BY CHRIS MCNULTY
IN THE immediate aftermath of Down’s impressive second-half comeback against Derry three weeks ago, a BBC reporter wondered what James McCartan felt about meeting Donegal in the semi-final.
“Yipee!” came the response from ‘Wee James’.
In last year’s Ulster final, Donegal trampled over Down once they got them knocked off balance. With Down wobbling, Colm McFadden delivered jab after jab and Donegal won 2-18 to 0-13.
After his initial sarcasm, McCartan mentioned that he was relishing a rematch with Donegal.
“I think we opened them up as much as anybody over 55 minutes,” he said.
“The floodgates opened when we went to try to win the game and the big scoreline in the end did not worry me.”
Complacency is one of sport’s greatest pitfalls, but it is a word one could not associate with Jim McGuinness or his team. Donegal will treat Sunday’s semi-final like any other game and their mantra will be unchanged. That is perhaps the very reason Donegal go into the game as the overwhelming favourites.
Down were impressive in the second half against Derry when they overturned a 1-10 to 0-9 half-time deficit to win 2-17 to 1-15.
Some of Kevin McKernan’s point taking, in particular, was wondrous, but what has been overlooked is that Derry allowed them the space and time to do so. Derry had dominated the first half, but almost rested on their laurels and seemed content with their lot at the break. It was only then that Down began to come good.
In the opening half, Eoin Bradley had tormented the Down rearguard. This is a Derry team that does not have either the power or precision possessed by McGuinness.
In Patrick McBrearty, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden stand three men of considerable stature – all of whom possess seriously potent threats in terms of scores.
Down’s full-back line is not, by any matter of means, a watertight ship – and it could well be with those arrowed darts into the front division that Donegal could reap their greatest dividends. We have already countless exhibits which point to Murphy’s threat – and the fear he strikes into opponents could be the winning of this one. Direct to the Glenswilly man is something that will have been surely examined.
“We have used Michael as we’ve seen fit, but his best position, of course, is close to goal,” hinted Rory Gallagher.
“If there is really quality ball that goes in his way there is no doubt that he can do serious damage.”
With McFadden’s crosshairs beginning to hit the high notes again, Donegal have another man coming of age now with McBrearty a player really on form – and that burst of pace he has is quite the weapon. “Even Paddy McGrath can’t keep up with him,” Leo McLoone mentioned this week. Down will be really tested by this front trio – and the basis for the odds set by the bookmakers is surely that this is now an area of great strength for Donegal.
Without Neil Gallagher, Donegal are down perhaps their cleanest pair of paws in terms of winning the high-ranging balls, but it should be remembered that Ryan Bradley’s best performances last year came when he was stationed at centrefield against Tyrone and Down, while Rory Kavanagh’s form this year has been exceptional. In Kalum King and McKiernan, Down have two fine midfielders, but their influence could be curbed by Donegal’s swarm of bees that will go around them for the breaks.
Donal O’Hare and Mark Poland netted the goals in Celtic Park for Down, for whom a goal threat is a particularly real threat. Donegal pride themselves on their defensive solidity, though.
“Their use of the ball is one of the best things about Down,” Gallagher said.
“It is a Down tradition and they very rarely kick aimless balls. They are generally a running team and they have plenty of threats that can hurt teams, particulaly their attacking at pace and they usually produce intelligent footballers.”
Down at times have been accused as having a soft centre, which Donegal know all about from their own experiences at the wrong end of hammerings.
However, Poland insisted this week that they’ve rid themselves of that tag.
“Maybe last year we were a bit soft – this year we’re not soft,” said Poland. “If anyone’s stepping out of line they’ll be told that. If they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing on the field, off the field, they’ll be told that.”
Still, even with Karl Lacey watching from the stands, it is – and this is not a slight on what is a talented front six – hard to see Down having the pins to pick the Donegal locks to a degree that they can outscore Donegal. Frank McGlynn or Paddy McGrath have the match on Poland and the McGee brothers, Neil and Eamon, are two players really on top of their game, as shown when they kept the shackles on Stephen O’Neill and Sean Cavanagh recently.
Donegal are in the middle of a golden period and have now won nine Ulster Championship games in a row and they see this as a massive opportunity. They regard Ulster extremely highly; something garnered from their years trodding down fruitless paths in the race for the Anglo-Celt. Donegal are not unbeatable and let us not think that, but there is nothing to suggest that Donegal will let a complacent air sweep into their dressing room.
“I don’t think it is ever a possibility that that will creep in,” Gallagher said. “The boys know what is at stake and they are very focused about how they will get there. They have extremely enjoyed their Ulster experiences of the last couple of years and they want to continue that.”
The signs are all pointing in Donegal’s direction. The compass of Tir Chonaill is very much fixed towards Clones in July.
Verdict: The odds are stacked so much against Down, but it’s worth considering why this is so. Donegal should be much stronger. Down’s threat is very real, but Donegal should have enough about them to win this with a bit to spare.