Archive for August, 2014

A Test of Faith

After my rant on good vs evil last week and various other matters, I’m back with a more conventional preview of Sunday’s semi-final.  This will be Dublin’s fourth semi-final in four years and Donegal’s third over the same period of time.  It’s a meeting of the Champions for the past three years.  It’s being billed as a contrast of styles, of beliefs, of resources.  It’s being touted as Armageddon II.  For reasons best known to myself that I have since forgotten I didn’t do a preview or a review of that (in)famous semi-final from 2011.  I was away for the quarter-final and so struggled to get thoughts together for a preview and was probably too upset and/or annoyed to do a proper review.  I have been so annoyed about some of what I have been reading and hearing about this Sunday that it’s been hard to get my thoughts in order for this game too.

I am in a very weird mood about Sunday.  Very apprehensive I guess; I have seen plenty of Dublin in Croke Park, and watched them more intently than any game I watch on TV.  I am fully aware of what they are capable of, and frankly, it is frightening.  There’s no great mystery about how they will play – and that is not meant as a slight to Jim Gavin’s tactical nous, but it is devastatingly effective.  If we are to compete, let alone win, this may well need to be our best ever performance of the McGuinness era.

The backdrop to the game has been overshadowed by discussion of Dublin’s financial muscle, something Jim McGuinness has passed comment on and latterly by events of last weekend – the ‘best game in the football championship so far’ and then the fact the replay will be played at a glorified club ground (I joke, it’s a fine ground I’m sure).  Donegal aren’t really flying in under the radar, as the only discussion on the game centres on how we can stop the Dubs, but the Dubs themselves, as in the team that will take the field on Sunday, are getting very little ink at all.  Jim Gavin will be delighted I’m sure – Dublin’s problem in earlier years seems to have been an inability to escape the hype, but those days appear to be very much in the past.  And that assumes that hype was the issue, rather than the fact that they may just not have been good enough.  Make no mistake about it, the 2014 edition are a fine team and seemingly well grounded, although I’ll stop there.  Some of the praise, especially about ‘how they carry themselves off the pitch’ is just a little too gushing for my liking.  They’re fine lads (mostly) I’m sure, but aren’t most intercounty footballers?

One thing that struck me watching Dublin play Monaghan was how Dublin set up on attack.  They left two men back – everyone else was inside the Monaghan 45.  Very effective, but if the attack breaks down, then surely they are susceptible to counter attack.  Sure – if you can do it at pace.  You cannot kick the ball from your own 20 and expect your forwards to win it – especially if those two forwards are McFadden and McBrearty.

Dublin run at you.  Hard. The two goals scored against Monaghan were as a result of fairly direct running.  Now, it probably helped that they attacked the right side of the Monaghan defence where Colin Walshe was struggling – it subsequently emerged that he had sustained a cruciate injury.  But will we be able to stop the likes of James McCarthy or Diarmuid Connolly when they get a head of steam?  Not to mention the reigning footballer of the year, Michael Darragh McAuley, a superb athlete but someone who is a little goal shy.  And then there is there serial big match winner from Kevin McManamon, who made the difference in 2011.

Here’s a review of Dublin’s last match that gives Donegal the template for victory.  Just play like Laois or Monaghan did for 25 minutes.  Except they need to do it for 70 minutes.  In last year’s All Ireland Semi-Final, Kerry went into a one point lead on 63 minutes.  Dublin ended up winning by seven.  In last year’s Final, Mayo raced out to a five to one lead, Dublin hit back with a goal.  Similarly in the second half after Andy Moran gave Mayo renewed hope, Dublin marched down and got another goal.  They are relentless.  The question is, are they really as patient as is being made out?

