Posts Tagged ‘Ulster Championship’

Job Done. Just About.

Well just as most of us didn’t get too excited but what we saw in Armagh, we shouldn’t get too depressed by what we witnessed in Clones a few Saturday’s ago.  Sure, it wasn’t pretty at times, but we got the job done and it’s now 17/18 in Ulster since Year 0 (2010) and our fifth Ulster Final in a row.  Before a ball was kicked in this year’s Championship, I would have taken this outcome regardless of how we got there.

There are of course some fairly serious questions to be asked, especially when you watch the game back.  Donegal looked lethargic enough for long spells.  It’s always tempting to put this down to ‘hard training’ but that is a known unknown.  It could just have been ‘one of those days’, but we have had too many of those lately, so I don’t really want to use that excuse.  But, unless we believe there are very fundamental problems with Rory Gallagher’s team, that seems as good an explanation as any.  Coupled with a bit of ‘hard training’ of course.  No doubt Derry made life hard for us, but that was not the reason for our performance, which was below par.

Donegal again started well, but things began to fall apart when Paddy McBrearty went down for treatment and came up still lame.  We felt he should have been taken off at that point as he didn’t look comfortable and was contributing nothing, forcing others to avoid him with passes.  We also figured that there was no sense in doing him any long term damage.  But, he remained on and appeared out for the second half with a spring in his step.  So what was the problem?  And how was it seemingly solved at half time?

It’s been heartening to see Colm McFadden’s return to form.  For this alone, Rory Gallagher and his management team must receive a lot of credit as he was used sparingly earlier in the year but is showing good form in the early stages of the Championship, in a role where he perhaps is more capable of contributing in than he was seen in last year.  He scored two fine points, although he was the worst offender in terms of number of chances missed, going 2/6, but his conversion rate of 33% was actually better than anyone except Michael Murphy.  I don’t think anyone expects him to reach the heights of 2012 ever again, but I will take what we have seen so far, especially with the likes of McElhinney, MacNiallais and of course McBrearty all well able to score from play also.

The other man we need to acknowledge again is Marty O’Reilly.  All he does is score goals.  Literally!  There’s a real value to being in the right place at the right time and Marty seems to have the knack.  We are no worse off with him starting instead of Leo in terms of scoring, but concerns remain about his overall offering, as in, what does he offer on those days where he doesn’t score a goal?  For now, keep up the goal scoring Marty!  As it was in 2014, it was a goal scored by one of our less heralded half forwards that was essentially the difference between the teams.

Just in case we forgot that this was ‘Rory Gallagher’s team’, Donegal continued as we have seen them play in every game so far.  It seems we play most of our football in the first half, and then take a more conservative approach in the second.  The stats support this, showing 17 shots taken from 25 attacks in the first half versus 12 from 15 in the second.  Hidden behind the stats – Donegal did not score for 20 minutes in the first half and for 25 minutes in the second. That’s pretty shocking!  Our shooting was pretty poor.  It almost seemed like we were shooting any time we had a glimpse of the posts – making bad decisions in the process.  As ever, dontfoul is well worth a read to see the extent of the problem.  This might also explain our low free count in the red zone (again) – we were shooting rather than carrying the ball closer to goal.  Just to emphasise how bad we were, our success rate was 34% against Derry whereas it was 39% against Armagh last summer and 46% against Kerry in the All Ireland Final.

Other stats from the game make for ugly reading.  We had something like 27-29 turnovers, depending on whether you believe Ulster GAA, or dontfoul.  Either way, this was the worst figure so far this Championship season, and around 20% (or five or six turnovers a game) than any game from 2014.  This coupled with the shooting perhaps illustrates it was ‘one of those days’ as both stats are, to be fair, out of character with what we have seen so far this year and even last year.  It’s telling that at least three of the turnovers were from long balls sent into Neil Gallagher at full forward when he was typically double or triple covered.  It might work against man marking, but it seems foolish to continue with it against that kind of marking.  We also had six shots blocked/dropped short.  Must do better.

