ronan O’Neill provide serious firepower inside for the O’Neill county, and marking both is a tall task for any full-back line.
Donegal in 2016 are not the Donegal of 2012. Although many of the heads are familiar, the bodies they’re atop have been through a lot, however a new generation have come through to do the heavy work. Ryan and Eoin McHugh work tirelessly as does Martin O’Reilly. Odhrán MacNiallais adds a touch of class and a sweet left foot.
McGuinness took a formula developed by Harte, tweaked it and delivered an All-Ireland in 2012. Harte’s model in 2016 more closely resembles Donegal’s in 2012 than any of his previous Sam Maguire-winning sides.
The new Donegal meet the new Tyrone in the Ulster final next weekend – next-door neighbours meeting in the conclusion of the Ulster Championship for the first time since 1989.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery – that is where the flattery will end.
Mark McGowan, Pundit Arena