So how do Donegal beat Dublin?  I don’t know.  I have faith that Jim McGuinness does however.  There are potential areas that are suspect – their midfield if the ball is kicked long and high.  Their man for man defence when they are attacking.  The perception that they will get frustrated when faced by mass defence and will lose their temper when provoked.  All of these may be weaknesses, but throw them at any knowledgeable Dub and they will have an answer for you.  Their midfield did fine in last year’s All Ireland Final.  Their man for man defence is only an issue if you can turn them over and break at amazing speed – something that is hard to do when running with the ball, if we kicked it more, we might have a chance.  And, their full court press is such that we will be doing well to make it out of our half at all.  I think this year’s Dublin are more confident and mature than prior editions, especially 2011.  I just don’t know that we will be able to frustrate them as much as we did in 2011 and a ‘zen like calm’ has descended on some of those who were susceptible to provocation.

One issue that a lot of attention is being paid to is what Donegal will do to counter Dublin’s kick outs.  Rob Carroll (@gaelicstats) tweeted during the week that Dublin ‘won’ 100% of their kick outs in the 2011 game.  100%!  Given we took only 18 shots in that game the sample size is small, but it’s still an astonishing statistic.  Will we cede possession to Dublin in this way again in 2014?  Perhaps, but the last time Donegal played Dublin was in the league in Ballybofey in 2013, a game we contrived to draw.  One thing I noticed early on that day was the pressure we were putting on the Dublin kick out.  All our players were working very hard to stick to their men.  I don’t think we persisted with the tactic throughout the game, but we have tried it against them before.   If we can force them to kick at least some ball long and directly to midfield, we may be able to disrupt one source of their attacking possession.  Much easier said than done of course – it’s not just Cluxton’s accuracy, it’s the pace and movement of their outfield players that makes their kick out strategy so effective.

Thanks to stats tweeted by dontfoul after the Armagh game, I saw that Colm McFadden has now taken 11 shots from play over the 4 championship games played to date and has scored only 0-02.  Neither the return, nor the volume of shots is really acceptable given that his primary value to Donegal is his scoring power.  For the same sample, Michael Murphy has scored 0-03 from 8 shots.  The reasons for that low return are more obvious, but it seems hard to believe that we have actually got this far with only five points from our 2012 All Stars in the full forward line.  But, the line often pedalled in the lead up to this game is that Donegal rely too heavily on Colm and Michael for our scores.  Lazy analysis at its finest.  But, the issue with Michael and Colm not shooting as much is that it seems as if our accuracy and efficiency is being badly affected.  Armagh was the nadir in this regard, with a success rate of 39%.  In 2012, our success rate was 59%.  Our success rate in 2014 is bang on 50%, which puts us at slightly worse than average but a long way behind 2012, which has to be the benchmark for success. To win on Sunday, we will have to be much better than we were against Armagh in this regard.  If guys like Paddy and Odhran can do better than they did against Armagh (for all that was good about their scores, the missed shots were very poor), great.  If not, we will surely need more from both Michael and Colm.

Once again, the Donegal defence picks itself.  For all his fine kicking however, Paul Durcan needs to be near perfect on Sunday and perhaps take less risks.  We can’t afford balls going to Ryan McHugh unless he is in lots of space – he is turned over too easily against bigger players.  We hope that Karl Lacey is fit enough to start.  If he’s a doubt for 70 minutes, don’t be surprised to see him on the bench.  I was frankly amazed that Lacey was left on the pitch against Armagh – he seemed to have little or no impact on the game in the second half, and I can only assume he was not in the right shape to contribute.  If he doesn’t start, it’s anyone’s guess who replaces him – Declan Walsh would be a possibility, but so too would dropping Ryan McHugh back and replacing him in the half forward line.

Midfield – well, Big Neil will start.  If he’s fit enough for 70 minutes, I think Rory should start alongside him.  If not, then hold him back and stick with MacNiallais.  Rory looked in good shape when he came on against Armagh and although he has missed a lot of game time this year, I would be confident he will be in a position to start on Sunday given how well we have managed our injured players this year.

In the half forward line, Ryan McHugh (as long as Lacey starts) and Leo McLoone are dead certs. If MacNiallais is bumped from midfield, I would start him ahead of Christy.  Although, reading Sean Moran and Jim McGuiness in today’s Irish Times and you can see why Christy will start, and indeed why Michael Murphy will probably play deep.  We need big physical guys who can carry ball if we are to get through the Dublin defensive line.

