The Phoney War Preview

So, we return to Croke Park for the first time since last August.  I think it’s safe to assume that the experience will be less distressing this time around.  Indeed, we are favoured to win, even if only marginally enough at this point (4/6 with Paddy Power).  Both teams are promoted to Division One no matter what, so you would hope for a competitive game with intent shown by both sides, but we are still in the ‘phoney war’ phase of the season.  Last year, Derry won the Division Two title and went on the have a pretty poor Championship.  Donegal face what appears to be a fairly stern test in four weeks time, while Monaghan get an extra three weeks to prepare, but a harder road to the Ulster Final.  Given that both sides will be eying up a place in the Ulster Final in July, I’m not sure how much either side will reveal their true hand on Sunday.

Monaghan have named their team, and other than Colin Walshe and Darren Hughes (who is on the bench) it is probably their strongest line up, with five changes from the team that started in O’Donnell Park earlier in the league. Given that they have seven weeks until their Ulster Quarter-Final with Down or Tyrone (isn’t it absolutely crazy that Donegal’s game at the same stage is a full three weeks earlier), you would think that Malachy O’Rourke will want to have his lads get through most of the gears on Sunday.

Jim too has named a team – he waited until I had this piece ready to publish of course, but at least we have something to chew over before throw in.  Despite missing their club games on Easter Sunday, Paul Durcan, Leo McLoone, Christy Toye and Michael Murphy are all named to start.  Despite featuring for Kilcar last weekend, Mark McHugh appears to have lost out to his brother Ryan for a half forward spot.  On form, hard to argue with that selection, but equally, it is hard to see McHugh the elder not being part of our starting fifteen come the Championship.  Paddy McBrearty returns in place of Brick Molloy.  Not hugely surprising, but although I have not been his biggest fan, Brick put in a good shift during the League.  After a relatively disappointing Under 21 Final, but impressive cameos from the bench for the senior team, I am hopeful of a good display from Paddy in Croke Park – something I don’t really think he has delivered as yet. 

Martin McElhinney gets the nod over Neil Gallagher at midfield.  At this stage, Neil is surely fit enough to start.  McElhinney will be well able for Paul Finlay on Sunday, but is still not the presence in the middle that Neil has been for us over the years.  Like Leo McLoone at centre back, this experiment has gone on long enough at this stage and I wonder (again?) if this is a sign of what we can expect to see for the Championship?

Despite being confirmed as doubtful during the week, David Walsh makes the bench.  The one name that is missing among the subs that I would have expected to see there is Hugh McFadden.  He wasn’t mentioned as being injured, but that’s not to say he might have picked up a knock last weekend.  Conor Classon replaces him – a clear enough indication that Hugh is seen as midfield cover I guess.  A more welcome sight among the subs from Ardara is that of Paddy McGrath, who completed 60 minutes for his club on Easter Sunday and even managed to score a point.  Serious doubts will persist over his readiness for Championship football, but it’s great to see him available again.

 In Four Masters win over Naomh Conaill last weekend, Karl Lacey scored three points.  Some analysis of our last game in Armagh suggested he was back to his best, and his performances for Four Masters seem to have been impressive as well.  Folks have been waiting all year for Karl to regain Footballer of the Year from.  I don’t know if we’ll see that again to be honest, but he’s certainly in a much much better place than he was last year.  A long ball delivered into the edge of the square on Sunday would be most welcome to see.  He’s been good enough defensively as far as I am concerned.

On Sunday, we will of course get a firsthand look at our Ulster Championship opponents Derry.  I’m not going to dwell too much on the Celtic Park clash scheduled for 25 May until after the Division Two Final except to say that I saw them beat Mayo and was reasonably impressed, although my own view is that Mayo were poor that day. For a fairly balanced view, have a read of what Derry folk themselves made of it.  As you can see, they are not getting carried away with themselves, but there is a growing sense of belief in Brian McIver’s side. What result would be best for Donegal in the Division One decider?  A victory for Derry that will increase the expectations or a hammering to dent confidence?  I’m not sure, but if Dublin can produce anything like their best, it could get ugly for Derry.

More on Derry at another time but let me get back to the curtain raiser on Sunday for now.  This is our second time here under Jim McGuinness.  14 man Donegal (we had Adrian Hanlon sent off in the second half) beat Laois in the Division Two Final in 2011 in what was a pretty competitive game, that went right to the wire.  It was Jim McGuinness’ first trophy won as Donegal Senior Manager as it happens and so probably should retain more of a place in our memories than it probably does.  Here are the highlights for anyone who missed it.  The players don’t seem exactly overjoyed at the end, do they?  There’s lots of interesting bits and pieces in that clip, not least a certain Kevin Cassidy getting in some target practice at Croke Park for later on that year.  There was no sign of the McGee brothers that day, and Cassidy is gone obviously, as is Kevin Rafferty, but many of those who played for Donegal that day in 2011 will likely line out again on Sunday.

Monaghan actually had the best defensive record in the division, conceding an aggregate of 87 points (Donegal conceded an aggregate of 88 so it’s very marginal), with 20% of that total conceded coming on what was undoubtedly an off day in Ballybofey.  Scoring wise, they managed just less than a point a game than Donegal but managed only three goals in their seven games to Donegal’s nine.  In fact, in four games in last year’s Championship, Monaghan managed only one goal, which came from a botched kick out from the Cavan goalkeeper.  Of course, kick outs have been an issue for Donegal this year and Armagh’s goal in our final league game can be traced back to a poor kick out.  And, were it not for Sean Cavanagh’s timely intervention, Monaghan might have had at least one more goal in last year’s Championship.  Will goals be the difference on Sunday in what might be a fairly tight game?  Donegal appear to have a much better chance of scoring them, and so I expect us to win on Sunday.

Finally, just to say that even has someone who doesn’t really have a stake in the game, it is desperately disappointing to see the issues regarding club fixtures continue.  I don’t really understand why the Good Friday games were not ‘starred’ some time ago as the training camp was known about well in advance.  The request/call to postpone or ‘star’ was made very late in the day.  I have to believe that something JimMcGuinness saw or heard in Portugal changed his mind on the County panellists playing on Good Friday and he wasn’t being disingenuous in making the call only a few days in advance.   If I were to believe otherwise, well, I don’t know where that would leave things. 

Until Victory, Always

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