No Siege Mentality Here

For the second year running, we start our Ulster Championship from the Quarter Final stage.  Things have worked out better when we have come through a Preliminary Round (2011 and 2012).  Back in 2012, we met Derry at the Quarter Final stage and ran out easy winners on a score line of 2-13 to 0-09 on a wet June day in Ballybofey.  The year before, we beat them less convincingly in the Ulster Final. Revenge of sorts served up 18 years after Joe Brolly had blown kisses at our first group of All Ireland winning heroes when there was no ‘back door’ and thus began a long period in the wilderness (EDIT – actually, no, Brolly scored his late goal in 1998, not 1993, when the scoreline was Derry 0-08 Donegal 0-06….).  Derry have featured along the way when things have been good and when things have been bad for Donegal. Our Championship record against the Oakleaf County reads 11 wins each, although Derry have lost 9 of the last 12 meetings.  Their last win over us came in 2008 when Paddy Bradley’s 10 points contributed greatly to their 1-14 to 1-12 win in the Ulster Quarter Final in Ballybofey.

For anyone who doesn’t remember, here is the chronology of events that preceded Brian McIver’s departure from the Donegal post in 2008.  It’s taken him a while to get back to management, but Brian has returned to turn around our neighbours.  Seemingly well liked by players wherever he has been, he ultimately came up short, first with Donegal, then as a member of the Down coaching set up when they surprised just about everyone by making it to the All Ireland Final in 2010.  McIver took charge of Derry in the aftermath of a pretty awful 2012 Championship when they followed up their 10 point defeat to Donegal by losing to Longford in the first round of the Qualifiers.  In his first year in charge, Derry, like Donegal in 2011, won the Division Two title and gained promotion.  However, the Championship was largely a disappointment – bowing out at the first hurdle in Ulster via a high scoring affair to Down and ultimately exiting the Qualifiers after losing another relatively free scoring game (after extra time) to Cavan.  But, the rebuilding task facing Brian McIver was likely greater than that faced by Jim McGuinness when he took over Donegal in 2011.  On Sunday, Derry will probably have 10 out of the 20 players that played some part in that Ballybofey match in 2012 in their match day squad whereas Donegal will have 15 out of 18 involved.  If we look back at John Joe Doherty’s final game in charge of Donegal, we will have 11 of the 19 that played that day against Armagh involved on Sunday, but two of those missing are Rory Kavanagh (suspended) and Mark McHugh (studying).

It’s hard to know how to analyse the 2014 version of Derry. Do we look at their recent League campaign, which looked pretty damn good right up until the final, which was a relative non-event.  Or, do we look at last year’s Championship, when they managed to beat Sligo and Down (a week after Down had given their all in trying to topple ourselves), but lost to both Down and Cavan at home.  In fact, they played all four games at home, winning two and losing two (one of the wins was actually over Sligo in Owenbeg).  Celtic Park is not quite a Championship fortress of late then.  The players that will start for Derry on Sunday, are, by and large the same that started last year against Cavan, although Gerard O’Kane and Fergal Doherty are big re-additions and Mark Lynch is now deployed at half forward rather than half back.  It’s not all change, but there is enough to suggest that Derry will be a different prospect in this year’s Ulster Championship.

Do Derry have the edge over us by having played against the top teams in Division One whereas we have faced lesser opposition in Division Two?  I’m not so sure.  We did ok coming out of Division Two in 2011, although Antrim followed by Cavan was a gentle enough introduction to Championship football.  However, we have the perfect example of why Divisional status doesn’t matter based on what we saw in Omagh last weekend, when Down, a team that will be in Division Two again next year, really should have beaten Tyrone, who were comfortable in Division One.

Of course, if I can pick and choose what l look at regarding Derry, then it is only right I acknowledge our own patchy form.  Despite beating Tyrone and Down in Ulster, which would normally constitute a pretty good year, the 2013 Championship does not hold happy memories.  If Monaghan in Clones was a bad day at the office; Mayo was a full blown Nightmare on Jones’ Road.  During the 2014 National League, we have been on a process of rehabilitation and rediscovery in the cosy confines of Division Two and while outwardly at least we achieved our goals, no-one is under any illusion about our prospects for the summer.  Especially not after our day out in Croke Park last month, where we looked distinctly out of sorts, albeit against a fairly impressive Monaghan team that are not in action for another three weeks.

