As a player or a manager, supporters’ expectations are the hardest thing to manage. So they don’t; they don’t get involved in the hype or the discussions that surround big games.
Sunday’s encounter with Tyrone is certainly a game that has demanded such attention. Such is the change in the fortunes in Donegal football that we will go into the game as favourites against a team who in the not so distant past was the mainstay of Ulster football.
At the start of last year there had been a bit of turmoil within Donegal and it had to replace a number of the management. As supporters we didn’t know how the players would react. They went on to win another Ulster crown and were only the width of a post away from another All-Ireland title. That bitter taste is still there.
This year will be different. Jim has gone to pastures new with the Hoops and Rory and his management team are in the hot seat. The National League served it’s purpose; we retained our Division One status and a number of new players got their chance.
Rory will know that from here on in the honeymoon period is over. People will start to judge and he will be just as determined as Jim when he took over to get the best out of the players.
Unlike the last few years and you know what to expect from Tyrone when they came to town, this year is a bit different. There has been talk that all is not well in our neighbours’ camp; a number of players have left Mickey Harte’s squad in the last number of weeks; a few of those lads were members of the All-Ireland winning U-21 team. There has been rumours that many felt that it’s time for change and that maybe, just maybe, the man that led them to three All-Irelands has run his course.
As everyone in Ulster will know, you take that with a pinch of salt. Tyrone have a habit of being in meltdown one minute but then producing a performance out of nowhere. They have not been at their best this last few years but they have potentially enough good players to give any team in the country a run for their money.
Donegal will be considered to be in the top four. They are expected to be there or thereabouts when the All-Ireland semi-finals are played but that will count for nothing come four o’clock Sunday.
What we can expect on Sunday is that it will be very defensive; players will be limited to how long they will be able to hold on to the ball; players will get only split seconds to take their opportunities in front of goal and every single 50-50 ball will be fought for as if their life depended on it.
The match officials will be under huge pressure. There will be 18,000 supporters shouting at them, for one thing. They will know it’s the first big live game of the summer so they know every call will be scrutinised to the last and it will also play on their minds that these players have a lot of history so there will be plenty going on, both on and off the ball.
Tyrone showed a lot of improvement in their last league game against Kerry and while they only managed a draw they put up an impressive tally of 17 points; a lot of scores coming from defenders running from deep in support of the forward line. Their U-21 side, who defeated Donegal in the Ulster final, used similar tactics to counteract Donegal’s defensive make up.
Mickey Harte and his management team will have a similar plan in place so expect Tyrone to attack down the flanks and try and beat the Donegal defence with quick ball. I don’t expect the Donegal management to change much from those that played in the league. If Paddy McGrath is fit I think he will start ahead of Eamonn Doherty, who had an impressive league campaign. McGrath’s experience will be a vital factor. If Paul Durcan is fit he will resume in goals; Michael Boyle was impressive in his appearances in the league but Durcan’s height advantage and experience will see him handed the number one jersey.
The McGee brothers, Frank McGlynn, Karl Lacey and Ryan Mc Hugh should make up the rest of the back six. In the latter end of the league the Donegal management team allowed Colm McFadden to find his feet once again. By Colm’s high standards he has struggled a bit but if Donegal are to reach the same heights as the last few years McFadden has to be back at his best and along with Paddy McBreaty they have the potential be a prolific full-forward line along with Michael Murphy, who I have no doubt will play his usual all over the place role.
In the past when it’s come to winning championship games the players coming off the bench have made a huge contribution. Indeed most managers plan the game with 20 players in mind, not 15. This present squad of players have given us a lot of great days over the last few summers; they have showed in the National League that the drive and commitment is still there and none have any mind of calling time just yet. The defeat by Kerry in last year’s All-Ireland final has left a bitter taste and they as a group are determined to get another chance at lifting Sam.
Like all great journeys start with a small step, hopefully Sunday will be the first of many in 2015.