Defensively, while we only conceded only ten points, but the ease at which Derry were able to take some of their scores was alarming.  It certainly seems that there is a very accommodating amount of space in the centre of our defence in recent games.  I haven’t linked this to the placing of Neil Gallagher at full forward, but it’s something to watch – Neil’s defensive work and positioning is so important.  It was also worrying at the damage caused by Cailean O’Boyle, who was being marked by Eamon McGee.  You don’t like to single out players for criticism, but I think it’s fair to say that Eamon has looked out of sorts for some time now.

In the week following the game, we have learned that Leo McLoone has rejoined the panel.  This is very welcome, even if we have to wonder why it has taken this long.  All reports suggest that he has been playing regularly for Naomh Conaill, so hopefully he is fit enough.  He knows the system and tactics well enough at this stage, so I am optimistic that he can contribute this summer.  His hard running and ability to score a goal would be a most welcome addition for the Ulster Final.

This blog takes longer to update these days because life tends to get in the way more these days than it did last year.  But it also takes me longer to form a view on where we stand.  Over ten days after our last outing and I am still unsure, even after watching the game and the highlights after seeing it in person.  Viewed in isolation, the performance against Derry was not good.  And it was our worst performance relative to our other Championship games this year.  There’s no point in trying to pretend all is well, but we will need to have a bit of faith and see what happens the next day out.  There will be no room for any lack of intensity or accuracy in Clones on 19 July.

Until Victory, Always.

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Orange Crushed

Well, few of us expected that result in Armagh (except maybe Michael Hegarty apparently…).  But let’s be honest, as good as Donegal played, Armagh were very poor.  The bigger question is perhaps how did Armagh get to within a point of us last summer?  The standard in Division Three can only explain so much.  Tactically and physically they did not look an Ulster Championship outfit.  No more than Kerry folk will get too excited by beating Tipperary or Cork folk will celebrate a facile win over Clare, we should not read too much into what we saw in Armagh.  Contrast their display with Sligo’s performance against Roscommon.  Just last Sunday, Monaghan beat Fermanagh by 10 points.  This is not the business end of the season.

Still, you can only beat what’s in front of you and the once daunting road to an Ulster title that lay ahead of Donegal has been safely negotiated as far as the next checkpoint.  What is evident is that we seem to be managing games differently under Rory.  Against both Tyrone and Armagh, we have made fast starts and built up a lead early on.  Tyrone pegged us back; Armagh never managed to get close.  It will be very interesting to see if this pattern persists in future games.

The tactic of playing Paddy McBrearty as a lone forward yielded a goal straight away.  Thereafter, he caused distress to the Armagh defence, but they succeeded in limiting his return to one more point. He was a little unlucky at times and could have perhaps received a bit more sympathy from David Coldrick, but in general he was good.  I don’t know if that tactic will work as well against better teams who play with more disciplined sweepers than Ciaran McKeever.  Someone playing closer to Paddy will give him more options than having to take on his man every time he gets the ball and will surely lead to even greater returns.

The second half hardly merits comment.  The game was definitively over when in the space of a few minutes, Stefan Campbell failed to convert Jamie Clarke’s rebounded shot for a goal and then Marty O’Reilly finished well following a piercing run by the outstanding Frank McGlynn.   After that, Donegal largely played keep ball, rarely exerting too much effort to breach the Armagh defence.  Armagh didn’t seem too pushed at putting us under pressure which was odd given that they were so far behind.  But maybe not, maybe their minds had also turned to their next game.  Wicklow will present the perfect opportunity for them to get back on track.

I suppose from a Donegal perspective the one thing you would have to say is that we really look comfortable in the way we are playing.  There are still a few things that concern me.  First, we need to do better around midfield.  Our reading of breaking ball is poor, or we are just not committing men to where they are needed – perhaps that is deliberate.    Take a look at the stats from the Tyrone game and from the Armagh game which back up this view.  Secondly, some of our hand passing gets a little too intricate and leads to turnovers or sticky situations that could easily be avoided – look particularly at incidents involving MacNiallais and Lacey in the last two games.  If we were trying long risky passes, then I would expect some mistakes.   Lastly, we appear vulnerable to teams that run directly at us – but who isn’t I suppose? I would worry that both Tyrone and Armagh were allowed shots on goal that came from fairly straightforward build up play.  Neither went in, but that was due more to good fortune than good defending.  None of these issues may cost us the next game, but I don’t think we can afford to ignore them.