As ever this championship season, it’s in the full forward line where we have our most pressing questions.  I don’t know which you address first – is it (a) should Colm McFadden start; or (b) where should Michael Murphy play?  I guess we tackle the thornier issue first – should Colm start?  My position would be ‘no’.  I respect what he has done for the county and I don’t think there’s been any lack of effort at any stage on the pitch this year, but I just think that he has either lost something, whether it’s physical or mental I don’t know, but something doesn’t appear right.  I think the idea that he will suddenly turn things around on Sunday is fanciful, I think it will be more of the same.  The only mitigations for him is that perhaps we have not been playing to his strengths, as we did in 2012, and, is he still an acceptable decoy creating space for others?  I am not so sure.  I don’t think we can afford to kick ball into him and let the Dublin backs lap it up and canter down the field.  There are murmurings that McGuiness is being overly loyal to Colm based on the fact that they are related through marriage.  I think that is bordering on insulting to both manager and player.

If then we don’t start Colm, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if he does start, in fact at this stage I am nearly certain of it, we need to decide who replaces him.  My initial thought would be that we should play Michael and Paddy as a two man full forward line and pick either Rory or Martin McElhinney to start as a third midfielder.  There are a few issues with that of course.  First is that Michael has played very little of his championship football for Donegal at full forward so far this year.  Now, of course he is well capable of playing there, but how likely is it that McGuinness will move away from using him in a deeper role?  I’m not so sure.  The next thing to acknowledge is that his nominal marker on Sunday would be Rory O’Carroll, a player who has tended to do quite well on Michael in recent meetings.  It would be very out of character with everything we’ve seen so far this year for Michael to patrol the edge of the square for anything other than the odd moment at the start of each half.  I seriously doubt we have been playing him deep to try and trick people into believing that we won’t play him as an orthodox forward. I think we have been playing him in that role because that’s where Jim McGuinness feels he can be at his most effective within our system.

If we revert to 2011 shape, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see Colm or Paddy as our lone forward.  I don’t think that will win us the game.  I think we are going to have to offer something more.  Something more like the performance we saw against Down or Cork in 2012, although neither of those teams were anywhere near as good as this Dublin team.  To use a cliché, Donegal will have to play out of their skin to win.  And we’ll need a little luck.  And we’ll need Joe McQuillan doesn’t let too much go, as he did in our last game.  We’ll need a lot of things to go in our favour.

It would be a tremendous achievement if Donegal were to beat Dublin on Sunday.  But, that is not the end goal for 2014.  Jim McGuinness and Michael Murphy didn’t rally the troops back in the winter of 2013 to just play in a semi-final, I am sure that they have been thinking of a higher goal all through the year.  However, the challenge here is greater than anything we have faced under McGuinness (although you can make the case that last year’s Mayo team were every bit as good as this Dublin team based on last year’s All Ireland Final) and the truth is while Donegal have improved since 2011, I think Dublin have improved a lot more.  Still, I have faith that we will give them a very good rattle, but ultimately I think they will be too much for us.

I may have failed the test of faith with respect to us winning the game, but I won’t end on that note.  Whatever happens on Sunday, I hope we can leave Croke Park with our heads held high, as we did in 2011.  There was no shame in that defeat.  What happens on Sunday does not define our season, our players or our manager.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Until Victory, Always.

A Bit of a Rant

Apologies in advance.  A ball hasn’t been kicked, hand passed or thrown in and yet the blood pressure is already too high for my own good.  Bad enough that this game was being talked about before the quarter finals had been played, a fact that appears to have irked Jim McGuinness, but some of what is being said is pissing me off no end.

This is being billed as a clash of styles with the winner ‘proving’ that their brand of football is superior and should be the model for every team at every age level in the future.  It’s essentially been building since that (in)famous day in 2011, but there are wider issues here.  I feel a rant coming on.

