Contain, Control, Conquer. How the All-Ireland will be Won.

I’ll come right out and say it. If Donegal play as well as they did against Cork we will win the All-Ireland on Sunday.  Of course, we’ll need a bit of luck as well, but I said after the Cork game that no team would beat us if we show that kind of form again.  But I’m taking nothing for granted.

I’m pretty sure Donegal’s template for victory will be similar to that we’ve come to expect.  The pattern has been largely similar – playing largely even for the first half, establishing dominance early in the second and then seeing out the game with their vastly superior fitness.  We’ve seen two caveats to that this summer.  Firstly, Donegal got a ‘surprising’ early lead against Kerry, thanks largely to a somewhat fortunate Colm McFadden goal.   They then retreated but Kerry was largely unable to punish them.  Secondly, we saw Mayo take a 10 point lead against All-Ireland Champions Dublin.  Donegal have not faced such a deficit in the past two summers and many analysts suggest that they would not handle it well, or at the least it would be interesting to see how they deal with it.

For years we’ve had supposed superstars who never quite lived up to their billing.  Nowadays we seem to have ordinary players doing extraordinary things.  I don’t believe that – we have plenty of very good players; we wouldn’t be in an All-Ireland Final if we didn’t.   With Andy Moran out, Donegal are likely to have the edge in terms of talent.  But Paddy McBrearty in particular needs to prove he can do it in Croke Park – after looking really good during the Ulster Championship, I’ve been a little disappointed in what I’ve seen from him in the quarter-final and semi-final.

I said after the Mayo Quarter-Final (when Andy Moran got injured) that while they would miss him, if they were a proper team, this incident would galvanise them and they would find a way to overcome his loss.  So it proved to be true – it didn’t seem like he was missed against Dublin.  But he will surely be missed against Donegal.  He’s a very talented and intelligent player – exactly the sort of player you’d want to see lining up against a team as well organised defensively as Donegal.  It’s a real shame we won’t see him grace an All-Ireland Final this year, but as a Donegal supporter, we’ll take all the breaks we can get, and make no mistake the loss of Moran is a huge break that has largely been forgotten about in the aftermath of Mayo’s win over Dublin.

Donegal had only one yellow card against Cork and conceded only one free within scoring range.  That’s quite extraordinary given the way they play the game.  In saying that, I felt that the game was refereed in a manner that suited Donegal, but not overly so.  A similar pattern in the Final would be most welcome.  I don’t recall every being too upset with Maurice Deegan, so I’m sure he will do just fine.  Against Dublin, Cillan O’Connor kicked seven points from placed balls, including three 45s, so Donegal will need to be wary of conceding 45s as well as frees.  Of course, both Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy showed that they too are well capable of long-range points from dead balls, but O’Connor is probably the most consistent free taker in the Country at the moment, save perhaps for Stephen Cluxton.

Donegal have beaten Tyrone, Kerry and Cork by two points.  Despite the quality of the opposition, the margin of victory is some cause for some concern.  A late goal in any of those games could have turned what looked like an emphatic victory into a heartbreaking defeat.  Against Tyrone, it almost seemed like Donegal lost focus.  Against Kerry, they played too conservatively once they had built up a lead.  Against Cork, they had a number of awful wides.  The goal was late, and came from some poor decision making from David Walsh, taking the ball into the tackle against three men, so was certainly avoidable.   Will they allow Mayo to be within a goal come the last few minutes?  Watching Seamus Darby’s late goal against Kerry in 1982 on Seo Spoirt tonight reminded me of possibly the most (in)famous occasion when a late goal did for heavy favourites.  Interestingly, that goal was scored by a Mayo man (in an Offaly jersey) or so I was just told….

In terms of ‘who they’ve played’ Donegal have by far the more impressive record in this year’s Championship.  If we ignore facile wins over Cavan, Derry and indeed Down, Donegal have still beaten Tyrone, Kerry and Cork.  Mayo have beaten Dublin and that’s about it.  Donegal have played tight games against quality opposition.  Mayo made heavy work of Sligo, who at the time I thought looked a tough team to beat, but Kildare pretty much put paid to that myth.  Of course, Sam Maguire is handed over to the winners on the day, so what has gone beforehand is slightly irrelevant, even if it does give us some feel for what might happen on the day.

