Down with the Favourites Tag

So 12 months later, Donegal are back in the Ulster Final. They won’t take anyone by surprise this time, at odds of 1/4.  Some of the hype has died down in the media after a harder than expected fought semi-final win against Tyrone, but the consensus is that Donegal are among the favourites for the All-Ireland.

Unlike last year, when I felt apprehensive, I’m feeling confident this year. Maybe not 1/4 confident, but it would nearly be as bad as Antrim 2010 if we lose on the 22nd.  Nonetheless, witness the Connaught Final just gone – Mayo were similarly favoured yet Sligo pushed them hard and Sligo are probably not as good as Down (that may be a huge understatement).

Down are two years removed from a very narrow defeat in an All Ireland Final, which they reached through the qualifiers, after beating Donegal in the first round in Ulster in Ballybofey.  Of course back then they had the services of Martin Clarke, and as Dara O’Se wrote recently, Cork were probably a ‘point a man’ better than Down in that final.  12 months later, Down were back in Croke Park for a Round 4 Qualifier to take on Cork, but it was a much different story as they conceded 2-20 – a score not too dissimilar to that suffered by Donegal in 2009.  It’s fair to say that since that coming so close to winning it all, Down have hardly set the world on fire since.

I travelled to Newry in February to watch Donegal take on Down in the opening league game.  It was a disappointing night in that we lost the game, but in truth, it could very easily have ended in a draw.  Down that night moved the ball quickly and the speed of their forwards was impressive.  Donegal looked out of sorts and were missing both Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden.  Paul Durcan was taking some of the frees, with no success.  So, like much of the rest of the league, it was hard to take much from the game.  Down of course went on to the semi-finals, where they were well beaten by Cork.

It’s hard to know how Down made it past Monaghan in the Ulster Semi-Final, but you have to admire their spirit.  They were reeling with around five minutes to go in the first half, but a penalty kept them in touch.  Then, late in the game, they conceded a cheap goal that had as much to do with poor refereeing than any Down weakness, but again, they rallied, and reeled off a succession of points to win by the narrowest of margins.  Of course if Armagh apologist Dick Clerkin had managed to take his chance to tie the game late on, who knows what might have happened next.

No doubt Down have in theory come through the easier side of the draw, but in truth, Donegal’s game against Derry may as well have been a challenge match. Cavan/Fermanagh are of a similar standard (witness the recent qualifier result between the two sides), but it’s fair to say that Tyrone presented a sterner challenge than Monaghan.  But both teams were tested in similar ways – Donegal came from behind and held their lead whereas Down had to repeat the feat twice.

The Qualifier results at the weekend tell us a bit more I suppose.  Tyrone were impressive albeit against a poor Roscommon.  Coming away from the game I couldn’t help but think ‘yeah, Donegal would beat them if we met again’ – and I really believe that the last five minutes of the Ulster Semi-Final were somehow mismanaged – it shouldn’t have needed to come to Durcan having to make the save he did.  On Sunday afternoon, Laois took care of Monaghan handily enough, which doesn’t really paint Down in a better light. Cavan were taken to school by Kildare – they were never in the game.  Donegal never looked as comfortable in the preliminary round game, but in truth, those sort of beatings aren’t really Donegal’s modus operandi and all we had to do was win that game – Kildare very much needed to prove a point against Cavan.  Conclusion?  None really.  If Tyrone beat Kerry on Saturday evening that will really give some further credence to Donegal’s ‘Top Three’ status.  Until then, I’m not sure that we can read too much into the weekend’s results in how they relate to Donegal.

Watching  Laochra Gael during the week, I was transported back to what I saw as the ‘Golden Age’ of Ulster Football in my lifetime – the early 90s when Down made the breakthrough for the first time since the 60s.  Dara O’Cinneide spoke of Down’s ‘tradition’ and Ross Carr talked of their lack of fear in the All Ireland series.  If the current team can harness some of that (and with James McCartan in charge they have a link to those glory days) then it counts for something.

It’s hard to know who should want this game more. Down are without an Ulster title since 1994 and haven’t even been to the final since 2003.  Donegal of course are the reigning champions, but are surely desperate to do what no Donegal team has done before and retain their title.  And, as Neil McGee pointed out in a recent interview, what Donegal accomplished last year pales into insignificance when compared with the achievements of Tyrone and Armagh over the past decade (five and seven Ulster titles respectively).  Last year was great – 20 years is a long time to wait, but that has only whetted the appetite for more success.  Being talked about as one of the top three teams in the Country is well and good, but failing to win on Sunday could quickly dampen that sort of talk.

So much can change so quickly. For much of the season, Donegal’s most consistent, if not ‘best’ player, was Neil Gallagher.  The Sunday after the semi-final win, Neil was taken off after less than five minutes of a club game with a worrying ankle injury.  His status for the Ulster Final was confirmed last Thursday night as Jim McGuinness announced that he would not be available.  This is a timely reminder that a successful season rests on the fitness and availability of many of our starting 15 – our squad isn’t that deep, and we have no-one else (that I have seen play) with the fielding ability of Neil, not to mention that he has been one of our most consistent players all season.  Such can be the fine lines between success and failure at the highest level.

Donegal’s team more or less ‘picks itself’ I guess.  The question is who will replace Neil Gallagher?  Martin McElhinney would be a direct replacement, but given the form of Leo McLoone, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him come into the ‘forward’ line and see Ryan Bradley ‘move back’ into midfield.  The other possibility I guess is that Christy Toye would come in for Neil, but given his lack of playing time lately that is hard to see.

Anyway, there’s hardly any earth-shattering stuff in the above.  I’m not sure we’ll learn too much more about Donegal after Sunday – unless they lose of course. I expect a win by perhaps 4 points or more.  I’ll sign off with something I heard last week – it’s not new as far as I can tell, but it struck a chord:  Hard work beats talent. When talent fails to work hard.

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