And so, for the fourth time in five years we play near neighbours Derry.  2011 Ulster Final (six point win), 2012 first round (10 point win), 2014 first round (three point win) and now a semi-final.  The big change for Derry in terms of personnel is that Eoin Bradley is back and was in good form against Down.  It’s fair to also point out that the influential Fergal Doherty was forced off early last May.  Against Down, there was no Pasty Bradley, with Niall Holly, (who had played at full back during the league) partnering Doherty in the middle.  It seemed to work pretty well against Down, with Derry having the upper hand on longer kick outs.  This should be a concern for Donegal as we have struggled in this area lately.  But, from the same game, the stats seem to suggest that Derry were careless in possession – music to our ears surely.

Derry actually led by two points at half time last year, but as was customary, the Jim McGuinness edition blew them away with a third quarter surge.  I will long remember watching Jim ‘directing’ Michael Murphy to swing over a sideline ball from under the covered stand.  With the form Michael is in, Derry will need to be very careful what and where they concede on Saturday night.  It’s worth pointing out that our captain has yet to score from play in this year’s Ulster Championship.  It’s fascinating how his role on this team continues to evolve.

Consider this – Derry failed to score for 21 minutes, at home, against the 14 men of Down.  It was however their first Ulster Championship win since 2011, so perhaps they had some form of white line fever.  But for the woeful Down shooting, never mind the sending off early in the second half, Derry were fortunate enough to win.  Down had the ball heading to 70 minutes and kicked it wide when they could have worked a better shooting chance.  They then failed to foul Derry until they advanced all the way inside the Derry 20.  Awful stuff altogether and I would hope we wouldn’t see anything similar from Donegal this weekend.

Derry look like they will set up very defensively, with Eoin Bradley left up front on his own, and Mark Lynch playing deeper than a traditional number 11.  Enda Lynn and Sean Leo McGoldrick will play as link men from wing forward, both work very hard and are good footballers.  In short, Derry will set up very like Donegal.  But Donegal have been perfecting this system for over four years and it’s second nature to them.  It’s largely new to Derry and Down had plenty of chances to win the game despite Derry’s defensive set up.

No harm recalling that Leo McLoone scored 1-1 and Jigger 0-1 against Derry last May.   Neither player will feature this year, so guys like Paddy McBrearty and Odhran MacNiallais will need to contribute more.  Paddy was a little wasteful in last year’s game so hopefully he will have recovered from his hamstring strain to be in a position to deliver on Saturday.  He’s been in excellent form lately, even if he tends to fade out of games in the second half.  That might be due to the way Donegal set up as opposed to the player himself and he obviously wasn’t fit enough to finish the game last time but it’s worth monitoring.

It was disappointing not to see Colm McFadden against Armagh after his encouraging display against Tyrone.  If he does come back into the team, you would assume he will take Marty O’Reilly’s place.  But would he fulfil the same role as O’Reilly?  At half time in Armagh, we were trying to figure out exactly what role Marty was playing.  It almost seemed like he was nothing more than a warm body occupying an Armagh defender.  For what it’s worth, it was suggested that they would forget about him and he would end up sneaking in for a goal.  The guy can obviously take a chance when he gets it, but it seems that this isn’t his main role on the team.  He doesn’t carry much ball either.

We should take nothing for granted, but it will be a huge shock to me if Derry beat us on Saturday.  I trust our players too much not to get caught looking ahead and focus on the game in hand.  This Donegal team has won 15 out of 16 Ulster Championship matches going back to 2011. They have played and beaten every team in Ulster barring Fermanagh in this time.  This Derry team will have to play the game of their lives to beat us, or we will need to be hampered by injuries to the likes of Paddy McBrearty, or, more importantly, Michael Murphy, who looked hobbled at the end of the game in Armagh.  Don’t expect a pretty game, it will likely be a hard enough slog, especially if Derry are really focused on defence.  And maybe they will have gotten a boost in confidence from their first Ulster Championship win in four years.  As Rory Gallagher likes to say, each game takes on a life of its own.   He may be right enough there, but that doesn’t mean that the outcome will be any different than the one expected.

