‘Claustrophobic’ – How Donegal and Tyrone became Ulster’s fiercest rivalry – BBC Sport

Sean Cavanagh and Michael Murphy have been central figures in the fascinating narrative that has been the recent rivalry between Tyrone and Donegal

“Claustrophobic” is how Ulster’s fiercest rivalries are often described.

In the early part of the century, no fixture could match the animosity of Tyrone-Armagh. The 2005 Ulster replayed final certainly saw to that.

Dig deeper into the vault and you will find the apex of Cavan and Monaghan’s shared enmity, or a longstanding feud between Donegal and Derry.

But no rivalry has dominated the provincial landscape in the last 10 years quite like Tyrone and Donegal.

Theirs is a feud intensified by the sheer volume of meetings. Having contested only four championship between 1989 and 2007, they have met eight times since 2011, six of which have been in the Ulster semi-final or beyond.

For Enda McGinley, three times an All-Ireland winner with Tyrone, the decade’s dominant rivalry was helped by the atmosphere at MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey.

“In Ulster, we love these claustrophobic rivalries where the teams know each other inside out,” McGinley told BBC Sport NI.

“A couple of the games were up in Ballybofey, which is a really tight, hostile ground. Donegal love it as their home venue as I would if it was mine.”

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Rewind back to July 2010 and the Red Hands ruled Ulster. Mickey Harte’s side, two years on from winning their third Sam Maguire, had just breezed past Monaghan with a 10-point win to retain their Ulster crown.

But only a week on from Tyrone’s triumph in Clones, the Donegal county board made a change to their senior management team that would have significant implications for the power structure in the modern game.

Fresh from guiding Donegal to the All-Ireland Under-21 final, Jim McGuinness was charged with reversing the fortunes of a wounded senior team who had, a month prior, just been humiliated by Armagh in the All-Ireland qualifiers.

McGuinness, McGinley believes, is a towering figure in the context of Donegal-Tyrone.

“The defining thing was McGuinness’ arrival, which completely transformed Donegal into a force that Tyrone struggled with,” said McGinley, who experienced first-hand the Tir Chonaill men’s rise before his inter-county retirement in November 2011.

“A real hard edge came into them at that stage.

“In the noughties, they had a lot of talent, but they were hot and cold.

“They beat us in 2004 in Clones so they were always a quality team, but they were haphazard in their approach.

Enda McGinley says a Football League contest in 2011 showed him that Donegal were a vastly changed animal under Jim McGuinness

‘From beach holiday to hard-edged team’

“They didn’t seem overly serious compared to Armagh, who were very serious and professional about their tasks.

“Donegal seemed to be playing in a different era, but McGuinness changed all that and they became really hard winners.

“They went from maybe being the relaxed, beach holiday team into a real hard-edged team.

“No matter what Tyrone threw at them, they couldn’t get the better of them. Donegal certainly raised the bar within Ulster.”

That much was certainly evident in February 2011, as McGuinness’ influence on Donegal’s style of play grew increasingly apparent.

It was a Division 2 meeting in Omagh and, after McGinley completed a fine move to make it 0-4 to 0-1, Tyrone fans – who, in January, had watched their side prevail in an emotionally charged Dr McKenna Cup encounter just two weeks after the death of Harte’s daughter Michaela McAreavey – would have been forgiven for anticipating their first win of the league campaign.

But Donegal had other ideas. Their blanket defence and counter-attacking propelled McGuinness’ men to a 0-6 to 1-10 win.

‘We couldn’t figure what was going on’

“We were playing against a stone wall and couldn’t figure out what was going on,” recalled McGinley.

“It was the manner of Donegal’s play. I remember coming off the pitch thinking we had dominated possession, but we couldn’t figure them out and ended up getting hammered.

“We were racing into the blanket defence, tossing up turnovers easily because we didn’t realise what we were playing against.

“They were pinging us on the break. It was a strange match and they toyed with us during that day. It took us a while to figure it out because what they were doing was so new.”

Of course, Donegal were far from done. Having toppled Tyrone in the 2011 Ulster semi-final, they beat Derry in the provincial showpiece before reaching the All-Ireland semi-final.

As Tyrone, who lost retiring quintet McGinley, Brian Dooher, Brian McGuigan, Philip Jordan and Ciaran Gourley in the space of two months at the end of 2011, struggled to adapt, Donegal grew stronger.

A year later, McGuinness led his county to an Ulster and All-Ireland double, echoing the feat he managed as a player in Brian McEniff’s famed class of ’92.

