The Red Menace

Three years ago, I looked ahead to the All-Ireland Quarter Final tie against Cork with a sense of trepidation.   Eight of the Donegal team that will likely start on Sunday started that day.  For Cork, as many as 13 of the 2009 team could start.  I feel better about our chances on Sunday, but I have an uneasy feeling about the outcome.  Cork are 8/13 favourites with the handicap set at one point – I can’t really argue with those odds.  2006 was heartbreak.  2009 was humiliation.   I suspect that the result in 2012 might resemble the former more than the latter.

But much has changed since 2009.  Cork’s half back line, which was rampant in 2009, are now all over 30 years of age.  Their experience, especially that of Graham Canty, will be important, but how effective will they be against what is probably the fittest team in Ireland?  Nicholas Murphy is 34 and is named to start.  Pearse O’Neill is 31 and will likely feature at some stage.  It’s unlikely that Donegal will field anyone over 30 years of age.  Age ain’t nothing but a number, but I’ve felt for a while that youth counts for a lot in the modern game.

People will say, and I will agree, that Donegal now are light years away from the team that took the field three years ago.  But Cork have kicked on themselves.  In 2009, Kerry were too cute for them in the Final.  In 2010, they reached the Promised Land, and despite the narrow victory, I would tend to agree with Darragh O’Se when he said that Cork were probably a point a man better than Down but didn’t prove it on the day.   Last year, they went out with barely a whimper to Mayo at the Quarter-Final stage.  But injuries decimated their forward line and in any case, it’s hard to win back to back All-Ireland Football titles these days.  Make no mistake about it, this will be the hardest test we have faced in the past two seasons.  And to pick up on O’Se’s main point, don’t doubt Cork’s willingness to engage in the type of cynical football that will rival anything popular opinion would have you believe is exclusively the trademark of Ulster teams.

Both teams have faced a common foe in Kerry in Championship action.  In both cases, Cork and Donegal were worthy of victory, and the circumstances were somewhat similar – Kerry had to face Cork without Brian Sheehan and lost him at a key stage in the game to Donegal.  Cork’s manner and margin of victory was more comfortable than that enjoyed by Donegal, but they looked more open at the back and more likely to concede a goal.  Other than for 10-15 minutes against Kildare, Cork haven’t been tested outside of their Munster Semi-Final clash.  Any of the teams Donegal have faced are far superior to Clare and it’s hard to say if Kildare are better than Down or Tyrone.  Donegal come into this game more battle hardened for sure.

Cork scored one point from play in the first half against Kildare but still ended the half with 2-5. They have an array of place kickers and can hit the placed ball from near or far, left or right.  Donegal will need to be disciplined in the tackle and referee David Coldrick fair in his interpretation of the rules.  Donegal cannot afford to let Cork build a lead through frees and will need to watch for early goals – Cork had a fair degree of luck with both goals against Kildare, but when presented with good fortune they seized those chances with the sort of clinical opportunism that is characteristic of winners.

There’s a lot written in this piece by Chris McNulty that I agree with, especially his views on the easy ride Cork had against Kildare.  The loss of a man hurt Kildare for sure, but in reality Cork had the game won before Eoin Doyle saw red.   Watch for Cork to go for goals early.  Stop the goals, keep kickable frees (anything inside 50 yards) to a minimum and contain the rampaging of their half backs and Aidan Walsh and you have a fighting chance.  Donegal are well set up to defend against the goal threat at least, with Kieran Donaghy’s mildly controversial effort the last time out the only goal we have conceded in open play this summer.  Ryan Bradley will need to work had to curb the influence of Aidan Walsh who has become a real tyro for Cork.  No better man.

There is a real danger that Cork’s high fielding ability could see Donegal wiped out at midfield.  Joe Brolly would argue that this doesn’t matter, and it has been mooted elsewhere that like last year against Dublin, Donegal will be happy to let Cork win their own kick outs, but I disagree.  You might be able to afford to cede primary possession to lesser teams, but you cannot grant it to superior outfits such as Cork.  The fitness and performance of Neil Gallagher will be crucial, but so will Paul Durcan’s ability to hit the likes of Michael Murphy and his half backs from quick kick-outs.  Also, Alan Quirke showed enough carelessness in the opening exchanges against Kildare to suggest that it will be worth keeping an eye on the short kick outs as well as going toe-to-toe at midfield.

Twice in the space of a few hours today I’ve heard/read that Cork can beat Donegal by targeting key individuals – Karl Lacey, Michael Murphy and Mark McHugh were mentioned by both Darragh O’Se on Newstalk (via podcast) and Declan Darcy (in conversation with Sean Moran) in the Irish Times.  That would be interesting as while I don’t disagree that any of these three are very important to Donegal, it has been Frank McGlynn, Ryan Bradley and (at times) Paddy McBrearty who have starred for Donegal this year.  There is a widely held belief (that I don’t subscribe to) that Donegal’s system is greater than the sum of its parts.  That’s a something of an insult to our players, but I doubt they mind, as this interview with Michael Murphy gives some insight into the thinking of the Donegal players – sacrifices are being made for the greater good.  While there’s no doubting that the loss of Karl Lacey in last year’s Semi-Final was of huge significance to the final outcome, I have seen enough this year to believe that we have 20 players that are capable of great things.  Of course, one of Cork’s strengths is their depth – Dara O’Cinneide writing in today’s Irish Examiner feeling that this will be their telling advantage.  We can’t both be right!

And speaking of Michael Murphy, wouldn’t Sunday be the ideal time to see a return to the form we’ve seen in the past?  He had the ball in the net after 12 seconds against Cork in March and was impressive in a losing cause in 2009.  A recent club outing against Gweedore hinted at a return to the sort of scoring form we have come to expect.  It’s great to think we can win without him scoring 1-5 or whatever, but the thoughts of a dominant performance from our Captain sends a frisson of excitement round the County.

One thing is for sure – Donegal support will outnumber Cork by perhaps four to one on Sunday.  It’s to the Cork footballers credit that they don’t seem to rely on their support to get them over the line when times are tough, but hopefully the Donegal faithful can be the 16th man on Sunday.  I don’t know anyone who’s missing the game – what a day it could be if we win.  One of the most galling things about 2006 was that most of their supporters were more concerned about the outcome of the hurling the following day rather than beating Donegal.

When all is said and done, while you can make the case for Donegal, Cork are rightfully favourites for this game and for the All-Ireland itself.  I have a feeling that we might have to taste more heartbreak before attaining the ultimate prize – in a way I hope that it’s not in the same fashion as 2006 if we are to lose.

Who am I kidding.  Unlike 2009, there is no sense of illusion with this Donegal team.  They are what their results say they are.   They are here in an All-Ireland Semi-Final for a second consecutive year on merit.

Come on Donegal. We can win this too.

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