The Donegal minors will have take to the stage first in Croke park on Sunday as they take on Dublin for the chance to reach the All-Ireland minor final (1.30 p.m.)
Declan Bonner’s side are seeking to break new ground for Donegal as no minor side from the county has ever reached the final, going back to the first semi-final in 1956.
Leitrim edged out Donegal that year and since then the same fate has befell Donegal in 1985 (Cork), 1991 (Cork), 1996 (Laois) and 2006 (Kerry).
There have been near misses but the chance now falls to a Donegal side that are unbeaten in 2014, winning the Ulster Minor League and Championship.
News that they are likely to be without Eoghan Ban Gallagher (hamstring injury) is a setback, but this panel is strong and they will know that they only get the one chance at making the breakthrough.
Having to take on Dublin in their own back yard is a fairly difficult assignment. The young Dubs are used to playing on Croke Park, while this will be the first time for all of the Donegal squad to kick a ball on the hallowed sod.
Still, it is just a game of football - 15 on each side - and I’m sure some of the Dublin players will be as nervous as some of the Donegal side.
It would be a widely held opinion that Donegal have not hit top form despite their unbeaten run. They have had some very good patches in games and on other occasions have had to dig out results. This was especially true in the quarter-final last time out against Roscommon when the Rossies manager, Fergal O’Donnell, set them a poser with an ultra defensive set up. In the end they just got over the line, but they will have learned from the experience that patience can sometimes be key.
At minor level with just 30 minutes in each half, the game can go by in a flash. The level of concentration will be much higher in the cauldron of Croke Park. There is likely to be an almost capacity crowd in for both games, with the same teams participating in the senior game.
That will be something completely new for this bunch of players - somewhere in the region of 60,000-70,000 roaring both sides on. It is a stage that any footballer would want and one where they will want to put their best foot forward.
In the absence of Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Andrew McClean is likely to be pulled back to a wing-back role with Ethan O’Donnell, who has made a major impact as a substitute up to now, the most likely to slot into the half-forward role. However, because McClean was playing in a free role, Bonner could employ Gaoth Dobhair’s Niall Friel to fill that role - something he did earlier in the year.
The wide open spaces of Croke Park are perfect for the Donegal running game, so expect Cian Mulligan, Tony McClenaghan and Caolan McGonigle to make inroads on the Dublin half-back line any time the opportunity arises.
Donegal will be opening that Stephen McBrearty has no recurrence of the hamstring twinge he felt in the club championship game against Naomh Columba on Monday evening last. McBrearty’s ability to win ball and to break tackles on the run is vital to the outcome. More than likely captain Niall Harley will be told to hold the fort around midfield, like a good midfielder does.
So too will be the ability of Jamie Brennan and Lorcan Connor to open up the Dublin defence. Declan Bonner had this minor panel in Dublin on the weekend of the Donegal seniors’ win over Armagh and they got to sample the stadium from pitch side. On that weekend Brennan and Connor were seen walking down Clonliffe Road together before the match. Despite coming from opposite ends of the county, that is the type of bond that Declan Bonner has developed with this side and if this duo can combine on Sunday, then Donegal have a great chance of making that final breakthrough.
It is a big day for the Gaoth Dobhair club with six players involved in the minor panel and another three on the senior panel. It is more than likely that five of the six minors will have some part to play during the game. Big Kieran Gillespie at full-back has been a rock, while Cian Mulligan and Michael Carroll are exceptional contributors. Carroll, still U-17, can fill in at midfield, if needed. Then you have Niall Friel, who could start, and big Gavin McBride, a towering full-forward, who could be a replacement for another giant, John Campbell, probably sometime in the second half.
It will be an historic day, no matter what. It is the first time that both minors and seniors have reached All-Ireland semi-finals on the same day.
Let’s get behind Declan Bonner’s boys and get the day off to the perfect start!