Brian McEniff, Mickey Harte and Jim McGuinness. INPHO
High Stakes

McEniff, Harte and McGuinness: The intense nature of Donegal-Tyrone rivalry

Brian McEniff, Jim McGuinness and Mickey Harte kept a northwest derby game one of the most compelling contests.

BY THE TIME the first stirrings of intercounty GAA reached that lonely outpost of Donegal, they were, well, more of a hurling county.

It took them until 1906 to gather a team up to play the Ulster senior football championship. By then, they had played and lost the Ulster hurling finals in 1904 and 1905, both in Seaghan’s Park, Belfast, to Antrim.

Come 1906, they played the decider in Burt, something of a cradle of hurling civilisation in Donegal, and won – wait for it – 5-21 to 0-1.

The same year they made their bow in football, playing Derry and losing 0-20 to 0-1. The following year they could easily point to progress as the scoreline was Derry 0-18, Donegal 0-2. Inches and all that.

On they went. Some years they were in the Ulster championship, other times the harvest in Scotland and fishing might have just been too hectic and they didn’t field.

Either way, like any county that becomes relevant, they needed two elements; a messiah, and a bit of local needle.

And Tyrone always had more needle than a Far East sweat shop to go around.

Their first meeting was in 1919, at the border town of Strabane when Donegal won 4-4 to 2-0.

They met four times thereafter, all games passing off without incident. But then Donegal acquired their messiah, Brian McEniff, who took over as player manager for the 1972 season. Football in Donegal would become a much more serious enterprise. 

manager-brian-mceniff-with-the-sam-maguire Brian McEniff. INPHO INPHO

They won their first Ulster title. McEniff became an All-Star. They beat Tyrone in the final. Thought nothing of it. But Tyrone did…

And they liked that the draw paired them again for the 1973 championship. Gulp.

What happened in that game was strictly over-18s stuff.

McEniff had managed to coax back the legendary Gaoth Dobhair footballer Neilly Gallagher after a two-year absence. He was dominating Mickey John Forbes in open play, having scored three points and the two of them were, ‘throwing thumps’ into each other from the start, according to Gallagher.

With the ball up the other end of the field, Forbes took action. The incident was stored in the vaults of eye-witness memory for forty years until Gallagher talked to Donegal reporter Alan Foley a decade ago.

“He hit me with the fist,” he said of Forbes. “The reason he opened me was because I was so close. I wasn’t expecting it. I was concussed and got seven stitches. That’s all I remember from that game.”

The newspaper report in the Donegal Democrat was more explicit, calling it a, “savage assault… in cold blood with premeditation.”

Either way, Gallagher was brought to a local café to steady himself. After a while, the blood flow could not be staunched and he was brought to Letterkenny General Hospital, where surgeons were pressed into action to save his eye.

Reports of the day also detail fights between rival sets of supporters. The bars in Ballybofey closed early to avoid trouble, while there were dispatches from Castlefin of retreating Tyrone fans involved in a skirmish. The week after, the Democrat floated the idea that Donegal would leave Ulster and affiliate themselves with the Connacht provincial council.

“It was the sort of atmosphere you could cut with a knife and that had never prevailed before with Donegal and Tyrone. There had never been any enmity,” said Brian McEniff a few years back.

McEniff’s mother was Elizabeth Begley from Carrickmore. He had spent summers in Tyrone as a child. That venerable Tyrone football man, Art McRory, is his cousin. In time he would hate that this all happened, but younger men, intense young men such as McEniff was, burn with a fury that sustains them.

“I think the Troubles might have had something to do with it, there was a lot going on at the time and it caused a lot of aggravation and contention between players on opposite sides of the border.

“Some of the more senior players would call you a Free State bastard, it was sad what was said on reflection,” he said.

Since then, it made sense that Tyrone became the side that Donegal loved beating most. The year after, 1974, they met in Omagh. Donegal won this time, but they togged off in Ballybofey, travelled down on the bus and went straight back on the bus afterwards to shower in Ballybofey.