Until Victory, Always

The Same but Different

So Donegal beat Tyrone in the Ulster Championship.  Again.  That’s four times in five years.  The faces on the sideline have changed, but the result is the same.  But, at no point during the second half did I feel comfortable about what I was seeing, but at the end of the day, if you had offered me a three point win beforehand, I would have gladly taken it.  I’m glad that I didn’t start writing without watching the game back and taking a good bit of time to reflect on everything as my initial reaction was probably one of relief and concern.  Subsequent discussion and reflection have tempered those feelings.

We were fortunate in some respects.  Darren McCurry’s free taking was poor.  Mickey Harte’s decision to start two underage stars didn’t really work out.  The Sean Cavanagh of five years ago would have been an even more influential player.  As it was, he had a fine game, with the usual antics thrown in.  At the same time, Michael O’Neill had a brilliant game in goals.  What they lost from Morgan’s free taking (assuming his returns would have been better than McCurry’s and his own performance in Ballybofey in 2013) was offset by O’Neill’s performance between the posts.

One thing that struck me was the lack of scorable frees we won.  Other than Michael’s tap over late on, that was it really.  Anything else was much deeper.  It’s hard to say what the reason for this was.  Maybe Tyrone’s tackling was that good.  Maybe Joe McQuillan didn’t give us the benefit of the doubt as much as he seemed to do when Tyrone were attacking.  Or, maybe we didn’t attack Tyrone enough to make them foul us – the stats seem to lend some weight to this idea with Donegal having 31 attacks to Tyrone’s 43.  Perhaps it was a combination of all of these factors.  I will be keen to see the stats at the end of Sunday’s game to see if anything changes.

In the immediate aftermath, it was tempting to give Justin McMahon credit for a very effective job on Michael Murphy.  It all appeared legal, but there are suggestions that there was plenty going on that wasn’t picked up by the cameras and was missed from the stand.  All the same, it was an interesting tactic and I wonder if Armagh have anyone as bloody minded to shadow Michael for 70 minutes on Sunday.  Massive credit must go to Michael for keeping his cool and still having the composure for this monster scores from placed balls at the end.  It was good to see Paddy McBrearty and Colm McFadden show well at times.  If Colm especially can maintain form, that will give teams more to think about than just Michael.  Armagh will be doing well to keep all three quiet.  I would be hopeful too that we might see a bit more from Odhran MacNiallais the next day out.

The issue with what I saw from Donegal against Tyrone and how I feel ahead of Sunday is largely one of trust.  Jim McGuinness earned our trust over is four years in charge.  Even at half time in last year’s All Ireland Final, I felt good about where we were at during games where Jim was in charge.  At half time in Ballybofey two weeks ago, I felt that if we came out and reeled off a few scores, we would effectively put the game to bed, a pattern that we came to regard as the ‘third quarter surge’ under McGuinness.  But instead, Tyrone drew level and we didn’t pull away until much later than normal.  In fairness, Tyrone didn’t score from the 50th minute onwards, but they had several goal chances.  Worse than that, it was our failure to maintain possession late that bothered me most.

We probably learned a few unpleasant truths the last day.  First, Marty O’Reilly doesn’t seem to add much to the half forward line.  This wasn’t exactly a surprise, as his performances during the League bordered on anonymous (Cork in Ballyshannon aside), but I was looking forward to see if he had more to offer.  To be fair, an early booking may have cowed him, and, it seemed that perhaps he was charged with shadowing one of Tyrone’s more dangerous players, Mattie Donnelly.  Still, the booking was his own fault, and Donnelly did manage to exert some influence on the game at times.  If the team named for Sunday is the one that starts, O’Reilly has lost out.