I was feeling better about our prospects on Sunday before I heard about Neil Gallagher watching Glenswilly’s recent win over Termon while on crutches.  Then the news followed that James Kielt and Ryan Bell were likely to be fit enough to play for Derry.  If Big Neil was out, I assume we would go with a midfield of Martin McElhinney and Christy Toye.  Not a disaster by any means (they partner each other at midfield frequently at club level and Christy had a good display there against Louth during the League), but one that might struggle fielding against Patsy Bradley and Fergal Doherty.  Plus, if Big Neil were available, it would allow us to drop Christy slightly deeper to counter Benny Heron, who has tended to play more as a third midfielder during the league.  I hadn’t counted on Kielt and Bell returning.  Between them, they contributed around a third of Derry’s scores in last year’s Championship.  Add that to what they have lost to soccer in Eoin Bradley, and Derry’s scoring power was looking significantly less than last summer, when they managed to score on average just over 16 points a game.  But then I looked at Derry’s scoring during this year’s league. While Mark Lynch was predictably vital (hitting 2-44 or 30% of all scores), the two men who usually play inside, Cailean O’Boyle (5-6) and Emmett McGuckin (3-11) cannot be ignored, especially when you look at O’Boyle’s goals to games ratio – although Derry played nine games in total, he only really featured in seven yet managed five goals.  Beware the Lavey man.

Incidentally on Eoin Bradley, based on what we have seen from Derry during the league, it seems that Brian McIver made the right call.  But I wonder will everyone feel the same if Donegal win on Sunday?  Oakleafers Blog seemed certain that Bradley’s return was crucial for the Championship, and was still holding out some hope after the League Final defeat to Dublin.  We didn’t really miss Kevin Cassidy in 2012, but wing backs are easier to replace than quality scoring forwards.

In terms of our own team selection, there’s not much debate, is there?  The front three pick themselves, although Brick Molloy might feel a little hard done by given a decent league campaign.  Still, I would go for Paddy ahead of him and I expect that Jim McGuinness will as well.  Half forwards too look pretty obvious.  Based on what we saw during the League, you would expect Christy Toye and Odhran MacNiallais to get the nod, and Ryan McHugh to again fill in for his brother, as he did in the League Final.  Are there any potential wild cards?  Based on fitness, I guess it’s unlikely that David Walsh starts.   Midfield became no decision based on Rory Kavanagh’s red card; it will be Martin McElhinney and Big Neil, assuming that he’s fit.  Otherwise, I would expect Christy to start at midfield and either David Walsh, Brick or maybe even Leo McLoone to take his place in the half forward line (although if Brick starts, I would play Paddy McBrearty at half forward).

Now to the backs, where there are a few issues.  First off, does Leo McLoone return at centre half back?  He’s seemingly fit enough, having played for his club several times since missing out against Monaghan.  Having been selected at centre half back all throughout the League, right up until the Final when he missed out altogether through injury.  Is it realistic to assume he would miss out now?  The answer might depend on how fit is Paddy McGrath is at this stage. He’s been training, he’s been playing for Ardara, but is he fit enough for Championship action?  Is he the sort of player who can deliver a performance at 80% fitness?    Then we have the question that has been on our minds for most of the year, where to deploy Karl Lacey?  Assuming that Paddy McGrath misses out, do we keep Karl in the corner?  Or does he revert to the position from where he won his Footballer of the Year title in 2012?  I still think he’s our best man marker, so maybe we detail him to mark Derry’s obvious threat, Mark Lynch.  Dublin had the right idea in the League Final, with Johnny Cooper sticking very closely to him and generally limiting his impact until such time as it didn’t really matter.  Lacey may also have the potential to put Lynch on the back foot, assuming he is still able to make the sort of runs we enjoyed watching in 2012.  Someone else I talked too about Sunday’s game suggested Eamon McGee might pick up Lynch, which makes sense when you take into account Lynch’s physicality.  I don’t think we have tended to focus too much on individual opposition players while Jim McGuinness has been in charge.  Our defence relies on a collective effort more so than individual battles.  And, when you look at what McGuckin and O’Boyle contributed during the League, as well as the potential for Ryan Bell to contribute, you realise that Derry may well be able to score enough just relying on Lynch for his dead ball scoring, leaving their scores from play to come from others.  They also had a good spread of scorers during the League outside of Lynch and the inside forwards, and Derry’s half backs look especially comfortable attacking.  Do Donegal go man on man in the full back but with a sweeper to help out?  Maybe not dropping back a half forward, but just leaving three on two.  With eight goals between them during the League, we cannot afford to ignore the threat of McGuckin and O’Boyle.

