By Frank Craig
John Gildea is regarded as one of Donegal’s finest ever middle men.
But the former Naomh Conaill fetcher says the vertical muscle currently putting itself so impressively about around the middle third for Donegal is better than it’s ever been.
Because of the way football has evolved tactically, Donegal are now often trading off up to five or six different personnel in that revolving engine room.
Hugh McFadden, Caolan McGonagle, Michael Murphy, Michael Langan, Ciaran Thompson and Jason McGee all find themselves at the coal face there at different times.
It’s a formidable wall and it’s the line that Gildea says is really pushing Donegal on so spectacularly at this moment in time.
“It’s like the Land of the Giants out there at this present moment,” he said. “It’s a glut of talent now that we have around that middle third.
“You’re looking at that line across the middle, just in terms of sheer physical size and ball winning capability alone, we’ve never been as good.
“These lads are all comfortable on the ball and can kick scores. It’s also a very dynamic centre right now. It’s a powerful area and it’s the area for Donegal, when they apply that press, that makes it so very difficult for other sides.
“It’s equally as hard to play through them as it is to go over the top of them. They are prepared to work so hard. They’ve dictated how the games have gone so far.
“And at the moment, big men around the middle isn’t necessarily en vogue. We’re lucky that we’ve this core group now. Declan has optimised that tactically as well, I feel, in how he’s set them up.”
Gildea says credit has to go to Declan Bonner and his management team for the manner in which they’re rewired Donegal’s approach.
They’re much braver. And Gildea says it’ll take an adventurous streak to topple Dublin if and when those swords do cross.
“I think we’ve seen a huge transition under Declan. With Rory (Gallagher), it was ultra defensive. And maybe that was what was needed at that point in time.
“But over the last two or three years a lot of those younger lads have developed into real quality players. The dependence on the likes of Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh isn’t what it was. That’s a real positive.”
Donegal take on Cavan on Sunday in the Ulster SFC final. Gildea expects them to navigate past that hurdle and set up a huge All-Ireland semi-final clash with Gaelic football’s reigning kingpins on Jones Road.
One area the Glenties man does feel might come under pressure is the back line. Injuries to key personnel and doubt over others means numbers are a little light for comfort just now.
But again, if Donegal continue to be brave and look to play the game on their terms, it might mean they’re not as vulnerable in their own defensive third as a result.
“We’re not a defensive outfit. If you look at some of the lads there, the likes of Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Ryan McHugh, Peadar Mogan… those guys are much happier going forward and putting the opposition on the back foot.
“We probably are a little vulnerable in defence at this minute. We’ve lads like Odhran McFadden-Ferry and Conor Morrison who aren’t there. Stephen McMenamin is in a race to be right. Paddy (McGrath) isn’t fully fit.
“Because of the lack of options, what I’d call out and out defenders, we probably have to back ourselves in transition. Lads like Hugh McFadden, Langan and Thompson are sweeping back in there.
“And when you have big men like that blocking up channels and filling spaces, this necessity for an out and out defender isn’t as big as it should be.
“So Donegal do cover themselves well and intelligently in that regard. I don’t see them being complacent against Cavan and I do expect them to set up that big clash with Dublin.
“I think if you want to beat Dublin – and there was a large element of this attached to 2014 – you have to be brave. If we are lucky enough to get over Cavan, and I don’t want to take anything for granted there, Donegal have to go for it.
“There is no point trying to hold Dublin by being cautious. It won’t get you over the line. And it’s like I said, we have our certain strengths.
“The way we play, the side’s ability to funnel back and break just as quickly, I think we’d have to back ourselves. Even with that, the likes of Declan and Stephen Rochford have been around long enough to know how and when to commit.
“And that won’t be at the expense of what’s behind us and leaving the back door wide open. We know how to cover ourselves. Like I said, it’s about energy at both ends. And I feel Donegal are very close to that level now of getting the mix right.”