As Tyrone faced a period of soul-searching, Donegal basked in the glory of the county’s second All-Ireland title.

Donegal’s harder edge helped them overcome Tyrone in the Ulster SFC game in 2011

‘The games in 2011 and 2012 were massive’

By the time Ryan McHugh was called up to the Donegal senior panel in 2013, the axis of power had shifted.

In the two years prior, the Kilcar club man attended the matches between the two counties as a supporter. From talking to the Donegal players, he got a clear sense of the rivalry.

“The games in 2011 and 2012 were massive,” recalls the two-time All Star.

“I remember going to those games and getting involved with the lads and realising how much of an emphasis they placed on Tyrone.

“They felt around 2011 and 2012 that if they got over Tyrone, they would always have a good chance.”

Between 2011 and 2015, Tyrone simply had no answer to their rivals. Donegal dumped them out of Ulster en route to lifting the Anglo-Celt Cup in 2011 and 2012.

They would also get the better of the Red Hands in 2013 and 2015.

‘Tyrone said Ballybofey wasn’t big enough’

McHugh’s first taste of senior championship action came against Tyrone in 2013.

“I remember when I first came into the panel in 2013, Donegal played the Ulster quarter-final against Tyrone in Ballybofey,” he recalls.

“It was a huge match with an unbelievable build-up – Donegal were All-Ireland champions at the time, and I remember the Tyrone county board said Ballybofey wouldn’t be big enough to hold the fixture.

“Then we played them in 2015 when Rory Gallagher was manager and there was a big argument at half-time, so there is a big rivalry between the two counties, but I definitely think it’s a healthy rivalry and we bring out the best in each other.”

It is difficult to argue with that last assessment. Time and time again over the last decade, the fixture has lit up the Ulster football calendar.

Tyrone’s 2016 Ulster Final win over Donegal came after the Red Hands lost four championship meetings in the previous five years

Pendulum swings back to Tyrone

And while Donegal enjoyed their period of unanswered superiority, Tyrone deserve credit for the manner in which they swung the pendulum back in their favour in 2016 during what many consider to be the peak of this rivalry in that year’s Ulster final.

For McHugh, that showdown in the sweltering Clones heat rekindles memories of his bitter disappointment.

Donegal, much-fancied in their quest to clinch a fourth title in six attempts, established a three-point cushion at the break with McHugh having kicked a trio of fine scores.

But Tyrone were not to be outdone this time. Inspired by captain Sean Cavanagh, they fought back to level the game as the clock ticked into added-time.

Then, after Michael Murphy surprisingly spurned a chance to nudge Donegal ahead from a free, Peter Harte and Kieran McGeary fired over the bar to deliver Tyrone’s first provincial triumph in six years.

“My memory of it is pure disappointment,” adds McHugh.

“We put ourselves in a winning position so to not see it out was extremely disappointing and we probably didn’t perform to the best of our ability.

“To be fair, Peter Harte’s point at the end was worthy of winning any game. I was asked to mark him that day so for him to kick the winning score was even more disappointing for me.”

2016 Ulster final ‘huge’ says McGinley

For McGinley, the 2016 final was “huge” for Tyrone. Staring down the barrel at a fifth straight championship defeat by their foes, Harte’s men dug in deep to stay in touch during a tense, defensive battle before prevailing in a breathless climax.

“That final, a packed crowd on a sunny afternoon in Tiernach’s Park, really captured a lot of what Ulster football is about,” says McGinley.

“Two teams in their pomp, Mickey had transformed his noughties team, Tyrone played some great football that year. The intensity was huge, so it was massive.”

Having adapted to significant tactical and personnel changes, Harte led Tyrone to a comprehensive 1-21 to 1-12 victory over Donegal in the 2017 Ulster semi-final before securing a 2-17 to 1-13 win in Ballybofey in the 2018 All-Ireland Super 8s.

The latter success, which ended Donegal’s 20-match league and championship unbeaten run at MacCumhaill Park, was particularly satisfying for the Red Hand County.

But Donegal would have the last word.

Last year, Declan Bonner’s side produced a thrilling display of attacking football to complete a convincing 1-16 to 0-15 win over Tyrone at Kingspan Breffni Park on their way to a fifth Ulster in nine years.

They ended the decade as they had started it, by beating their rivals in the Ulster semi-final.

This rivalry is far from over, but we will just have to wait longer than expected for the latest chapter between these two provincial heavyweights.

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