The next was that Ryan McHugh should not start with any number lower than 10 on his back.  I had my concerns about his ability to play as a corner back last year, but now it’s apparent that he shouldn’t be used at half back either.  He may well have been at fault for the Tyrone goal – although Paddy McGrath may need to shoulder a fair degree of blame too, but he is also ill suited to stopping opposing attackers.  His talents are surely better utilised further up the pitch or at least in a more.  This is the current Young Player of the Year and he did not win it for his defensive work. Whisper it, but is there any danger that Ryan has been ‘figured out’?  As a team, Donegal did not have a good day, but above anyone else, he was anonymous in the All Ireland Final.  If Sunday’s team named is to be believed, we may well get to see Ryan play in a more advanced role with less defensive responsibility.  That can only be a good thing I guess, but I would still be worried that even though he is an intelligent and unselfish player, his size will begin to limit his effectiveness.

It was notable also that despite featuring often during the League, there was no sign of Hugh McFadden against Tyrone.  This despite Christy Toye sailing close to the wind with foul trouble and looking  visibly tired for long enough before he was eventually subbed.  McFadden might have been able to offer something and it would have been good to see him in action in a Championship setting.  But most people I speak to feel he is not good enough anyway – I am on the fence.  Has Rory Gallagher now come to that conclusion also?

And so, while Tyrone get another week to get ready to welcome Limerick to Omagh, Donegal must journey to Armagh.  It’s hard to analyse Armagh in too much detail given they spent the spring loitering in Division Three.  If Donegal were playing any other Division Three team, would we be too concerned?  No, but because this is Ulster and because of the fright we got last August and because of what happened over and over in the first decade of this century, we will fret more than we, in theory, need to.  Last year, Armagh had the benefit of a series of tough games – Cavan, Monaghan (twice), Roscommon and Meath in the lead up to facing Donegal.  They have had no such preparation this year.  On the flipside, they will have had this date circled in their calendar for around nine months now, without having to worry about too much else. I also think that  Armagh will miss the playmaking abilities and experience of Aaron Kernan as much as Donegal will miss Rory Kavanagh and Leo McLoone.  And, the lad who I feel caused us the most bother last year, ‘Soupy’ Campbell, has missed around three months with injury, but will likely be available on Sunday.  Still, close as they ran us last year, that is a game we should have won more comfortably.  If you don’t believe me, check out the stats.  I don’t know if Donegal are any better or worse than we were last year (I feel that we are worse, but we’ll see…), but I have no idea whether Armagh have improved or not.  We’ll find out on Sunday I guess.  Hopefully Rory Gallagher and his associates have a better handle on things than me.

Until Victory, Always.

Baked to Perfection

Well, that was a very satisfying day in Clones, and there haven’t been too many of them over the years, but it’s become a happier hunting ground since Jim McGuinness took over.  Donegal are now 5-1 in Ulster Championship matches at Clones since 2011. We now have two Ulster Finals to look forward to in just over three weeks time and are in with a great shout of winning both matches, with the Minors setting the tone with a comfortable win over Antrim in the curtain raiser on Sunday.

Both the games on Sunday followed a similar enough pattern I suppose although the Minors were more comfortable at half time in their game.  At half time in the main event, no one was too impressed with what we had seen in the Senior game, but I wasn’t overly concerned myself, as I saw it as nothing out of the ordinary for a Donegal performance under McGuinness. We weren’t great, but it was clear we could get better and Antrim didn’t look like they were going to be good enough to beat us in any event.  And so it came to pass, with the usual third quarter spurt that was maintained right through to the seventieth minute when Brick Molloy finished off a goal started and assisted by his Naomh Conaill team mates.  It was in many respects a facile victory, but there were a few things worth further comment.

The positives – well, any day you score 3-16 with fairly marginal returns from Murphy, McFadden and McBrearty is encouraging in one respect I suppose. It was great to see Jigger hit 1-2 after scoring a point against Derry on his Championship debut.  Talent is nothing without confidence and the little man from Buncrana with the famous father seems to lack neither.  After appearing tentative at times during the glimpses we saw of him during the League, he has relished the Championship experience so far, even after having to sit his Leaving Cert at the same time.  It’s early days in what he hope will be a long and successful career, but the signs so far are very good.