The idea that there is a ‘right way’ to play football at this level is utter shite to me.  The right way to play is playing to win.  This isn’t under 10s where everyone gets a medal and it isn’t club football where you play because of a deep loyalty to your community or a desire to keep fit, this is intercounty where winning is everything.  Players don’t give what they are required to give so that we can ooh and ah, they commit so that we can have pride in our county.  I have no time for the notion that ‘sports = entertainment’ – if you want that sort of game, go to the College Football game the day before (‘The Croke Park Classic’ if you don’t mind) and enjoy the half time show and marching band or just watch the WWE.  One thing that sticks in my mind from 2011 is the Dublin supporters (well, not all of them of course) booing us for, well, playing the game as we saw fit.  Were they not entertained?

Equally, I can’t stand watching teams that turn up just to play.  Have a plan.  Have a system.  Tackle hard.  Show a bit of intensity.  Give me a game where two teams slug it out and the winner earns it and the loser can feel they have given their all.  I don’t care what the score is or how many foot passes there are.  ‘Puke football’ to me is where a team doesn’t compete to the best of their ability.  Or at team that can’t execute the basics like passing and shooting.  I have no time for any fool that rants about defensive football, or worse again, ‘Ulster football’.   The game was ruined long before either of these phenomena emerged.

Now, here’s a shocking revelation.  I like watching this Dublin team play.  They have very talented players and just as importantly, tremendous athletes.  Now, that’s all well and good when they are sailing through Leinster or facing off against a Kerry team that tried to beat them using cuteness and skill but ultimately fell short due to a lack of athletes, but when they have been faced with a team like Mayo or Donegal, they find it considerably more difficult to express themselves.  But it’s not just talent and athleticism; they play with a high level of intensity.  Their full court press is awesome to watch.

In the same way as I admire Jim McGuinness for what he has done for Donegal, I have great time for Jim Gavin for what he has done for Dublin – he is winning games and inspiring their supporters.  One of the key differences is that Dublin were already on an upward trajectory when Jim Gavin took over whereas Donegal were in dire straits.  Still, you could argue Jim McGuinness had much less to lose whereas Jim Gavin was taking over a team that had just won an All Ireland.  Both men have done an excellent job for their respective counties.

On the flip side of all this love for the Dubs, there are now memes doing the rounds mentioning 1992.  What happened 22 years ago matters a hell of a lot less than what happened in 2011 but sure carry on regardless. Clowns.   Back in 1992, there wasn’t really the concept of ‘Ulster football’ that exists today.  Despite Down winning the All Ireland the year before, the Golden Era for Ulster teams in the All Ireland hadn’t really become apparent (Down in 1991 and 1994, Donegal in 1992, Derry in 1993 and Tyrone came oh so close in 1995) and so Donegal were definitely flying in under the radar, especially after a none too convincing semi final win over Mayo.  The chances of this Dublin team underestimating us or appearing any way arrogant are virtually nil.  Same way as we haven’t underestimated any championship opposition.  It’s what well managed teams don’t do.  We might shock them with our intensity, but that’s only because they haven’t faced a true test in the championship to date.  But they will know where they are at – of that I am pretty sure.

There are also a lot of tired arguments circulating about how to deal with the dominance of the Dubs, their massive resources and their unfair advantage of playing so many of their games in Croke Park.  Dublin may be dominant in Leinster, but they are far from it at national level.  Now, maybe in five years time, I’ll think differently.  For now, Dublin are not in the same league as the Kerry footballers of the 70s and 80s or the Kilkenny hurlers of the last decade.  Heck, even Tyrone were as dominant at underage and senior level in the previous decade.   Nothing was done to dampen the dominance of those teams, so why should there be anything done about Dublin?  The only case I can think of is that Dublin is now one of the few places to find work in this broken and bankrupted country and so the population will continue to grow while rural communities stagnate.  But that’s a much bigger problem.   It could just be that they have a very talented and hard working group of players at present.  There’s no guarantee that they will be able to replace the likes of Cluxton, MDMA, Flynn and Connolly with players of similar talent.

