The Ulster championship has not exactly kicked into life just yet. No big surprises. Fermanagh looked after Antrim in the first round; Tyrone at their ease looked after Derry. Cavan were always going to have too much for Armagh regardless of what many of the experts might have suggested.
Monaghan, as usual, just got on with their business against a Down side struggling at this moment in time. Is it conceivable that Fermanagh could come to Ballybofey and cause an upset? Could Pete McGrath, after their successful run last year, expect to give Donegal all they want after our poor run at the end of the National League?
Of course there will be many scenarios given up to what may or may not happen but what you can expect is that Fermanagh will not visit MacCumhaill Park just to make up the numbers.
In every campaign the first game can throw up anything. Expectations are naturally high in Donegal, especially after the last five years. We expect Donegal to be there or thereabouts when it comes to Ulster final time. Players on both sides will naturally be nervous with one exception, the Fermanagh players are on a hiding to nothing where the pressure lies firmly on the Donegal lads to put in a good performance and get a result that will reignite the supporters for another summer.
Fermanagh probably start with a bit of an advantage with a game already under their belt. Regardless who it was against, it gets the ball rolling and if you get a win it can gel the squad, boost the confidence of all involved and drive everyone on during training.
Donegal are coming in to the championship on the back of a National League campaign that could be best described as average at best. We flew out of the traps against Down and Cork, struggled against a Mayo side that were only finding their feet and it was downhill from there on, losing five in-a-row. That is not the way you want to go into the championship regardless whether some experts would suggest that we are still top four or five in the country.
At their best Donegal have shown that they are better suited to defending en masse, making it hard for the opposition to get into scoring positions and then hitting them on the break with the likes of Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty providing the scoring power.
That’s has been the tried and trusted over the last few years and I don’t see Rory Gallagher changing anything around that. But that game plan is fine when you’re going in against the likes of Kerry, Mayo or Dublin but when you’re expected to win and the other team sets up with a ultra-defensive system, one of Fermanagh’s strengths in last year’s run in the qualifiers, it can create other problems. The game becomes tight, scores can be hard to come by, every decision has to be contested, the nerves creep in and more often than not the home team supporters can vent their frustration.
Fermanagh will know this and want to break up the game as much as they can. They will work on not allowing Donegal to get into their running game so we will have to be both disciplined and patient. Many people might believe that the importance of the likes of Stephen Cluxton to the Dublin game plan as being a bit exaggerated but he’s pivotal to the way the Dubs play the game. Paul Durcan held the same position of importance for Donegal; his kick-outs were exceptional and he had an understanding with the two Mc Gees and Paddy McGrath built up over the years. Rory Gallagher will have to introduce a new goalkeeper next Sunday. He gave both Peter Boyle and Mark Anthony McGinley their opportunity through the National League so whoever he decides it will be their debut. I have no doubt both lads will be up to the task. However it has an unsettling effect and is something that could cause uncertainty.
By all accounts Donegal have trained extremely hard since the National League; they have played in a couple of challenge matches and up until last weekend the players were playing club football every weekend so there should be a fair level of sharpness but there will be mistakes. Limiting them will be the difference between the sides.
With respect to Fermanagh I don’t expect them to beat Donegal. I believe they will make it extremely hard for us but I think the level of experience and the depth of strength in the Donegal squad will have too much for the Erne men. But it will be important for us to get off to a good start; don’t let them get any sense that they just might cause a bit of bother. We have to be ruthless in all areas and smother the game in the early stages so they don’t get their tails up. Much will depend on the likes of Frank McGlynn, Karl Lacey, Rory Kavanagh and Ryan McHugh settling on the ball early, moving the ball quickly and taking our chances.
With Tyrone emerging as clear contenders along with ourselves and Monaghan this Ulster championship will be our hardest in a few years. It’s important to get through Sunday’s game with a good performance and get the ball rolling.
Late Thomas Maguire
Last Saturday in a sun drenched Ardara, Thomas Maguire was laid to rest. I had the pleasure of playing along with Thomas on the U-21 All-Ireland winning side of 1987, probably one of the most natural and gifted players that has ever worn the green and gold for both Donegal and Ardara, never one to shy away from the banter and he enjoyed all that the game offered. He will be sadly missed. May he rest in peace.