Tyrone got their 2014 Dr. McKenna Cup campaign off to a winning start when they came from three points down to win by three in an entertaining encounter at O’Donnell Park in Letterkenny yesterday afternoon.
The two sides who took to the field were totally different in terms of experience at the top level with Donegal fielding eight players who started the All Ireland Final win in 2012. Tyrone, on the other hand, fielded with three senior debutants and only four players who began the All Ireland semi final defeat against Mayo.
Despite that the visitors showed a great hunger and desire for victory, especially in the second half when they retained possession brilliantly to leave their opponents chasing shadows.
Donegal led 1-5 to 0-5 at the break, but Tyrone will feel that they should have been ahead as they hit eight first half wides to their opponents’ one.
Tyrone had the wind at their backs in the opening period and they opened the scoring in the fourth minute with a well taken Ronan O’Neill point. Moments later full back Conor Clarke came to his side’s rescue with a great block to deny Donegal captain Michael Murphy.
O’Neill then hit another brilliant score to double their advantage before Donegal opened their account in the 16th minute with a well struck 44m free off the ground from Colm McFadden.
The home side were beginning to come more into the game and good work from Dermot Molloy saw him set up Murphy for the equaliser.
In the next attack though Tyrone got their noses back in front with an outstanding score from out on the left wing from debutant Shay McGuigan.
Murphy levelled matters from a thirteen metre free and in the twenty-second minute a mistake from Tyrone keeper Niall Morgan saw Donegal awarded a penalty, the Edendork man fortunate not to pick up a card after hauling teenager Daragh O’Conor to the ground. Morgan redeemed himself in style though with a brilliant save low to his right to deny Murphy from the spot.
Donegal then took the lead for the first time through full back Eamonn McGee following a surging run forward. McFadden nudged the hosts two in front with a well taken point but back came Tyrone straight away with a point from left half back Tiarnan McCann.
In the 31st minute the only goal of the game arrived. Rory Kavanagh played the ball up the right wing to Murphy and as Aidan McCrory hesitated the full forward cut inside and surged through to blast past Morgan. McNeice had the final say of the half from a placed ball but it would have been Donegal who would have been the happier of the two sides at the break.
Tyrone made a double switch at the break with Peter Hughes and Kevin Gallagher both coming on to make a telling impact. Niall McKenna moved to midfield with Mattie Donnelly coming out the field as well and that helped the visitors assume control.
In the second half Tyrone retained possession a lot better and they attacked in droves while at the other end of the field the hosts were restricted to just two points. The superb McNeice hoisted the ball high between the posts to open the second half scoring before an O’Neill free reduced the deficit to the minimum.
Murphy then scored a great point despite being under pressure but amazingly they were to score just once more in the remaining half hour. Morgan knocked over a 45 and in the eighth minute the sides were level when McNeice knocked over a close in free after Shay McGuigan had been fouled. Murphy responded in the 52nd minute for what proved to be their last score of the afternoon.
A poor kick out from Donegal keeper Paul Durcan went straight to Donnelly who placed McNeice for the equaliser before history was made when Rory Kavanagh became the first player to be black carded, Antoin McFadden coming on in his place.
Morgan then converted a long range free for a lead that Tyrone were never to lose before McGee was fortunate to escape with a yellow card for a high challenge on Donnelly. Morgan knocked over another placed ball as a fresher looking Tyrone side moved two clear.
In the 64th minute Donegal should have been reduced to fourteen men when Murphy clearly struck McGuigan but referee Barry Cassidy, who had a fine game throughout, only flashed a yellow card.
Mattie Donnelly had a goal chance but Durcan got a strong hand to it to save well. Gallagher and McNeice combined for Hughes to get his name on the scoresheet for what proved to be the last score of the afternoon.
Tyrone almost put the icing on the cake when McGuigan got on the end of a cross from McGinley but his palmed effort went wide.
All in all it was a great start to the season for Tyrone and manager Mickey Harte will take plenty of positives from it.
It was the first time since 2003 that the Errigal Ciaran man fielded a side that contained no All Ireland senior medallists and the players really stood up to be counted in testing weather conditions.
They will now seek to build on this result when the students of Queen’s University are the visitors to Healy Park next Sunday afternoon.