The money argument is harder for me to have an opinion on.  I don’t truly know how much money is funnelled to each county and from where.  Sure, the Dubs have a lucrative sponsorship deal with AIG, and we know how much funding they receive from the GAA central fund, but that’s all that’s fit to print really.  They are one of the few counties that are competing at the highest level in both codes, which surely means that not all resources are being pumped into football, e.g. the hurling manager Anthony Daly is an ‘outsider’ whereas Jim Gavin is Dublin based.  Perhaps other counties may have to work harder to raise funds – I saw a tweet last night from Carndonagh GAA club where they had raised just over EUR 2,000 for the Donegal Training Fund from a bucket collection – fair play to them, and to all the clubs that undertake such excellent work.  Are such initiatives common in Dublin also?  The biggest issue I have in terms of the resources available to the Dubs is that there will be a ‘national’ centre of excellence developed in Blanchardstown.  Who will get most use of that facility?

Then we have the Croke Park argument?  Blame the greed of the Leinster Council, not the Dubs.  Most of the true blues I have spoken too love the idea of championship away days.  It is an advantage to them playing there so often, there’s no denying that.  But they are merely playing the hand they are dealt.  Maybe the rest of Leinster wouldn’t be so wretched if they took the Dubs out of their comfort zone every so often, eh? 

And then Jim McGuinness came out with his ‘Abramovich’ quote.  In fairness, he was asked a question and he answered it, but his response was certainly going to provoke a reaction. Whether this was purely innocent choice of words or was deliberately designed to take attention away from, say, Karl Lacey’s fitness or Colm McFadden’s form is a moot point.  But, it’s going to be used as a rod to beat us severely over the next couple of weeks.

I’ll be back during the week with a more conventional preview of the game – you know, a few random stats, a bit of emotional guff and a prediction.  But I just wanted to get a few things off my chest in the meantime.

 In saying all of the above, that new AIG ad makes it just a bit easier to dislike the sight of that blue jersey.

Until Victory, Always.

What is Rare is Wonderful

There is a little Irish saying that goes ‘An rud is annamh is iontach’ which roughly translated means ‘what is rare is wonderful’.  Like a Neil McGee point, a championship win over Armagh is a rare thing indeed and we should celebrate it.

For anyone who wants to get a good feeling for how the game played out, I suggest you read the excellent dontfoul review of the numbers.  Nothing suprising in them, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of how off key certain elements of our performance were.

Personally, I thought that the performance on Saturday was decent, but the execution of shots was poor. We were dominant for a large part of the second half but missed too many chances. Sure, Armagh had their missed chances as well, but we ultimately had more shots. Our turnover rate was too high however; this is something that will also need to improve.  In many ways it was a classic favourite’s performance – winning ugly after giving the underdog false hope.

You have to credit our composure and experience to get level and then kick the winner late in the game. At one stage with 10 minutes left, I was worried that if Armagh had gone two up we were done. We still did our best to give Armagh a chance to level, with Paul Durcan’s kickout heading directly over the sideline and then Paddy McBrearty (who had been subbed at this stage) kicking the ball away and giving Joe McQuillan to excuse he needed to award a scoreable free (incidentally, @dowdsie is adamant that this was wrong on the part of the ref).  Either way, it was a sloppy way to see out the game. 

Jim McGuinness has said that he wasn’t happy with what he saw.  Support runners, kickouts (Paul Durcan kicked three to Armagh players from which they scored 1-03), composure on the ball and shot selection all featured as areas where we didn’t deliver on what we had (apparently) been working on in training.  Those are all pretty obvious areas where we were deficient I guess, and it’s good that we have something to work on over the next three weeks.

The McGee brothers, Anthony Thompson, Frank McGlynn, Big Neil, and Michael Murphy all played very well I thought. Rory Kavanagh also for the time he was on.   But no-one player really stood out and no-one really played that badly either, I felt that it was a real collective effort that got us over the line at the end. 

Karl Lacey was hobbled early on and this really seemed to limit his effectiveness as the game wore on, indeed it is curious to me that he wasn’t replaced as surely a fully fit player would have had more of an impact in the second half.  Chirsty Toye and Leo McLoone were replaced earlier than I expected, but I guess they do get through a lot of work and I am sure they are being monitored carefully. 