In fairness, Tyrone had given good reason for Donegal to hate them.

It was the same with Jim McGuinness.

In his autobiography, he told a story of playing a Tyrone team at underage level. At one point in the game he found himself sprawled on the floor of the Castlebar pitch. His marker spotted his chance and stamped his boot into McGuinness’ face.

Appeals to the referee brought nothing. His marker grinned, knowing he had gotten away with it.

“The point was,” McGuinness explained in his autobiography, ‘Until Victory Always’, “that we held Tyrone and teams like that in the height of respect and they regarded us as players to be toyed with, to mash down with the soles of their shoes.”

He became obsessed with Tyrone and with Mickey Harte. Any night that Donegal trained, he might blow his blue whistle, stop the action and make the point, “See what Tyrone do…”

jim-mcguinness-and-mickey-harte Jim McGuinness modelled Donegal on Mickey Harte's Tyrone. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

So when the two sides met in the 2011 Ulster semi-final, he had a tactic for his players. The moment a Tyrone player began talking, trying to erode their confidence, they were to breeze past them, barely acknowledging them only to say, “Not today.”

He made them stand as equals.

Hate is a strong word. But there is no doubt that players on either side held each other in contempt. In the stands, it often become hairy. After a league game in 2013, Karl Lacey was spat on by a spectator and Tyrone, led by Mickey Harte, offered a sincere apology. Other incidents have peppered the meetings.

Outside of those occasions, there is a sense that both counties do not have time for each other, with various sledging incidents and accusations. In Ulster, it’s been a messy storyline.

This Saturday night, they meet again in Ballybofey. It will be the eleventh time they have faced each other in championship since McGuinness took over. Donegal have won six times, Tyrone four. Here, we look back on each of the games.  


1. Ulster semi-final 2011
  • Donegal 2-6 Tyrone 0-9, Clones

Donegal were two points adrift at the break having felt like they were being overwhelmed. A Kevin Cassidy spectacular before half time gave them something to build on after the break.

A goal from Leo McLoone on 55 minutes pushed them ahead in the game for the first time, while McLoone was lucky to not been shown red after an encounter with Joe McMahon.

The decisive play in the game came when Marty Swift fielded a high ball, but unwisely tried to pick a path around Michael Murphy. The Donegal captain retrieved the ball and it fell to Dermot ‘Brick’ Molloy who smashed it home.


2. 2012 Ulster semi-final, Clones

  • Donegal 0-12 Tyrone 0-10

Having ran into Donegal’s web the year before, Mickey Harte changed tack and Matthew Donnelly’s championship debut became one of the most fascinating and fresh tactical battles ever as this new style football seemed, at least at the time.

The game hung in the balance and eventually came down to a Martin Penrose – himself from hard on the Donegal border – shot that zipped in towards the bottom corner, only for Donegal goalkeeper Paul Durcan to stretch out a long leg and get his studs to it and keep it out.


3. 2013 Ulster quarter-final, Ballybofey

  • Donegal 2-10 Tyrone 0-10

To beat Donegal, Harte realised Tyrone needed to address the lack of a right footed freetaker. He went away and recruited Niall Morgan to become the prototype free-taking goalkeeper.

He tried it out in a league meeting between the two, in which Morgan scored three points from frees, while he also saved a penalty from Michael Murphy.

By the time Ballybofey came around, McGuinness had a surprise in store. The grass beyond the 45 metre lines was kept long and rough. When Morgan stepped up, a line of Donegal players were encroaching on his space, arms up, accompanying it with verbals. Donegal won in every regard.


