Donegal are back on the hallowed sod of Croke Park this Saturday and bidding for further hurling glory when they face Roscommon in the Nicky Rackard Cup Senior Hurling Championship final. (Throw-in 2 pm).
For the 2011 Lory Meagher Cup winners, this is a second Nicky Rackard final and fourth final in all at GAA Headquarters in the last seven seasons.
Three of those were in the Lory Meagher Cup with the other in the Nicky Rackard. That was in the 2006 decider where they suffered a heavy 5-15 to 1-11 defeat at the hands of neighbours Derry.
Donegal, who have already defeated Saturday’s opponents, Roscommon, on their way to the final, have just five survivors from that 2006 final - defenders Marty McGrath, Justin McGee and Jamsie Donnelly; midfielder Danny Cullen and squad member Kevin Campbell.
Manager Ray Durack can call on nine of the men - Jamsie Donnelly, Joe Boyle, Sean McVeigh, Paul Sheridan, Stephen Boyle, Ciaran Mathewson, Enda McDermott, Paddy Hannigan and Lee Henderson - that won that first historic Lory Meagher final two seasons ago, for Saturday’s showdown with the Shannonsiders.
“It is a great occasion. Being from Donegal, we don’t often get the opportunity to play in Croke Park, but the most important thing now that we are in the final is that we go on and win it,” said Donegal captain, Joe Boyle, who is a veteran of three finals already on the sacred sod and one of nine surviving members of the 2011 Lory Meagher Cup winning team.
“A lot of effort went in this year to get to the final. We started training back before Christmas with the main goal of giving the Nicky Rackard a real good go and to make it through to the final. I’m glad we are there now. But the next step is to win it.”
Unlike Roscommon, who have played four games to make it through to the final, Donegal have taken the more direct route. After receiving a bye in the first round, they defeated Roscommon in the second round.
St. Eunan’s Sean McVeigh, one of the younger members, scored the goal as Donegal came from behind to win by three points having led by six at one in the middle of the second half.
They followed that success when they dished out a 12 point thumping to Monaghan in the semi-final in O’Donnell Park.
But despite that lobsided win over the Farney County and their opening day victory over Roscommon, no one in the Donegal camp is expecting anything easy in Saturday’s decider.
“It was no easy feat going down to Roscommon and beating them in their own backyard and it was a very good result. We were focussed that day and determined to get the win and it worked out well for us,” said Donegal manager Ray Durack, an All Ireland Vocational winner with his native Galway back in 1981.
“Saturday’s final is a new game and Roscommon on Saturday will be a different proposition. Just because we beat them already does not mean it will be the same this time around; it will make them more determined not to lose a second time to us in the same year.
“We will give Roscommon the same respect as we did when we met them earlier, and as far as we are concerned it is another game and another challenge. Our focus now is on a new game and going out and giving it our best shot and hoping it is good enough.
“Roscommon are a big strong and very physical team but I feel we are fitter than them and I feel the wide open spaces will suit us. We are confident but I don’t think we are over confident. I think that is the one lesson we learned from the league final. We probably went into that game a little too confident and we paid the price.”
Roscommon have won the Nicky Rackard once before, just six years ago, when they beat Armagh 1-12 to 0-13 to bring the Nicky Rackard across the Shannon for the first time.
Sharpshooters in their 3-28 to 0-14 semi-final win over Tyrone, Gerry and Gary Fallon, are the only playing survivors from the 2007 Roscommon final winning starting fifteen.
Centre half-forward Gerry, in a man of the match performance, posted 1-12 against the Red Hands last time out, with full-forward Gary scoring 1-3. They will certainly need watching on Saturday.
Donegal’s prospects of a second major hurling success have been boosted by the return to fitness of midfielder Paul Sheridan, who missed both the Roscommon and Monaghan games though injury.
Danny Cullen, who suffered a slight hamstring injury in the closing minutes of the semi-final against Monaghan, has also been passed fit to play as manager Durack has reported a fully fit squad.
“Everybody is fit and good to go, so we will, barring any mishaps between now and Saturday, be at full strength. Both Paul and Danny have returned to training and are in good shape and the whole squad are just looking forward to getting out on Croke Park and on with the game,” said the Donegal manager, who went on to say he was quietly confident that they will be taking the Nicky Rackard Cup home with them on Saturday evening.
Donegal trained on Tuesday night in Convoy and will travel to Dublin tomorrow (Friday) and have a light workout again tomorrow evening in Dublin.
Paths to final
Donegal 1-16, Roscommon 0-16
Donegal 5-12, Monaghan 2-9
Roscommon 1-18, Sligo 0-14
Roscommon 0-16, Donegal 1-16
Roscommon 2-14, Louth 0-13
Roscommon 3-28, Tyrone 0-14
Donegal’s Croke Park final appearances and teams
2006: Donegal 1-11, Derry 5-15, Nicky Rackard final
Donegal: G Grindle; M McGrath, C Dowds, J Callaghan; J Donnelly, A Begley, J McGee; M McCann (0-1), E Organ (0-2); K Campbell (0-5,5f)), C Breathnach (capt) (0-2), A McDaid; D Cullen (0-1), G Dwyer, N Campbell (1-0). Subs: C McLaughlin for J Callaghan, P Tooher for G Dwyer (both 52 mins), J Dolan for A McDaid (63)
2009: Donegal 3-16, Tyrone 5-11, Lory Meagher final
Donegal: R Scanlon, M McGrath, J Boyle, W Scanlon, J Donnelly (0-1), C Breathnach, C McLaughlin, D Cullen (1-2, 0-1f), S Boyle (0-1), C Mathewson, S McVeigh (0-1), K Campbell (0-6,4f,165), L Henderson (1-0), G O’Dwyer, N Campbell (0-2) Subs: M McCann (0-2) for O’Dwyer, P Hannigan (1-0) for Mathewson, M McGee (0-1) for McVeigh
2010: Donegal 1-12, Longford 1-20, Lory Meagher final
Donegal: P O’Brien, M Patton, C Breathnach, J McGhee, E McDermott (0-1), J Donnelly, A McDermott, P Hannigan (1-0), L Henderson (0-5, 3f), B Friel, M McCann (0-1), N Campbell (0-1), S Boyle, D Cullen (0-4, 3f), K Campbell. Subs: J Boyle for S Boyle (15), S McVeigh for Patton (39), E Organ for McCann (70), M McGhee for K Campbell (70)
2011: Donegal 2-12, Tyrone 0-17, Lory Meagher final
Donegal: P O’Brien; S O’Connor, C Breathnach, A McDermott; J Donnelly, C Dowds, J Boyle; S McVeigh (0-1), P Sheridan (0-1); E Organ, S Boyle, C Mathewson (2-3); M McCann (0-1), E McDermott, N Campbell (0-6). Subs: P Hannigan for Organ (47); L Henderson for McCann (63); M McGhee for Boyle (68).