RTE man of the match Odhran MacNiallais put in a great shift along with four points from play. Like Jigger, he was a late change to the starting team, lining out alongside Neil Gallagher at midfield initially, and then partnering Martin McElhinney when Neil was forced off through injury.   It’s quite astonishing to see that Donegal actually had the better of matters at midfield in the second half, when we were essentially down to our third and fourth choice options in MacNiallais and McElhinney, neither of whom would be considered premier high fielders.  But for the second successive game, Jim McGuinness managed very well with the resources available to him. 

Then there was Leo McLoone adding another 1-2 (could really have been 2-1) and generally doing quite well at half forward.  You really have to give the guy credit for playing a role he seemed uncomfortable with at centre back throughout the League but he is now thriving having been released of the responsibility of playing in such a pivotal defensive position.  His running in attack is much more direct and strong than it was from the back.  Alongside him, I thought Christy did very well, putting in a longer shift than he did against Derry. It was his strong run that set up McLoone for the goal that broke the Antrim resistance and he also added two points of his own.  My concern all year was that the pace and intensity of Championship football might be too much for him, but he’s handled it very well.  All in all then, our half forward line is looking good, and we could say that we are looking in better shape on this line than we were in 2012 and 2013.

Other than injuries (see below), one thing that would concern me from Sunday is that Paddy McBrearty had another disappointing game and it was no surprise to see him substituted. When everyone is fit, I’d have Jigger ahead of Paddy for that corner forward spot. I don’t want to place any significance on the League, but Paddy was much more effective coming off the bench during the spring than he was as a starter.  Starting doesn’t seem to be doing anything for his confidence seeing as how he missed a relatively straightforward chance early on.  Jim has had tremendous faith in McBrearty since bringing him into the team against Antrim back in 2011, but perhaps now he has a genuine option to start ahead of him in Jigger.  For me, Jim has a big call to make for the 13 shirt on 20 July.

In the other corner, Colm McFadden worked hard for little enough return, but at least he got his scores.  His run down the Antrim end line for his point showed admirable drive, but I was left wondering if he will get away with this against a more aggressive defence.  Between himself and Paddy’s form, and Michael’s relative quiet scoring form (you need to acknowledge that he has been asked to contribute more further out the field due to our injuries around the middle), you wonder what sort of scoring return we can expect from our full forward line the next day out.  As the excellent dontfoul notes, this was the second game in a row that the ‘Big Three’ had underperformed, especially when contrasted with their form in 2012.  As I say above, it’s nice that we can rack up 3-16 without getting much from the inside forwards, but sooner or later you feel we are going to have to see more from them on the scoreboard. 

Other than that, it was a better day than I expected. Ryan McHugh nearly got himself in bother late on, but thankfully nothing came of it. With Cassidy refereeing and Marty lurking on the sideline, you couldn’t be too careful. I assume Neil McGee must have suffered a knock and that’s why he came off, hopefully nothing serious, although watching the game footage, I can’t help but think ‘metatarsal’.  I’ve seen no update yet on Neil, but as Chris McNulty reports today, the news on Big Neil, Rory and Karl Lacey is encouraging.

Of course, all I am hearing is “wouldn’t be good enough to beat Monaghan” – and it wouldn’t, but we were never going to bust our asses to win on Sunday. We played more than well enough to beat a poor Antrim team and I’m pretty sure we have more in the tank for the Ulster Final. If you recall last year, Monaghan were very unimpressive in beating Antrim and fortunate enough to beat Cavan but looked pretty good in the Ulster Final. They had two years of footage to study on Donegal, but now we have plenty to study on them and Jim and Co will have known from the time the draw was made that there was a fair chance we meet them again this year, so I’m pretty sure we’ll have something up our sleeve for the Final.  That of course assumes Monaghan beat the auld enemy Armagh.  They are overwhelming favourites to do so, especially since Armagh will be missing three starters from their game against Cavan, suspended for “rough play” apparently.  Armagh v Monaghan is on Sky Sports at 7pm on Saturday in case anyone is wondering. I’ll be significantly more concerned if we are to face Monaghan on 20 July, a game that would be a massive proposition. But I would absolutely ****ing love to beat either of team in an Ulster Final.  Bring it on – whether it’s Monaghan or Armagh I think we will be ready. We’re in a better place than we were last year, that’s for sure.  By the way, Jim McGuinness has now won as many in the Ulster Championship games as manager of Donegal than all other managers combined since 1994. We’re lucky to have him. 

