A Game to be Won

Well, it had to be Antrim, didn’t it?  It would have been nice to get a shot at Fermanagh for two reasons.  Firstly, we had some nasty battles with them back in the early 00s, and while I don’t really believe in ‘payback’ way down the line, it would be nice to get a Championship win over them.  Secondly, I would love Jim McGuinness to take down a different Ulster team to add to the list. In his fourth year in charge, we have yet to beat Armagh, Monaghan or Fermanagh in the Ulster Championship.  I was hoping to cross at least two off that list this year, which could well be his last.  Oh well.

It was a surprise to see, sorry, hear, sorry read that Antrim had beaten Fermanagh (Ulster has really lost out as a result of the Sky deal and BBC don’t seem too keen that anyone who can’t get Radio Ulster on MW can listen to games). They looked out of sight at half time, but were sweating mightily at the end and needed a goal line clearance to stay alive. 2-18 is a fair score to put up.  But, they conceded 3-13.  I know which stat I am more excited about.  If we even concede 1-9 to Antrim after conceding 0-11 to Derry, I would be surprised.   This game is there to be won and that’s all.  If we win well, so be it, but any kind of victory will do.  This is a semi final and nothing else.

Losing to Antrim would probably be the biggest shock for us since, well, we lost to Antrim in 2009. But those were the John Joe years and Antrim did go on to the Ulster Final before losing to then All Ireland Champions Tyrone and ended up exiting the Championship in Killarney to eventual 2009 Champions Kerry, who were probably at the peak of their powers.  And we were wearing green rather than our lucky white ‘away’ kit (both teams will wear alternate kit on Sunday, I guess O’Neills need to make money too).  However, 11 of the Donegal panel in action that day will likely see action against Antrim in Sunday.  Before that, we lost to Monaghan in Ballybofey back in 1995, when we were two years removed from winning the All Ireland, and that qualified as a big shock back then.  We weren’t in a dissimilar position to where we are now, although that defeat was on the first day out, as was the Antrim loss in 2009.   To be fair, JoeJoewe don’t tend to lose to heavy underdogs, but we are more likely to lose heavily to favourites. 

If Antrim drink the Pat Spillane kool aid, they will play good traditional football with lots of kick passing and shooting.  And I’d say they would lose heavily.  If they are smart, and I’m not sure that Liam Bradley is, they will put every player behind the ball that they can and hope to frustrate us and then hit us on the break.  However, that tactic is likely to be doomed to fail also.  Cavan essentially played this way in 2012, but they were a better team even then than Antrim are now.  They might frustrate us, but they will still need to score more than us to beat us.  Maybe they have been planning for this game for months in the expectation that they would meet us at this stage, and they will come out and play a system that nobody will have seen before, but I would be surprised.  I guess the other way they could surprise us is with a level of intensity we really didn’t face against Derry.

However, there are some things I would like to see on 22 June.  Firstly, a better day for our corner forwards, Colm McFadden and Paddy McBrearty.  Both struggled against Derry, but for very different reasons.  Paddy had his chances, but failed to convert the majority of them, his second half point breaking a duck.  Colm’s issue was more troubling.  He failed to create or take any opportunities, aside from one shot in the first half.  In saying that, reports since the game suggest he may have been laid up with ‘flu in the run up to the Derry game and so that will surely have had an impact on his performance.  Antrim will surely be more generous and hopefully this will rebuild any confidence that may have been dented in Derry.

Next, I would like to see another good 70 minutes from Paddy McGrath.  It was pretty remarkable to see him go the distance against Derry given all the time he has missed.  And it was an impressive 70 minutes, full of tenacity and aggression.  It was great to have him back.  Another strong outing against Antrim would show us that he is fighting fit for the rest of the summer.  I for one can never have too much reassurance.

Then there is the seemingly unresolved issue of midfield.  Rory Kavanagh returns from suspension and will surely start.  Who partners him is still an open question.  I have been puzzled by the use of Martin McElhinney in the last two competitive games, but he certainly performed well against Derry as a substitute, compared with his fairly poor performance against Monaghan in the Division Two Final from the start.  Sunday could be the ideal time to get Neil Gallagher some much needed game time ahead of harder battles ahead this summer.  I think I’d like to see Neil start alongside Rory with Martin coming on during the second half.

Assuming Rory and one from Neil/Martin starts at midfield, then there is a choice (choices?) to be made in the half forward line.  Three from five from Ryan McHugh, Christy Toye, Leo McLoone, Odhran MacNiallais, Jigger O’Connor is how I see it.  And that’s probably how I would rank them.  McLoone impressed in Derry, MacNiallais probably less so.  Christy was given a job to do and did it well for the time he was given – I’d like to see him in his more familiar role for Donegal on Sunday.  Ryan McHugh continues to become more influential.  He’ll never be the same type of talent as his father, but his energy and ability to get in/on/around the ball is tremendous.  And just because he’s no Martin, it doesn’t mean he lacks for talent or skill at all.  Jigger did very well really, when you take into account his age and that fact that was his first Championship start.

(Edit – since I wrote this, the team has been named and it’s Rory and Big Neil at midfield, with Christy, Ryan and Leo named to start at half forward).

Before I conclude, only fair to briefly mention our Minor team.  It’s an early start for them on Sunday, as their game throws in at noon.  After a patchy win over Derry, they are favoured to beat an Antrim team, who scored 5-10 in their Quarter Final win over Fermanagh.  Any win at this level is a good win for Donegal, and hopefully they can make it back to the Ulster Final for the first time since 2006.  I look forward to watching them again.  As Alan Foley writes, that 2006 team will provide a number of starters for Sunday, not least a certain Michael Murphy.

Anyway, forgive the shortness of the post and the lack of depth of the analysis, especially of our opponents but I am struggling to get excited about this game.  It was interesting to listen to Peter Canavan on the BBC Sunday (jeez, I sound like Martin McHugh, where everything is “interesting”) where he was saying that Tyrone people were far too confident/complacent in the build up to the Monaghan game and that it looked as if this had filtered through to the players.  I have wondered about this before. GAA players aren’t professional, and so mix with supporters every day of the week. You would like to think that themselves and management are focused enough not to be caught up in what people around them are saying, but you wouldn’t know. Anyway, confident as I am, I hope that the general mood in the County is quietly confident rather than downright arrogant.

No talk from me of who we might play in any Final until Sunday night/Monday….we know who lies in wait.  In the meantime, there’s a job to be done in Clones.

Until Victory, Always

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