Final opportunity awaits for Declan Bonner's new-look Donegal

Final opportunity awaits for Declan Bonner's new-look Donegal
Peter Campbell sport@donegaldemocrat.com @dgldemocrat

Donegal have met Down 25 times in Championship, 24 of them in Ulster and they hold a 12-11 advantage with two games draw. They get the chance to improve on that on Sunday in Clones in the Ulster semi-final (4.00 p.m.)

Down are looking to get to the Ulster final for the second year in-a-row while Donegal are seeking a seventh Ulster final in eight years.

Ironically, the one final that Donegal did not reach was last year's decider, where Down went under to Tyrone in Clones.

For a number of years it was common place for Donegal folk to be heading to Clones on the third Sunday in July. Now they are seeking to get to climb the hill for the new final date - June 24th.

The re-arranged fixture schedule has closed the long gaps between games and while there haven't been many outstanding games as of yet, the new era must be more helpful to players. All they want are games (and less arduous training schedules).

Donegal will head to St. Tiernach's Park on Sunday next with a pep in their step after hitting 2-20 and 2-16 in their opening two games. At the start of the campaign there wasn't much expectation as it was felt they may be a little behind both Tyrone and Monaghan, but now that the initial two favourites for the title are gone, the expectation level of an Ulster title has gone up a few notches.

Many of the current Donegal squad have Ulster medals at minor or U-21 but they don't have that elusive Ulster senior medal.

To have a chance of competing for that honour, they have to concentrate their minds on the challenge of the Men from the Mournes this weekend.

Down had a stroll in the park when disposing of Antrim in the opening round and there were some strong performances. The threat of Caolan Mooney raiding from wing-back was evident last year and it is something that Donegal will have to deal with.

Eamonn Burns' side have a couple of very good freetakers in Anthony Doherty (on the long range ones) and Donal O'Hare, who will punish anything inside a 40m radius. This pair accounted for 0-8 in frees against Antrim.

There is also the threat of big full-forward Connaire Harrison, who gave Drew Wylie a torrid time when Down defeated Monaghan in last year's Ulster semi-final. Donegal will be hoping that Neil McGee is back fully fit to deal with the physical threat posed by Harrison.

By all reports Down really pushed up on the Antrim kick-outs and forced many turnovers. Donegal 'keeper, Shaun Patton, was excellent against Derry, and hopefully it will go well for him again on Sunday.

NO TWO GAMES THE SAME

But in championship fare, no two games are the same. Just look at the influence of Rory Beggan for Monaghan on Sunday last against Fermanagh. The Maguire men got up close and personal with him when he was taking his first free and he took the bait. He was foot perfect in Monaghan's previous game against Tyrone, but on Sunday his kick-outs were going over the sideline and it was a different ball game.

The Donegal line-out for Sunday will probably not be revealed until around 3.30 but it is hardly to be much changed from their opening two games. If Neil McGee is fit, he will slot in at full-back, with Stephen McMenamin kept in reserve.

Dáire Ó Baoill has put his hand up after impressing when coming on against Derry, but will probably have to wait his turn.

However, it is likely that Odhran Mac Niallais will make the starting line-up for Donegal and it could be a toss up between Michael Langan and Ciaran Thompson as to who will lose out. But then maybe Declan Bonner and his mentors might keep Mac Niallais until half-time.

The other player who is likely to be heavily involved is Cian Mulligan (pictured above). The Gaoth Dobhair flyer will, most definitely, play a part and in the two games to date, he has delivered. No doubt he will be given special attention when he arrives on the field.

But whatever team is selected, it will take an all-round performance to get over the line. The leadership of the likes of Michael Murphy, the aforementioned Neil McGee, Frank McGlynn and Hugh McFadden is vital, as is the huge presence provided by Patrick McBrearty in the front line. The Kilcar man will again attract a couple of markers, but on his day he can deal with that. And that also means that there is space elsewhere.

The carrot of an Ulster final is again huge, and none more so than for those players who have not enjoyed that experience. There is no reason why it can't be achieved.

Donegal's recent record against Down is very good, but records count for nothing when the ball is thrown in. Donegal are 1/4 to defeat Down on Sunday and odds on to win Ulster now after Monaghan's exit. There is a great opportunity there for Declan Bonner's men, but they have to go and earn it.

DONEGAL v DOWN

They meet in the championship for the first time since 2013 when Donegal won an Ulster quarter-final clash by three points.

LAST FIVE CHAMPIONSHIP MEETINGS

2013: Donegal 0-12 Down 0-9 (Ulster semi-final)

2012: Donegal 2-18 Down 0-13 (Ulster final)

2010: Down 1-15 Donegal 2-10 (Ulster quarter-final) after extra-time

2006: Donegal 1-12 Down 1-11 (Ulster quarter-final)

2003: Donegal 3-15 Down 2-10 (All-Ireland qualifiers Round 4)

Donegal beat Cavan (2-20 to 1-15) and Derry (2-16 to 0-16) to reach the semi-final. Paddy McBrearty is their top scorer on 0-12 (0-3 frees) .

Down beat Antrim by 1-18 to 0-14 in the quarter-final, with Donal O’Hare their top scorer on 0-7 (0-5 frees).

Donegal have won five of their last six championship meetings with Down, the exception being 2010 when Down an Ulster quarter-final clash by 1-15 to 2-10 after extra-time.

Donegal are bidding to reach the Ulster final for the seventh time in eight seasons, having missed out in 2017 only.

Down are bidding to reach the final for the second successive year, something they haven’t done since 1973-74.