I’ll have plenty of doubts, questions, and crises of confidence in the lead up to 20 July, but for now, I’m looking forward to our fourth Ulster Final in four years.

Until Victory, Always

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

Still Got It

Many of the questions we have been asking ourselves lately were answered on Sunday in Derry.  It was not the perfect performance by any stretch of the imagination, but it was good enough.  While we weren’t exactly written off in advance, there were plenty who felt that we were a spent force in light of last year’s Championship performance and then a fairly flat performance in the Division Two Final last month.  The intensity and the verve returned on Sunday, and while it wasn’t always pretty, especially in the first half, it’s always satisfying to win when you are not certain of doing so.   

In many ways, it was very similar to our way of operating in 2012.  We kept things close until half time, and then blitzed Derry in the third quarter before reverting to lockdown mode.  And, like 2012, it was Donegal who got the last score after soaking up the Derry pressure.  Leo McLoone’s score was somewhat reminiscent of Karl Lacey’s point against Kerry in the All Ireland Quarter Final.  The main difference of course was the build up – Lacey’s score came on a fast break, McLoone’s was the culmination of an 18 pass phase of clock killing possession (H/T to @dontfoul).  Either way, in both cases it was Donegal finishing strong.

After what was a fairly unimpressive League campaign, where he played almost exclusively at centre half back, Leo McLoone was somewhat of a revelation on Sunday.  Finishing with 1-01 and earning RTE man of the match honours will hopefully be a boost for him personally.  Whether his inspired showing owed anything to the fact he was nominally a half forward instead of deployed in a defensive capacity is an open question.  The fact that McLoone could be played in a more advanced role was as of course linked to the fact that we had Paddy McGrath available to start in defence.  It was great to have the Ardara man back and in fine form.  Pretty remarkable that he was able to last 70 minutes having missed so much time.  With Paddy back, I assume we won’t see McLoone at half back for the remainder of the Championship barring any injuries.

As Alan Foley points out, the tactics we saw at midfield on Sunday are a throwback to McGuinness’ time in charge of the Under 21 team back in 2010.   Big Neil missing out from the start was no huge surprise even if the rumours suggested he was fit enough to start.  But when I heard that McElhinney was not starting, I was very surprised.  A combination of Christy, Odhran MacNiallais and Michael Murphy was initially deployed, and seemed to do ok, although we cannot discount the impact of Derry losing Fergal Doherty relatively early on had on their performance (still, his replacement Niall Holly kicked a fine score not long after coming on).  But, as the half wore on, Derry seemed to get on top when Durcan kicked the ball out to midfield.  What was pleasing was some of the results from quicker and more targeted kick outs – nowhere near the level of what Dublin can accomplish, but encouraging nonetheless.  Some people I have spoken too criticised the decision to bring on Big Neil as he didn’t look fit.  True, he was responsible for a few turnovers, but he certainly gave the crowd a further lift after the blitz and made a good block in defence.  A few of us were also surprised that Christy was the man to go at half time, but all in all, McGuinness got it just right in the middle third. The stats indicate that we weren’t brilliant, but we did enough to win, and that ultimately is all you need to do!

The most pleasing aspect of the display on Sunday was of course our defence.  Not just for, you know, defending, but for those sorties into Derry territory.  It was Frank McGlynn who collected the ball from Michael Murphy and fed Leo McLoone for the decisive goal and Anthony Thompson collected a rebound off the upright on the Derry end line to set up Paddy McBrearty for what should have been a goal.  Throw in the points from Lacey and Thompson and you begin to ask yourself is it 2012 all over again.  Not to ignore the fact also that we only conceded 11 points in total, which will be good enough to win most games.  As I originally speculated, it was left to Karl Lacey to pick up Mark Lynch and he did a fine job. Lynch kicked one huge score, under immense pressure, but otherwise his influence was marginal.  The inside forwards McGuckin and O’Boyle were non-factors, due in large part to Derry’s inability to find them.  Nonetheless, the two McGees did all that was asked off them in our set up.  Above the call of duty, Neil McGee was on hand to rob Derry wing back Kevin Johnston of a potential goal opportunity in the second half when a goal would have brought Derry level and potentially stalled Donegal’s shock and awe operation.  Good and all as our defensive players and overall system was, Niall Holly and Mark Lynch did show that no matter how good you are, you are always susceptible to being undone by good long range shooting.  Thankfully, we did enough to restrict Derry’s opportunities in this regard.