Watching the Mayo v Dublin game, Mayo’s midfielders in particular were excellent.  Not so much in terms of their fielding, but in their work rate and defensive play.  Aidan O’Shea in particular had a big influence in the first half in sweeping up and turning over ball.  Alan Dillon was the other player I was really impressed with – a lovely footballer and well able to kick a score.  What I took away from that game after watching it for the first time tonight was that while Mayo played very well, the game got away from Dublin and Mayo built a lead that allowed them to foul at will and forced Dublin to panic and make some poor mistakes and kick some bad wides (something we’ve seen from them in the past).  If not for a great save from David Clarke with around five minutes to go, who knows what outcome we might have seen. Of course, Mayo had their own goal chances that might have put the game beyond reach.  They went nearly 22 minutes without scoring in the second half – a stat similar to Donegal in the first half against Kerry when we had built a lead.

It was a shame to see Ryan Bradley taken off so early against Cork, but the truth is, on some days the game just seems to pass him by.  He is not a good runner without the ball, so a mobile half back line will always cause him problems.  Midfield is probably his best position – he had his best game in the Ulster Final when Neil Gallagher was absent through injury.  But unless either Neil Gallagher or Rory Kavanagh sustain an injury, it’s highly unlikely that he will start there on Sunday. I would have seen the only selection dilemma would be whether to start him or David Walsh at half forward.  Well Donegal named their team today and Ryan Bradley is named to start, so maybe that answers my question.  Is Walsh perhaps suffering due to the late error against Cork?  Or was Bradley indeed carrying an injury as Rory Gallagher said today?  Bradley certainly seems to be a favourite of Jim’s, and I think that on balance his displays this year merit a start in the Final.  If he struggles however, Jim won’t be long making the change.  Martin McElhinney is likely to feature at some stage, and I’d love to see Christy Toye get a run.

As both the O’Se brothers have said, while you think you can prepare for Donegal, you have no idea what you’re really up against until you actually play them.  And this is a point I have been making for a while now – Donegal have been building up their intensity over a long period of time – since January at least – no team can bring themselves up to that level in a three week period.  In addition, I don’t care how intense the training sessions, Mayo cannot replicate what they will see from Donegal on the day.  The view of many after the Semi-Final was that Mayo were visibly tiring in the last 15 or so minutes.  If that is a fact, then they should be worried.  Donegal are a 70 + minute team – and the intensity from Donegal is likely to be twice as high in the last 10 minutes as it was in the opening 10 – whatever happened Mayo against Dublin, if they fade in a similar fashion again, Donegal will have far too much in the tank for them.

Reading Alan Foley’s wonderful piece on Mayo dads with Donegal sons in today’s Irish Examiner, Mick Murphy said one thing that I have been thinking and saying myself – the margins between winning and losing can be so fine.  I often think back to that night in Breffni Park over two years ago when Michael Murphy’s late late penalty hit the bar and Donegal lost the U-21 Final to Dublin.  That was the first time I’d seen a Jim McGuinness team play and I wasn’t that impressed, but little did I know that a fair number of the panel had been ill during the week.  If not for illness and woodwork, how different the result might have been.   Recall too Karl Lacey going off injured in last year’s Semi-Final and what that meant for the game- I think we’re better able to cope with such a loss this year, but I saw one bookmaker today saying that the odds would be very different if Lacey were not fit to start on Sunday.   So let’s hope that we can avoid injury or illness in the build up and on the day itself.

Dessie Dolan made a good point on the Sunday Game this week – echoing something I have been saying myself for a while.  It’s hard to know for how much longer the Donegal players can keep up this level of intensity in both their preparation and their performance – who knows what the cycle is.  They need to win an All-Ireland sooner or later or there is a chance that their motivation will fade. Now seems as good a time as any.

I’ll be there on Sunday.  Will you?

Until Victory, Always.

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