An Uneasy Sense of Confidence

Back in 2012, there was much more to say in the build up to the final.  After 20 years in the wilderness, there was a certain novelty about the occasion.  It’s no less special this time around, but the fact that we go in as favourites, having beaten the team that were widely touted as being unbeatable, means that, even though it’s a final, it feels like we have already faced our biggest test this year.  It’s hard to do much a preview after what we witnessed against Dublin.  I’ll come right out and say it now – we should win this game.  That assumes of course, we can perform at a similarly high level as we showed against Dublin, and, enjoy similar fortune.

Growing up, did anyone who followed Donegal ever believe, let alone dream that we would find ourselves facing Kerry in an All Ireland Final as favourites?  The 2012 quarter final win was historic for sure, but it was only a quarter final and Kerry weren’t even Munster champions.  That was a team in decline, this, they would have us believe is a team in transition.  The ‘transition’ tag appears to have come from the fact that Kerry have enjoyed no underage success at Minor level since 1994 and at Under 21 level since 2008.  I don’t buy it.  Lack of success does not imply a lack of talent.  Donegal for instance, have never won an All Ireland title at Minor and our last win at Under 21 was in 1987.

Again, matters other than tactics, fitness or team selection have dominated the column inches and social media chatter in the lead up to the game.  Whether it’s been the picture of the helicopter or the reported EUR 20,000 spent in a hotel ‘in the North’, focus has been on Donegal’s resources off the pitch more so than on it.  Throw in the drawn hurling final, the latest greatest game of all time, means that, up until this week at least, there has been little of substance written or said about the game itself.  That might have changed this lately, but I am out of the loop somewhat with less time to read pre match analysis than I would like.

Darragh O’Sé, writing in the Irish Times after the semi-finals, says that Eamonn Fitzmaurice is ‘going to be making fellas do things they’re not used to and that they never did before’.  If he’s being honest, as opposed to a bit of ‘yerra’, then I would be delighted.  You can be sure Jim McGuinness is not asking his players to do anything differently.  Our success is based on a playing with a level of intensity and belief that cannot be matched over a two and a half week period.  But Kerry’s semi-final games will have conditioned them well for an intense struggle – Mayo certainly tend to play with a high level of same.  However, if Donegal step on your throat, they are unlikely to let their feet off enough to be hauled in as Mayo were on consecutive weekends.  What I saw against Armagh in terms of shot conversion still worries me however – we dominated the play for a long stretch in the second half, but didn’t convert that dominance to scores.  We righted that problem in spectacular fashion against Dublin, but recall that lads who we might depend heavily on for scores like Odhran MacNiallais and Ryan McHugh have not played in an All Ireland Final before.  There was no pressure on them as underdogs in the semi-final, but Sunday is a different story.

As said above, Kerry come in on the back of two very hard games against a Mayo team who enjoyed little or no luck.  Eamonn Fitzmaurice certainly got it right tactically, but I’m afraid James Horan made it easy for him, with Kieran Donaghy allowed to have undue influence in the outcomes of both games.  Add in the fact that Mayo played half of the first game with 14 men and then had to do without Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor for stretches of the second game, as well as Cormac Reilly’s day to forget and it takes a little gloss off their semi final win.  If people are going to refer to the goals Dublin didn’t get, we can also engage in a little whataboutery in relation to Kerry.  Likewise, much as Donegal made hard work of Armagh, some of the tape from Kerry’s quarter final win over Galway doesn’t make for pretty viewing if you are from the Kingdom.

Martin McHugh expressed himself clumsily, but he may well have had a point about James O’Donoghue.  He looks an exceptional talent.  I can’t recall what Gooch was like at the same stage, it’s over 10 years ago now, a time when Kerry probably had a better team and when we just didn’t analyse Gaelic Football to the same extent as we do these days.  Anyway, he’s very good and Donegal will have to find some way to curtail his influence on matters.  Still, deny him ball and he can only do so much damage – his value is more as a pure scorer than someone who creates chances for others, but that’s not to say that he can’t contribute more in a deeper role, where space may be more easily available.  Dontfoul had a look at the effectiveness of O’Donoghue in a deeper role here.  If Donegal can force him deep, it will surely increase our chances of winning the game.

One concern I have is how Kerry will deal with the star of the semi-final win over Dublin, Ryan McHugh.  He’s a wonderful footballer, fleet of foot and intelligent, but he is a slip of a fella and I fear for what a big hit would do to him, similar to the one shipped by Karl Lacey in the 2011 All Ireland semi-final against the Dubs.  Whether this is delivered by fair means or foul is hardly relevant, but in guys like Johnny Buckley and Donnchadh Walsh, Kerry have two big physical players who operate in the same areas as Ryan McHugh who certainly tackle with tremendous intensity.  Ryan would do well to avoid them.

