Success always comes at a price. Year after year reigning All-Ireland champions, whether it’s football or hurling, are always met with a tougher challenge than that of the year before.
It’s natural for teams to want to knock everyone off their perch. We are no different. From the outset of the championship I have suggested that if we don’t retain our All-Ireland crown, it will be because of too many injuries or the players lose that hunger that’s required to win
Monaghan showed us in the Ulster final that if you can match your game plan with loads of hunger and desire it’s enough to get you over the line. Last weekend the players showed signs that they were not ready to give in that easy. They, in the words of Michael Murph,y parked the disappointment of the Ulster final and decided to move on.
The Laois game was never going to be easy especially the way that both sides are set up very defensive and the physical approach of both teams. Laois like Monaghan had nothing to lose so the longer they kept the game tight the better chance they had.
It would have been easy for the Donegal lads to get frustrated especially at some of the tackling and blocking of the ball but they dug deep both physically and mentally and got over the line.
Whatever way you looked at the draw for the quarter-finals there were going to be no easy ones but there was a certain irony when Mayo came out of the hat. Last year’s All-Ireland final is long over but the hurt that the Mayo lads will have felt will be revisited this week. They will have wanted the opportunity to set the record straight; they will get their chance but this year our circumstances are a little different.
Mayo strolled to another easy Connacht title brushing aside every challenge that came their way. It’s hard to know where they’re at as the opposition in most, if not all those games, were nowhere near what they’re going to come up against in Croke Park next Sunday. But they do look to have a certain hunger about them that maybe the hurt of last summer has instilled in them. They have fine tuned their defensive strategy and over the National League and the early rounds of the championship James Horan has introduced a number of new young players especially up front that have added to their strength in depth.
At the start of the year Dublin, Donegal and Mayo were the teams to beat. The summer has not gone the way many had expected especially for Donegal. We have struggled this year. Our National League campaign was all over the place; we were good at times against Tyrone in the first round but the Tyrone of five years ago would have never given us the same opportunities . While Down put up some resistance the fact that Derry beat them a couple of weeks later and they, in turn, were dispatched by a Cavan team who are a number of years away from the finished article.
It would be easy to say that after last year’s success it’s hard to have the same hunger. Believe me that will not have entered any of the players’ minds as they will know that intercounty careers are short so you have to make the best of it while you can. But while I believe the hunger and desire are still there we have been hit with a number of injuries to key players who are vital to the game plan that Jim McGuinness employs.
If you take all that into consideration you might believe that our summer could come to a premature end; that the great journey that we have been on since Jim took over in 2011 is over but these players have become accustomed to winning big games. They have become used to playing against the odds regardless what players are available or not; they have met the challenges head on and have come through and I have no doubt they will do it again.
Sunday’s game will not come down to whether the Donegal players will have the hunger and desire because they will match Mayo on those grounds, of that I have little doubt. But it will come down to whether the defeat by Monaghan and last weekend’s game against Laois will have left their mark.
Going into Croke Park for the quarter-finals it’s generally the teams who have been able to rest after their provincial final that have come out best. Fatigue will play a major factor and especially the fact that the likes of Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher have had very little opportunity to train. There is no place to hide. What we will need is a good performance from everyone. On too many occasions this summer it has been left to a few players to come up with the goods, Colm McFadden and Paddy McBrearty have kept the scoreboard ticking over the summer. Last year Frank McGlynn and Anthony Thompson added to the scoring but this year their opportunities have been limited. Ryan Bradley, Leo McLoone and Rory Kavanagh all managed to come up with vital scores last year; we need the same again this Sunday. Michael Murphy has come in for a bit of stick over the summer he rarely let’s the team down on the big day. If we are to reach another All-Ireland semi-final it’s going to take everyone playing close to their potential and with the same energy and spring in their step that we have become accustomed.
Hopefully, there are still a good few weeks left in this summer.