On Colm McFadden, he had another tough afternoon.  His performance was then picked apart on the Sunday Game which won’t have been nice for him to watch.  But, credit to him for his point in the second half where I thought he showed good composure – we needed the score and if he had gone for goal and missed, it could really have hurt us. I thought it was interesting to see it from another perspective as well – on the Armagh fans forum everyone reckoned that his marker Finian Moriarty did a fine job on him.  Still, on balance, I think he’s become a bit of a liability.  I take no pleasure in saying that, and there’s always the chance it will look foolish, but I think anyone who has been watching this year has been saying much the same since Saturday.

Paddy McBrearty was ultimately our match winner, but right from the whistle I thought ‘here we go again’ and he did end up with more wides/missed shots than scores. Still, he showed great composure to kick the winner. But, it was extremely stupid to boot the ball away that (rightly or wrongly) gave Armagh one last chance.  For someone who only turned 21 years of age last week it’s only fair we cut him some slack and focus on the positives – he now has important contributions in the last two championship games to build on.  With Colm struggling, we really need Paddy to step up.

For Odhran MacNiallais, it was a similar story to Paddy – too many wides. But, he took the goal very well and credit to him for not letting his head drop in the second half to kick an important score.  He’s our top scorer from play in the championship to date and we are really relying on those scores in recent games.

Ryan McHugh gave another energetic display but was caught out a few times, not least for the goal when somehow he was the man left contesting with Stefan Campbell on the edge of the square.  He was also culpable of a turnover late on when he received a Michael Murphy free although we are not clear on the circumstances as the TV cameras didn’t pick it up.  We need to do a better job of ensuring that we get his match ups right, although that is going to be a struggle against Dublin.

The most startling statistic is that Armagh outscored Donegal 1-5 to 0-07 in the second half. But, when you consider that we had only 13 scores but 15 wides, you understand the context. Watching the game back you noticed that we established our usual third quarter dominance on the pitch but not on the scoreboard.  Is it any wonder Armagh gained confidence and picked off a goal to leave us poor craythurs in the stands wondering if we were doomed to yet another defeat to the Orchard County?  At least the lads on the pitch knew better.

Before throw in, I would have taken any kind of win over what we saw during last year’s All Ireland Quarter Final in Croke Park. Add the fact that the game was full of needle and we went behind very late on and you can appreciate the victory more.  Let’s savour it for a while; we have beaten Armagh in a significant championship match.  We will have plenty of time to worry about the Dubs over the next three weeks.

Until Victory, Always

An All Too Familiar Foe

There was a certain inevitability about this pairing.  Maybe RTE and Sky were on to something when they were insisting that Donegal would play either Armagh or Meath even though it looked like we were in for an open draw for long enough periods last Saturday evening. But, Monaghan got their act together and many of us got what we wanted.

I would hate to lose to Armagh, but for me, a victory on Saturday is just a step to a semi final and nothing more, although I would take a good deal more satisfaction from beating Armagh than most other teams. But, in no way will it make up for anything that happened in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 or 2006. That was then and this is now.  The ship has sailed for many of the fine players on those sides who toiled under the orange yoke without Ulster Championship success in those years.

This year’s Armagh are a hard enough team to get a read on, and not just because of their ridiculously paranoid meeja ban.  During the league, they were relegated to Division Three, with the final blow delivered by ourselves at the Athletic Grounds.  But, as they prepare to face us on Saturday, they have won four Championship games, losing only to Monaghan and that after a replay.

As I watched the current Armagh team easily account for Meath, I did see some similarity with the sides of years gone by. You could sense the swagger, the bravado.  They are a confident bunch who appear to play without fear.  However, for me, they do not have the big characters of the 00s teams.  There are no Francie Bellews, Kieran McGeeneys (on the pitch at least), Paul McGranes, McEntees, McDonnells or McConvilles.  There are some ghosts of the past still knocking around – although McKeever is out, Aaron Kernan will take his place.  Andy Mallon is certain to start and his namesake (but no relation…) Brian will likely feature at some point.

