Ready for the Red Hand

Which is harder? Winning a first All Ireland in 20 years, or retaining the All Ireland for the first time ever? I guess we will soon find out. No matter what happens in 2013, we will always have a magical summer from 2012 to remember. Let’s savour that for a minute before looking ahead.

I’d really like Donegal to win this game well. Paul Durcan’s incredible save is pretty much everyone’s recollection of last season’s encounter, whereas my own view is that Donegal were more on top than the final score line and last few minutes of the game suggested. But, does the score line and performance really matter? The result is surely all that matters, right? Right. Compared to Antrim and Cavan, Tyrone represent the sternest challenge Donegal will have faced in the opening round under Jim McGuinness. Getting back into winning habits after a lacklustre League campaign is the most important thing – the sparkling performances can come later.

Many pundits maintain that Donegal were ‘lucky’ in 2012. Well, we are already lucky again in 2013. When Donegal were last All Ireland Champions in 1993, we made it as far as the Ulster Final before losing out to Derry (who of course went on to be All-Ireland Champions) on a wet day in Clones. This year, we face one of our biggest challenges in our first game – no point in trying to be coy, if we can beat Tyrone, we should go on to win the Ulster Championship. But even if we lose on Sunday, this team gets a second chance – something that Molloy, McHugh and Boyle were denied back in 1993. Nobody is thinking about the Qualifier route, but after watching Armagh and Galway last weekend, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Donegal will still be involved in the Championship come August. So even if we lose to Tyrone on Sunday, It’s not the end of the world (I can’t promise I won’t sound like it is if we do lose).

I had a blog drafted in the wake of the drawn game with Dublin that led to Donegal’s relegation to Division Two. I never got round to finishing it, and it’s probably just as well. But for a kick of a ball, or perhaps another team getting a result, Donegal would have retained their Division One status, and would have been no better or worse off versus their position in the 2012 National Football League. Recall as well that in 2011, when we played in Division Two, we made it to an All Ireland Semi-Final and could well have gone further. Jim McGuinness has been consistent in his message and his methods throughout the spring – the focus is always on the Championship. The same is true of any team that views themselves as a contender I guess, but the truth of it is that Donegal’s game plan requires a level of fitness that no team came close to matching in 2011. There are no half measures with Jim’s approach – it appears to be all or nothing. We saw literally nothing during the League. It has all been saved for the Championship.

I guess one thing I would have liked to see in the League (aside from staying in Division One…) would have been the emergence of one or two players who could challenge our starters, or at least fit in seamlessly should a key player go down with injury. Both Ryan McHugh and Ross Wherrity saw significant game time, but does anyone feel confident that either would be worthy of their place in a Championship XV? Ryan maybe, but Ross still looks like he needs further development. To be fair, Declan Walsh played in two Championship games in 2011 and played quite well during the League, and indeed talk on the podcast is that he has been playing very well for Malin in the All County League, so if Karl Lacey is not ready to go on Sunday, we should feel confident that Declan Walsh can do a job in the half back line. But the bench is not as deep as the one which Mickey Harte will have at his disposal. If David Walsh is available, we’re in better shape.

So how will Tyrone win this game? If you recall the 2011 like I do, you felt that Tyrone lost the game that day due to their poor accuracy from the dead ball (as well as two timely goals from Donegal). Last year they didn’t fare much better. While Donegal scored six out of seven (with the only miss coming from a sideline), Tyrone only managed three from eight. Unless Morgan gets a case of the yips (this did happen on more than one occasion this year), expect that Tyrone will kick any relatively straightforward frees and indeed any 45s. Donegal will need to be extremely disciplined, and not just in fouling, but in dissent etc as well – recall from the National League game in Omagh how Joe McQuillan moved a free forward after Neil McGee prevented a quick free being taken allowing Morgan to slot over. Add in the return of Sean Cavanagh, and Tyrone have, in theory, improved enough on paper to close the gap from the end of the 2012 meeting.

So Tyrone have improved. Donegal have not yet shown that they have improved. Indeed, despite Jim McGuinness’ assertion that this team could improve by 15-20%, I’m not sure how much more we can expect to see this year. Even getting back to the level we were operating at last year would be a wonderful achievement in itself. With the injuries to Karl Lacey and nagging concerns over Mark McHugh and Frank McGlynn, this could be a tall order for Sunday. But, if you recall, Michael Murphy started off last year’s Championship short of fitness, and truth be told, it didn’t seem like he was himself until the All-Ireland Final. His displays in the Sigerson Cup hinted at a great season ahead, but his form in the League was more subdued. The truth of it is, Tyrone have no-one who can dominate like Michael can dominate. If he was being deliberately held back during the League, an unstoppable force could be unleashed at MacCumhaill Park on Sunday. And there’s your 20%.

Karl Lacey’s lack of game time might be a concern. But it would appear that his rehabilitation programme was tailored to making it back to fitness for this game. There was never any talk that he would make a cameo in the League. If Karl can give us 60-70 good minutes on Sunday, surely we can rest him for an Ulster Semi-Final if we win – whoever we meet would not present the same challenge as Tyrone. I think when you have the best player in the Country available; you will want to have him play in what could be a defining moment in your season. My instinct (and that’s all it is) is that Karl will play on Sunday.

So, the starting 15 on Sunday should be the same as that which took the field on 23 September last year. With eight All-Stars, and a few more who can reasonably feel that they were unlucky to lose out, so let’s not worry too much that we haven’t got the ‘fresh faces’ many seem to feel are necessary for renewed success in 2013. Trust in the players that got us to the Promised Land last year. Trust in the man who directed their journey. Forget everything that we saw or didn’t see from Donegal during the League. Believe that this group of players and their manager will be every bit as good this year as they were last year.

Jim McGuinness has ‘Bitegate’, the County Board’s reneging on an agreement regarding fixtures, some of the posturing by the Tyrone players during the National League game in Omagh, and the general consensus in the National media that Donegal can’t repeat their success of last year ‘just because’ to use as motivation for his team. Not to mention Donegal now have the chance to win an unprecedented third Ulster Championship in a row. Whether he actually needs of any of this as motivation is another matter – Jim’s mantra of self-improvement might be enough for this group of players.

I think that this will be a tight game and probably a low scoring affair. A scoreline of something like 0-14 to 0-12 feels about right. A draw wouldn’t be a surprise. While I don’t necessarily think that defeat will do our All-Ireland prospects much harm, I shudder at the thought nonetheless. The backlash after Donegal’s attitude towards the National League and the whole notion of ‘Jimmy’s Spinning Matches’ will be fierce – I’m not sure I’m ready for that just yet.

But given that we have the best manager and the best player in the Country, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t feel confident. The pressure is on Tyrone, who are facing into a third successive Championship defeat to Donegal. They are the ones who need to up their game to our level. Tyrone seemed to take such satisfaction from their win in Omagh, with much posturing after scores. Tyrone have been hearing about how Donegal have been focused on the 26 May all year.

It’s that focus and the fact that I believe this team still has more to give that makes me believe we will overcome Tyrone on Sunday.

Until Victory, Always

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Gerry ward on May 23, 2013 at 9:15 am

    Great piece Ciaran, well written as always

    Reply

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