4. 2015 Ulster preliminary round, Ballybofey

  • Donegal 1-13 Tyrone 1-10

By this stage the games were getting out of hand for nastiness and spite. McGuinness was gone from the Donegal dugout, replaced by Rory Gallagher and the scenes at half-time were just dreadful as both teams pushed and shoved with members of the management teams getting involved.

neil-mcgee-and-stephen-oneill Stephen O'Neill V Neil McGee. Presseye / Russell Pritchard/INPHO Presseye / Russell Pritchard/INPHO / Russell Pritchard/INPHO

This was the day that Stephen O’Neill sprinted around ten metres at Neil McGee only to bounce straight off him in a viral clip for the ages. A Martin McElhinney goal separated them at the end.

5. 2016 Ulster final, Clones

  • Tyrone 0-13 Donegal 0-11

There was nothing in it. Literally, nothing. The sides were level when Johnny Munroe crashed into Colm McFadden. On any other day, it might have been given as a free-in for Donegal to go two up. Instead, Tyrone went down the field and Sean Cavanagh landed a point that fell over the crossbar like a meteor.

Enter Kieran McGeary from distance and a spectacular Peter Harte point to win it.

peter-harte-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Peter Harte after the 2016 Ulster final. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

6. 2017 Ulster semi-final, Clones

  • Tyrone 1-21 Donegal 1-12

A demolition job. One of those days when Tyrone pushed everyone forward and were rewarded for it as a dozen players in total scored, the goal coming from Tiernan McCann.

Donegal were in the midst of transition but this did not work out for them at all. In the middle of the second half, Neil McGee turned to Sean Cavanagh and just said with an air of resignation, “It’s wile warm, Sean. I can’t wait to get out of here.”


7. 2018 Super 8’s, Ballybofey

  • Donegal 1-13 Tyrone 2-17

Prior to this, the record Donegal teams had in Ballybofey was held in high esteem and when they went in a goal ahead at the break, having won back the Ulster championship a few weeks earlier, it was looking all gravy for the men in gold and green.

But Mickey Harte ran his bench and gained 2-5 from the replacements, having sent on five of his six subs with over twenty minutes remaining.

The score that finished Donegal was a full-length dive by Harry Loughran to meet a Tiernan McCann pass to palm to the net, and the game was set up as a ‘winner takes all’ scenario with Tyrone advancing to the semi-final.


8. 2019 Ulster semi-final, Breffni Park

  • Donegal 1-16 Tyrone 0-15

Ill-tempered and no end of spite, Tyrone looked to be making serious headway with some points from Cathal McShane who was being reinvented as a full-forward under the guidance of then Tyrone selector Stephen O’Neill.

But Donegal were tactically flexible and dropped Hugh McFadden into the ‘D’ and cut out McShane’s running lines, just as Michael Murphy went on to have one of those commanding days where everything seemed to happen by his own design.

Controversy raged around this fixture with Tiernan McCann having been accused of an eye gouge on Donegal defender Stephen McMenamin.


9. 2020 Ulster quarter-final, Ballybofey

  • Donegal 1-13 Tyrone 1-11

Mickey Harte’s final game in charge of Tyrone finished in the most odd of circumstances, one of the first championship games back after the Covid lockdown, with no spectators present and heavy rain fall.

mickey-harte Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin on their last day out in charge of Tyrone. Lorcan Doherty / INPHO Lorcan Doherty / INPHO / INPHO

Players arriving in their own cars and togging out in the stand just added to the surreal nature of the day.

Darragh Canavan scored a goal but a brilliant kickout by Shaun Patton sent Peader Mogan away and he set up Michael Langan for an incredibly planned goal, but a curious day all said.


10. 2021 Ulster semi-final, Enniskillen

  • Tyrone 0-23 Donegal 1-14

Sweltering hot conditions in the middle of one of our very modern heatwaves, Tyrone rode their luck at times but got over the line.

Michael Murphy missing a penalty was a huge blow and a momentum shifter, but then when he strained to reach a ball and ended up kicking Kieran McGeary, he was sent off.

Nonetheless, with Conor Meyler deleting Ryan McHugh from the picture, and Conor McKenna and Tiernan McCann adding pace and unpredictability from the bench, this was one of the first signs that Tyrone had it in them to win the All-Ireland.

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