From their most recent game, 16 points from play and 10 balls dropped short are stats that stood out to me.  So too was the fact that Meath ‘won’ 30 kick outs to Armagh’s 17 and yet had less possession, fewer shots from play and had 12 unforced errors.  Armagh were impressive, especially considering the conditions, but let’s not pretend that they weren’t aided by a poor enough Meath performance.  Speaking of conditions on Saturday, Armagh played Roscommon in similarly poor conditions and still racked up 1-17 (against a so called blanket defence).  There’s more rain forecast for this Saturday.  For the Championship to date, Armagh’s scoring average is 16 points a game, conceding on average 14 points.

Armagh will likely set up fairly similarly to Donegal, with lots of men dropping back and a tendency to take scores breaking from defence.  A key difference is that they seem to like to get the ball into their forwards via long kick passes rather than the hard running and hand passing favoured by Donegal.  Jamie Clarke is nominally their marquee/star forward, but in truth, they don’t rely much on him for scoring recently (no more than Donegal have been reliant on Murphy/McFadden).  He acts more like a playmaker but still draws plenty of attention from opposition defences.  His positioning might not suit the match up, but I’d like to see Karl Lacey take responsibility for Clarke on Saturday evening.

Colm McFadden could well find himself matched up with Andy Mallon, who he probably knows too well at this stage.  Mallon is having a new lease of life whereas Colm is having a relatively subpar season, so I’m not counting on much from him on Sunday, outside of the usual quota of frees.  I’m not writing him off, but I think he will be well marked again, especially if Michael plays deeper.  As ever, as long as we get enough scores to win the game, it hardly matters where or how they arrive.

Team selection should be fairly straightforward again.  Unless there are injuries, defence will be as you were.  Neil Gallagher survived 70 minutes against Monaghan and so I would expect him to start at midfield.  It remains to be seen how fit Rory Kavanagh is, I would be surprised if he plays 70 minutes or even starts.  If Rory isn’t fit enough to start, then I guess at this stage it would be no surprise to see either MacNiallais or Toye alongside Big Neil at the throw in, with Michael Murphy helping out as required.  On Michael, expect to see him on the edge of the square on occasion – Donegal scored a very simple but well executed goal against Armagh in the league, in a move not too dissimilar to the start of the second half against Monaghan, where Michael won a free in front of the posts.  But, if it’s obvious to me, I am sure Armagh will be expecting it too.  For me, once again, the big selection question is whether or not to start Paddy McBrearty.  Jigger was seemingly out of his depth in the Ulster Final, but this could be a different game.  It was from the bench that Paddy has looked more effective and focused this year.

Donegal have not faced an Ulster team outside of the Ulster Championship since 2010 and it’s the only provincial match up of this year’s Quarter Finals so this is a novel enough pairing at this stage.  Of course, it was a heavy Championship defeat to Armagh in Crossmaglen in 2010 that finally ushered in the McGuinness era.   I sure hope that another loss to the same opposition doesn’t bookend it. Given we have two Ulster teams, two defensive teams and two incredibly intense mentors in McGuinness and McGeeney, I expect this to be a war of attrition, certainly for the first half.  I do hope that we establish the control we have enjoyed in each Championship game so far this year, and I expect us to do so unless Armagh do something drastic, like take the game to us from the throw in.  Thankfully there is no parade.

Let’s be honest however, for Armagh to win, they will need to play very well, better than they have played at any stage up until now, and Donegal will probably need to underestimate them.  The latter just doesn’t happen to a Jim McGuinness team, so I expect us to win on Saturday.  None of our quarter final victories since 2011 (Kildare, Kerry) have been exactly comfortable and I’m expecting a battle on Saturday.  Armagh are in bonus territory and have nothing to lose whereas Donegal may well have their sights set on a bigger prize.  We won’t be caught looking ahead and we’ll need to play well to win, but we’ll prevail.

Until Victory, Always