Steady As She Goes

What’s the saying ‘Semi-finals are there to be won and nothing else’ – or something along those lines.  Donegal’s semi-final performances in Ulster have typically been underwhelming.  Last time out against Down was no different from 2011 or 2012 really, although you could argue that Tyrone in either year (despite injuries) were superior opposition to Down.  The notion ‘survive and advance’ seems particularly well suited to the Ulster Championship.

Let’s deal in facts first.  Donegal started without Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey and 2012 All-Star Neil Gallagher.  All Star half back (and scorer of a wonderful goal against Down in last year’s Ulster Final) Frank McGlynn departed the field in the first half with concussion, and one of our best players from the Ulster Final last year Ryan Bradley followed him to the sidelines with a similar malady.  Throw in the fact that Paddy McBrearty attended a dentist in Cootehill (would you envy him?) late the night before and played with a dose of pain killers and Anthony Thompson was not at full fitness after going off injured against Down and it’s clear that Donegal were not playing with a full deck.

No matter.  The game was won.  It wasn’t pretty, but the job was done with some efficiency (a 67% success rate from shots on goal, same as it was against Tyrone), and, the consensus was that while Down gave Donegal plenty to think about when Donegal were attacking, Donegal were fairly comfortable throughout – I think when you hold any team to nine points (three from play), you have a good chance of winning the game.  Given the weather, and the players we lost before and during the game, a less than sparkling performance wasn’t perhaps a surprise.

Ok, enough facts.  Facts can be boring at times.  Let’s engage in a little supposition.  Suppose Down actually had an offensive plan for Donegal?  Their whole approach was predicated on defence first, and that was about it. Think Donegal in 2011 against Dublin.  Fair play to them, they had a plan, executed pretty well, but ultimately Donegal never looked too far out of their comfort zone.  No surprise given that Down had played nothing like the way they played against Donegal in their exciting and high scoring win over Derry.  It takes time to change your approach – if Down continue on that path, then maybe it will yield results, but what we saw in the Ulster Semi-Final was more like a work in progress.  Suppose too that Down had Benny Coulter playing rather than the Ghost of Benny Coulter.  That would have made things interesting.  And suppose too Martin Clarke was lining out for Down rather than sitting on the fringes of an AFL squad in Melbourne.  Any chance we could see him return to the Mourne County again next year?  I guess what I am trying to get at is whether or not the Donegal performance against Down would have been good enough to beat a more complete team?  I’m not sure that it would have – but that’s probably neither here nor there at this stage.

No, Donegal advance, and now we face Monaghan with a chance to win a historic third Ulster Championship in a row.  It’s been done before and relatively recently, but the achievement would be massive in the context of Donegal’s history in Ulster.  Despite their underdog status, it would be nice to beat Monaghan – people recall Armagh in Crossmaglen and Cork in Croke Park, but Monaghan gave us a fair hammering in Omagh in 2007.  Indeed we have not beaten them in a Championship match since 1983 (meetings between the two Counties at this level are fairly rare all the same, but the record in the last 20 years is 3-0 to Monaghan).

In many respects, this year’s Monaghan team resembles the Donegal of 2011 in many ways.  They lost Ulster Finals to Tyrone in 2007 and 2010.  They lost to Kerry in 2007 and 2008 when they might have won in either year.  They are a mix of the relatively young and the quite experienced.  They have a new manager and won promotion in the League.  Their last Ulster title was in 1988.  They likely won’t fear us before the throw in.  I’m not exactly thrilled at the thought of facing them on Sunday, but, it’s a novel pairing, and if we win, we’ll have beaten five of the eight teams in Ulster since Jim took over.

I forced myself to watch their semi-final win over Cavan (I’m not having a go at either team, it just was hard to watch given I wasn’t watching it live).  It didn’t really offer any great insight into how they might beat Donegal – indeed Cavan will look back and wonder how they lost that game, with the key moment the Christopher McGuinness goal from a very poor Cavan short kickout.  They are primarily defensive and despite having Eoin Lennon and Darren Hughes at midfield, they struggled to win ball in that area, winning less than 50% of even their own kick outs against Cavan. Ciaran McManus is their obvious danger man, scoring 10 points out of their 1-21 total in the Championship to date.  Guys that you might remember like Tommy Freeman, Dick Clerkin and Paul Finley are still involved, but their influence is more marginal than Donegal’s veterans.  Darren Hughes doesn’t look as effective at midfield as he does in defence – whether he plays there against Donegal remains to be seen – if he was moved to wing back with Dick Clerkin starting at midfield I wouldn’t be surprised.  I would be happier if we had Neil Gallagher to counter Monaghan’s captain Eoin Lennon, but that doesn’t look likely, with Big Neil only named on the bench.

Back to Donegal.  Given that he missed the last two Ulster Finals, it would be fitting to see Eamon McGee shine on Sunday.  He and his brother have been immense so far this year. You’d also like to see Leo McLoone step up and show a bit more than he’s shown in the past two games.  Hopefully we see no more injuries as we have suffered enough this year, even if none have yet to end a season.   I think it’s fair to say that we haven’t kicked into gear yet this year, but with Karl Lacey named to start on Sunday, perhaps we’ll start to motor. It was the second half of last year’s Ulster Final where we began to show the form that carried us to All Ireland success.  No need to show our hand on Sunday, but it would be nice to see Karl Lacey put in a good shift – the cameo against Tyrone gave us a lift for sure, but we’re going to need more than that this summer from our Footballer of the Year.

It feels like this game might be very similar to the Down game, although the conditions will be much changed, with temperatures likely to be over 30 degrees on the pitch and virtually no wind.  It’s hard to know who will be affected more by the heat – I’d say that as the underdogs, it might just favour Monaghan, but that’s just my own theory.  Despite being outplayed by Cavan, Monaghan hung tough and scraped over the line.  It’s hard to believe that Cavan – although they are a team on the rise, or indeed Antrim, who are probably the worst team in the province by some margin, will have given Monaghan any taste for what they will face on Sunday.  Having the belief you can beat Donegal is one thing, only when the ball is thrown in will you begin to appreciate what you are up against.  I don’t think Monaghan are at our level, not for 70 minutes anyway.

Trying to look at this with a cold logic, Monaghan have scored 0-11 against Antrim and 1-10 against Cavan.  1-10 /13 points is as much as Donegal have ever conceded in Ulster under Jim McGuinness (1-10 against Cavan last year and 13 points in last year’s Ulster Final against Down).  And in both cases, these totals were conceded in the course of easy victories.  Add to that the fact that it’s hard to see Donegal making the sort of mistake Cavan made to gift Monaghan their goal in the other Semi-Final.  So, I think Monaghan get to 12 points at best on Sunday.  Donegal have scored 2-22 in two games so far this year, or an average of 1-11.  Last year in Ulster, we managed just under 1-15 a game.  Split the difference and I would expect us to score at least 1-13 on Sunday.  Doesn’t a scoreline of 1-13 to 12 points in Donegal’s favour seem realistic?

Put your money on it.

Until Victory, Always.

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