Breffni Park, Cavan, will determine whether or not the Donegal senior footballers will get their hands on silverware this year or not. Many have suggested than the All-Ireland is well out of our reach, putting the likes of Dublin, Tyrone, Kerry and Mayo ahead of us when it comes to reaching the All-Ireland final.
I’m sure there are many ways at looking at all sorts of statistics and there are, I have no doubt, good enough guides on form to tell us who is playing well and who isn’t and there are occasions when they will get it right but more often than not, they don’t.
Sport is not down to form or stats; it’s down to what happens in the moment, when, in the case of a footballer, what he or she does with the ball when they have it in their possession, whether or not they take the chances when they’re presented to them. Indeed, it’s someone else’s choice whether they play or not.
There are endless reasons why I am not convinced that such talk of favourites or the team on form has anything to do with winning or losing a game of football. Now to be fair if there is an outstanding gulf in class then it’s easy to subscribe to anyone telling you the outcome but when teams are close in most areas then it comes down to inches; the small things, a referee’s call, a line ball, a fifty that might not have been or indeed just an individual piece of class or opportunism.
So anyone that tells you that Donegal, or indeed Monaghan, are favourites going into next Saturday night’s game in Cavan are taking the ‘you know what’. In the last five years Monaghan and Donegal have shared the Anglo Celt, every game has been a battle with very little between the sides on any given day. Indeed you could go back to one or two instances in any game that had a huge bearing on the result. That’s just how tight things are between the two sets of players.
Can I tell you what could make the difference on Saturday night? No, very few could because the chances are it will come down to the team who make the least amount of errors; the team that takes the goal chance if one presents itself, or what team will have the self-discipline to give away the least amount of frees.
If we look at the scoring potential on both sides, they’re both blessed with good free kick takers. Conor McManus was probably the best forward on show last year; in every game he excelled. Michael Murphy, who by his own high standards, did not have his best or most productive day against Fermanagh, is still one of the best in the country and like McManus is capable of controlling and winning a game on any given day.
I would talk a bit about defence but come Saturday evening so will everyone. I expect both sides to have nearly everyone behind the ball when they’re not in possession. If it transpires that Neil McGee will not play then that would be a huge blow for us. It can work two ways, it gives Monaghan a huge lift and we don’t react or it galvanises the Donegal players and everyone ups their game to a level where the Gaoth Dobhair man might not be missed.
But you never know with the current discipline system within the GAAA. Remember, Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin getting off.
However, after saying all that, it never comes down to one or two individuals, especially where you know the game is going to be a physical battle from start to finish. Every decision will be questioned, every tackle will be made as it is the last because both sides will know going the back door route does not pay off any more.
Against Fermanagh Donegal relied on the likes of Frank McGlynn, Ryan and Eoin McHugh breaking from the backline and the support coming through. On occasions they got so far up the field that there was little or no support. If we expose any of them like that on Saturday we will lose possession.
We let Fermanagh in for at least four goal chances. They went right through the middle of our defence. They were unable to take any of them. Monaghan will not be as wasteful.
One other area where we struggled against Fermanagh was our kick outs, not that any of the blame should be put on Mark Anthony McGinley, who was excellent on the day, but there was a lack of movement to give him options. It’s not like Donegal of the past few years to be so static from the kick outs. I know the change of ‘keeper could be a reason but that doesn’t explain the lack of movement. If we don’t have a game plan in place for Saturday evening we will be made pay. Monaghan will have looked at the uncertainty around our kick outs and they will do everything they can early on to unsettle everyone in defence.
When the draw for this year’s Ulster championship was made we knew nothing was going to be easy. We knew this day was coming and I would have expected that Rory Gallagher and his management team would have geared their training around this game but at the same time so will Malachy O’Rourke, so don’t expect a free flowing, catch and kick, nice Saturday evening game of ball with everyone smiling, shaking hands and helping each other from the ground. No, expect an Ulster championship game, old style.