“I want a proper final next year, with us two men back.” That was the message Paddy Bradley delivered to Kevin Cassidy, which he recounted in the infamous ‘This Is Our Year’ book, following the news that Eoin Bradley would be joining his brother in the stands for last year’s Ulster final.
Bradley, who was out with a cruciate knee injury, probably realised that Derry’s chances had gone when his brother Eoin got injured in Ballinascreen on the Sunday before their clash with Donegal. Derry went into the game without their two most potent attackers, and their final tally of eight points shows that the absence of the Bradley brothers was one of the primary reasons that Donegal won the Anglo Celt Cup.
Almost a year later, Cassidy has since departed from the Donegal county panel, but Bradley and Derry now have their chance to get retribution for that defeat in Clones. Albeit, at the earlier stage of the quarter-final.
The Derry management team felt they were hard done by in last year’s final. The controversial awarding of a penalty proved to be the catalyst for Donegal’s victory. Michael Murphy’s penalty was the turning point, giving Donegal a lead of three points, a lead they would never relinquish. Derry were also denied a penalty themselves, when Neil McGee’s frontal charge on Emmet McGuckin was not penalised.
The return of Paddy Bradley is a massive boost to Derry. They lacked a focal point in the Ulster final last year, with Neil McGee dominating Caolan O’Boyle. This forced them into hand-passing laterally across the field, which the Donegal defence had no problem in mopping up. Bradley has indicated that this may be his last year in the Oak Leaf jersey and he will be determined to win that elusive Ulster medal before he hangs up his boots.
There is uncertainty regarding Eoin Bradley’s participation in Ballybofey, with reports circulating that he is not yet match fit. If he does make it, the match-ups on the field will be fascinating. Which Bradley will Neil McGee pick up? Does Declan Walsh have the necessary experience to curtail either of them?
Eamon McGee has returned from injury and could be used, while there is always the option of moving Karl Lacey back into the full-back line to nullify the danger. However, Donegal will lose his impetus in the half-back line as a result.
Likewise, Donegal go into Saturday’s clash with injury doubts of their own. Rory Kavanagh faces a fitness battle to make it, while Michael Murphy’s preparations have not gone to plan. A lot will depend on the role the Glenswilly man has on Saturday. He has a hugely impressive record against Derry. With Kevin McCloy and Kevin McGuckin recently retired, Derry appear to be lightweight in the full-back position, and this is an area Donegal will be looking to exploit. Even, a second-half cameo role from Murphy may prove to be the difference.
Derry’s league form was poor, winning just two games, and narrowly avoiding relegation. They drew their last game with Louth in Celtic Park, and this would certainly not inspire confidence, following the Wee County’s collapse against Dublin two weeks ago.
Much will depend on how much John Brennan’s charges have improved from last year’s defeat to Donegal. On that day, they lost the midfield battle and only converted eight of 22 scoring opportunities. While the Kielt brothers, Charlie and James, kicked some superb scores, the vast majority of their efforts were reckless and pointless. If they are going to beat Donegal’s defensive system on Saturday, they simply have to improve in front of the posts.
Donegal will take very little from the Cavan game. It was over as a contest before half-time, and it will bear no reflection on Saturday’s game. One worry would be over Paddy McBrearty’s lack of match practise in recent weeks, but aside from that, the remainder of the side should be fresh. Neil McGee struggled against Eugene Keating, but in a more competitive and intense game, it is unlikely that the Donegal defence will allow any Derry forward the time and space they afforded Keating.
I foresee Derry having trouble getting the ball to their forwards, and the Donegal attack should have too much ability for Derry’s defence. Donegal have been hard to beat in MacCumhaill Park under Jim McGuinness, and I expect them to win by a narrow margin in a low scoring affair.