Derry will likely go man for man with our forwards.  Do you think that might suit Michael and Colm?  Is that something they might be interested in?  I think so.  I’m sure it will be refreshing after the stifling tactics deployed by Monaghan.  Chrissy McKaigue was man of the match in the League Semi Final win over Mayo, which seemed to be as much to do with his surging runs as his stoic defence.  He looked fairly comfortable under high, direct ball on top of Alan Freeman.  But, when Freeman got in front of him, he was easily enough turned.  I’m already excited about Michael Murphy getting a run at him. The ball in needs to be good, so I am not assuming anything other than the potential that appears to exist.  The joker Derry might have in their pack is 19 year old Gareth McKinless, who had a pretty good day marking Michael in the Ulster Club Final back in December.  He made his senior debut for Derry at the end of March, but hasn’t appeared since, so I guess he is a long shot to start on Sunday.  Derry conceded an average of 18 points a game during the League and an average of 16 points during last year’s Championship.  On the face of it, finding scoring opportunities will not be an issue for Donegal.

During the league, Derry managed to score nearly 19 points a game, racking up 14 goals in the process.  They scored a goal in very game, with only Kerry keeping a clean sheet.  Twice they managed to score three goals in a game, once against Westmeath (I know…) but once against Cork (in fairness the Cork defence is probably nothing to get excited about either).  Recall that Donegal managed to concede three goals to Louth who were relegated to Division Three.  And, we conceded four in our last Championship game.  This is not a good sign.  Jim McGuinness may have been honest when talking about the black card creating fear and uncertainty for defenders, but I hope he was not describing the mood among our own defenders.  We cannot be afraid to tackle.

Before the final verdict, a word for our Minor team, who also take on Derry on Sunday.  I’ve only been following their results, so don’t really have anything to say, except that this group have been successful at all stages in Ulster up to this Championship.  Derry didn’t field against them in the Minor League, which Donegal won, beating Tyrone in the Final.  Derry have their St Pats Maghera contingent to return after an extended run in the Hogan Cup, so watch out for the ginger haired Glass at midfield.  Someone pointed out to me that two Kilkenny schools contested the All Ireland Schools Hurling Final and yet their minors were well beaten by Dublin in the Leinster Championship.  In terms of preparation, Donegal might just have the edge.  We might have left it behind us last year against eventual All Ireland Finalists Tyrone, and it is a cruel championship in Ulster, with no second chance until the Ulster Final.  Hopefully Declan Bonner’s lads can pull what I assume will be an upset on Sunday and if they can, there is a great chance of an Ulster title for this team.

Ultimately, I am going for a Donegal win on Sunday.  Despite the performance against Monaghan and the loss of Mark McHugh to his books, we are still in better shape going in to this game than we were before facing Tyrone last year.  Our preparations started earlier, and there have been less training sessions missed due to injury and less demands on the players than in the aftermath of the All Ireland win.  If we take Captain Fantastic at his word, then surely the mind was willing against Monaghan, so perhaps the bodies were not, and the fruits of our trip to Portugal will be evident on Sunday, when it really matters.  Jim McGuinness has cut a relaxed figure in recent interviews, and the departure of Mark McHugh has only really raised pulses outside the County.  For now, Donegal are focused on Sunday only, but if we can win and deliver a convincing performance, there is a very real chance of a third Ulster title in four years.  Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they are sure to get it.  Go to the Walled City in expectation, not in hope.

Until Victory, Always

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