On Donegal team selection, how Christy Toye, Rory Kavanagh and David Walsh will be used is one fairly obvious question after the semi-final.  None of the three may be fit for 70 minutes, so how McGuinness’ uses them will be the subject of much speculation on Sunday morning I’m sure.  Maybe Christy and Rory can go the distance given that this is the last game of the year – I would sure like to see both on the field at the final whistle.  Especially Christy.  We’ve been reminded in recent days that he has come back from horrific condition.

Next, and somewhat related to the previous issue, we have the curious case of Paddy McBrearty.  The term ‘impact sub’ is probably one that no player wants to be tagged with, but the case for using McBrearty from the bench is surely well made at this point, strengthened further by his appearance against Dublin.   My prediction is that we could see him enter for Leo McLoone after 40 -45 minutes.  That prediction is not much of a stretch really – McLoone has been substituted in every game since our first round win in Ulster against Derry.

At numbers 1-7, Donegal are better – individually and as a unit.  No questions on who starts for Donegal.  Kerry had one variable I guess – Marc O’Se or Shane Enright and O’Se got the nod, presumably as a result of his positive contribution in the semi final replay. Perhaps too because Donegal will set up in a way that might suit him – he excels when going forward.  O’Se will go down as a legend when he finally retires, but you would have to question if he has the legs for this game.  The Kerry defence has conceded seven goals in five games, Donegal have scored eight goals in five games.  Kerry were cut open twice in alarming fashion against Galway and conceded four goals in their two games against Mayo, and that would have been much more.  They might be more inclined to get bodies back than in previous years, but I still think this is a fairly leaky unit, more so than Donegal, despite the fact that the statistics suggest that both defences are fairly similar.

If David Moran can replicate his tour de force performance against Mayo, then maybe Kerry have the edge around the middle.  But I am expecting big things from Neil Gallagher, I think, like the overall performance; he has been building up to something big.  He was very good in the last two games of course, but I have a feeling there is more to come.  In Moran, Maher and Buckley, Kerry can in theory dominate the midfield and restarts.  Paul Durcan’s accuracy from kick outs will key, he is a much better keeper than his opposite number Brian Kelly in that regard. We will not have faced a midfield like Kerry’s in this year’s championship so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Durcan look to the wings and short more than usual.

In the forwards, Michael Murphy and James O’Donoghue will both be All Stars, for largely different reasons.  The theory that if Donegal can keep James O’Donoghue quiet we will win is too simple for my liking, just like Kerry keeping Michael Murphy quiet means that Kerry will win (by four to five points…) ignores the supporting cast, including Colm McFadden, who is likely to be buoyed after his semi final return.  As dontfoul points out, the rest of the Kerry players have taken a lot of shots with an impressive success rate over the course of 2014.   Still, no-one outside of O’Donoghue really bothers me.  I’d much rather face this set of Kerry forwards than one that would include fully fit versions of Gooch, Declan and Darran O’Sullivan and Brian Sheehan. Two of those may feature at some point on Sunday, but they are not the players they were five years ago.

If all the above seems arrogant or dismissive of Kerry, then that was not my intention.  I am still in a bit of a daze after the semi final and hope I am not missing something very obvious.  It’s a weird position to be in, from being written off in the wake of last year’s struggle to favourites for the All Ireland.   I still feel the need to pinch myself at the thought we are in our second All Ireland Final in three years.  This group of players now have the opportunity to go one better than the Heroes of 92.  Who’s to say what the future holds, but they may never get a better chance to add to their Celtic Cross from 2012.  Unlike the semi final, I have faith this time.  Donegal will win.

Let me finish with this.  On Sunday at 12 noon, a memorial service will be held at Binns Bridge, Drumcondra for Andrew Duffy of Termon, who tragically died on the night of the All Ireland semi-final in 2012.  I didn’t know Andrew directly, but that incident has haunted me every since.  If you know that part of Dublin around Croke Park, you know there is a canal with no railing.   I am not religious at all, but I hope to attend that service.  Trips to Croke Park have been largely happy days in recent years, but for some, the place will forever be associated with sorrow rather than joy.  Before we head in to Croke Park to cheer on our heroes, I’d encourage anyone reading to take time out to honour the memory of someone who shared our love of Donegal.

Until Victory, Always.

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