There are definite areas for improvement.  Colm McFadden had a day to forget.  You can’t fault the effort, but nothing was sticking.  Dermot McBride, like Drew Wylie in last year’s Ulster Final, stuck to him like a bad smell and got away with plenty of holding, but that’s life for a forward sometimes.  On another day, maybe Colm gets a handy free and converts it and that sets things in motion.  Not so on Sunday – he didn’t even have a free to kick.  Was Sunday an aberration?  Hopefully, but you have to figure that we could be witnessing a player on the wane.  It’s a worrying enough sign that he has been held scoreless from play in his last two Ulster Championship games.  He did manage 3-30 during the League, so maybe I am worrying unnecessarily.  Plus, whoever we play next (Fermanagh or Antrim) will surely afford him the opportunity to get back on track.  He was so poor on Sunday that Jim McGuinness actually replaced him – something that never happens. 

If Colm was poor, then you would hope Paddy McBrearty is capable of stepping up.  Alas, he had a poor enough day himself – especially in the first half (four shots, one off the post, one wide, two dropped short).  He did get himself a point in the second half, but even then, he really should have had a goal.  You couldn’t really fault his effort, but when presented with these opportunities (especially when playing inside during the first half while Michael Murphy was deployed in a deeper role), he needs to do better.  His light hearted tweet afterwards about losing his shooting boots was fair enough given we won the game suppose and at least he acknowledges the issue.  The fact that he has exams going on at the moment might be a mitigating factor.  Again, the next day out he will have the opportunity to put up a greater return.

But of course it should be pointed out that we win despite getting virtually nothing from Colm and Paddy, and indeed only two points from play from Michael Murphy.  It’s good to know that there are others who can step up – 1-06 scored from play various others is a very satisfying return.  As ever, while it might be a disturbing trend if your inside forwards fail to deliver on an ongoing basis, but in an isolated game, it doesn’t matter who gets the scores as long as we get enough of them.

A quick word for our Captain – wow.  He was everywhere and everything on Sunday.  He shook off an early missed free that he really should have scored, but thereafter, he was inspirational.  He was involved in four successive scores – his fetch in the lead up to the goal, the dummy for his point from play, that free from the sideline and a free won and converted to put us five points ahead and essentially put us out of sight.  It didn’t escape anyone of course that Jim McGuinness ‘told him’ to attempt that shot from the sideline.   Sometimes talent needs a nudge.   

And when you think about the players that played on Sunday, you feel that you can expect more in future games.  Paddy McGrath – first game for Donegal since 60 minutes in last year’s All Ireland Quarter Final.  Jigger – first Senior Championship start ever for Donegal.  Neil Gallagher – we only saw him for 30 or so minutes.  Christy Toye and Martin McElhinney – only played a half each.  And of course Rory Kavanagh played no part.  We can expect more from all of these players next day out.

There have been murmurings along the lines of ‘that performance wouldn’t beat Dublin’ – but so what?  We weren’t playing Dublin on Sunday.  Dublin don’t play in the Ulster Championship.  I’m sure Jim McGuinness had one goal only on Sunday and that was to win the game.  From that perspective, it was a very good day at the office.  We now have four weeks to prepare for a game against Antrim or Fermanagh, a game we should win.  I’m certainly not thinking about anything more than an Ulster Final appearance at this stage.  Sunday’s performance left me in no doubt that we are still good enough to win an Ulster Championship if we make it that far.  Job done.

Until Victory, Always.

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