SUNDAY’S game in Derry is simply massive for Donegal.
Given the geography of the county, Jim McGuinness was right when he said at the press day in Ballybofey that getting over Derry could breath new life into the year.
We’re coming in to this game on the back of a very disappointing defeat to Monaghan in the Division 2 final. Even at the time of Rory Kavanagh’s sending off, Donegal were under the cosh and Monaghan were looking very much the sharper team. Donegal weren’t long back from their week away in Portugal and they did train hard when they were in the Algarve. They looked heavy legged against Monaghan and you could put that down to the week away.
The preparations have been low-key and there isn’t too much in the way of hype or expectation around the game. Could we see a rejuvenated Donegal on Sunday?
A defeat now for Donegal is almost unthinkable. Derry would probably be better equipped for the qualifiers because they wouldn’t be affected as much by a defeat. Donegal have achieved so much of late, going in the backdoor would be a body blow. It’s a huge game for Jim McGuinness and Donegal. There were a lot of bad performances last summer, particularly those defeats at the hands of Monaghan and Mayo.
On the other side of the coin, a win on Sunday and you wouldn’t know what doors could open if they get over the line.
Looking at the two possible line-ups, I feel that Donegal still have, pound-for-pound the better players. We need Frank McGlynn and Athony Thompson to recapture those dynamic runs forward and Ryan McHugh to come into that bracket too.
A lot of people have been asking me who Donegal’s ‘key man’ is. I have gone for a man at either end of the field: Michael Murphy and Eamon McGee. With McGee likely to go on Lynch, his importance will increase. McGee did a good job on Tyrone’s Sean Cavanagh a year ago and he has the quality to keep Lynch at bay this weekend. McGee is in excellent shape at the minute and he can handle Derry’s captain.
We haven’t seen Michael Murphy at his best yet. He has been good, but we do expect more than good. I have a feeling he’ll light the touchpaper this time. Last year, we saw him peak early last year. He hit the headlines for virtuso displays for club, college and county level. It was only natural that he couldn’t sustain that.
Michael always has the ability to turn a game in a split second. When you look at the physique, the power, the fitness, there are few to match him. No-one works harder at their game than Michael. It’s no coincidence that he has become one of the best forwards in the game. He’ll get a lot of close treatment, but he is used to that.
You can take it as read that Donegal will arrive in Celtic Park primed to unleash a defensive system.
It looks like they’ll be aiming to shut the shop. Derry do carry plenty of threats in their forward lines. Mark Lynch was probably the pick of the bunch in the National League.
Donegal can’t let Derry get on top around centrefield, especially with Rory Kavanagh out and Neil Gallagher a doubt. You’d expect Derry to be on top there and that is why Donegal are likely to get bodies in behind the ball to cancel out what Derry win in there. Donegal will be looking to turn Derry over and to hit them on the counter attack.
Donegal could overcrowd midfield by pushing Leo McLoone, Martin McElhinney and Christy Toye all coming into that area.
It may be a big ask for him, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Paddy McGrath included from the start on Sunday to tighten up the full-back line – with Eamon McGee expected to push out to do the man-to-man job on Lynch.
Fergal Doherty and Patsy Bradley give Derry real strength in the middle and it’s an area that is an achillies heel for Donegal. Rather than clean ball, Donegal will likely look for the breaks and a lot of ball will be passed through Donegal hands on Sunday. We can expect Donegal to return to a running game and we can also expect a very tight game, one of few scores.
Donegal must get more scores out of players other than Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden. It’s another reason that Rory Kavanagh is going to be a massive loss because he contributes scores.
For either Donegal or Derry this is actually a great chance to make it through to an Ulster final. No disrespect to Fermanagh or Antrim who will play the winners, but Derry or Donegal would be rightly fancied to overcome either of them in a semi-final – not that Jim McGuinness or Brian McIver will view it that way, mind you.
The pendulum has changed over the past few weeks. Donegal were going into the match as slight favourites, but after the League finals the arrow seems to have swung around to Derry, even after their drubbing by Dublin in the Division 1 final. In the minds of the bookies anyway, Donegal were worse against Monaghan than Derry were against Dublin. The odds are very slightly in Derry’s favour.
Before the backdoor came in it was really do-or-die on these weekends because, if you lost you were gone until the next campaign.
Now, there is the comfort of the safety net provided by the qualifiers.
It’s a huge occasion, a great occasion even if the qualifier system has ever-so-slightly dilluted its importance in terms of the bigger picture. Come 2 o’clock in Celtic Park, try telling that to Derry and Donegal!
It won’t be open and it won’t be pretty, but I do expect Donegal to have a slight edge. It will be dull and intense; a typically claustrophobic Ulster encounter.
Donegal have prepared so well for this and have been working a lot on their game plan.
I expect that to bear fruits on Sunday.
LESSONS IN OMAGH
THERE were a lot of lessons for us all at Healy Park on Sunday.
Tyrone were seven points up and cruising at one stage. There are huge worries in Tyrone after that game. It took a late, late Sean Cavanagh free to rescue a replay for them.
Martin Penrose, Justin McMahon, Conor Gormley and Stephen O’Neill were all called from the bench by Mickey Harte. When in a time of need, Harte had to go for his veteran frontline soldiers. Tyrone have had success at minor and under-21 level in recent years and the conveyor is something that is talked about, but I’m beginning to wonder, since I walked out of Healy Park on Sunday, if it’s a myth.
With a man like Sean Cavanagh in tow, you wouldn’t know where Tyrone could go. The kick to level the game at the end was just nerveless.
The margins in these games are so thin. Down missed a ‘gimme’ of a free by Donal O’Hare down the other end and up goes Cavanagh to keep his cool. These kicks can define a summer never mind a game. In the white heat of the Championship, those posts definitely do narrow – It is these moments that make the Championship so magical.
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