Donegal can be tentatively optimistic as they eye another Ulster final

Alan Foley


Alan Foley

Donegal can be tentatively optimistic as they eye another Ulster final
Seeing as Jim McGuinness has the innate ability to make so much of what comes out of his mouth sound interesting, hopefully sooner or later some people might start listening to him.

Seeing as Jim McGuinness has the innate ability to make so much of what comes out of his mouth sound interesting, hopefully sooner or later some people might start listening to him.

After a brief interlude having won the All-Ireland title last September, Donegal have retained their status as the most controversial team ever to play football.

It was far from a flawless performance against Down in the 0-12 to 0-9 win at Kingspan Breffni Park and although McGuinness mentioned that afterwards, there were a couple of valid reasons for him to continue to draw on the positives.

First of all, the expectancy levels from outside the panel but inside the county might be a little more realistic now.

Much of the talk on the streets of Cavan on Sunday morning after the hard boiled eggs wasn’t of how but of how many? Some in green and gold had stepped over that line, the one that clearly in defined to separate confidence and arrogance.

A bruising Ulster championship encounter might’ve pointed to a revised expectations, although McGuinness, Rory Gallagher and the Donegal panel never once smacked of being dismissive of Down in the build up.

Another reason to consider the glass half-full was the development of Donegal’s championship panel. Shoulders were shrugged when the same XV that had played in the All-Ireland final last September against Mayo were named to start against Tyrone in the Ulster championship opener.

Although, ultimately, that wasn’t the case come throw-in time, it was claimed Donegal’s unsuccessful league campaign had failed in its one objective - to unearth a player or two for championship.

However, the team that finished against Down contained six players - Ryan McHugh, Ross Wherity, Declan Walsh, Martin O’Reilly, Martin McElhinney and Dermot Molloy - who didn’t start in the All-Ireland final, while David Walsh was in at Breffni Park from the off before being replaced.

Therefore, Donegal’s championship panel is realistically 23 players, including substitute goalkeeper Michael Boyle, a man with considerable experience having made his championship debut eight seasons ago.

Donegal overcame a decent Down team without Karl Lacey and Neil Gallagher from the off and were missing Ryan Bradley and Frank McGlynn by the start of the second half.

In other words, Donegal were without the Footballer of the Year and an All-Star centre-fielder and then lost arguably the best player in last year’s Ulster championship and a Footballer of the Year nominee. And they still won.

McGuinness has frequently said that all he concentrates on is the next match. There’s no sound-bytes about claiming successive All-Ireland championships and only now, with Donegal in a third consecutive provincial final, is there talk about the Anglo-Celt.

Three years ago on the last weekend in June, Donegal had become the first team knocked out of the championship. Down, on the other hand, were progressing to the All-Ireland final.

Since then, McGuinness has won 10 Ulster championship matches in succession - an unprecedented feat for any manager in the province. Nobody should forget just how low Donegal were when he took over.

Of all the northern teams, Down have always been the most flamboyant and likeable. James McCartan has had to evolve after seeing that panel from 2010 decimated.

Only seven that lost to Cork in the All-Ireland final of three years ago played on Sunday. With Niall Moyna now on board, Down weren’t so stereotypical. When they won successive All-Ireland titles in the early 1960s they didn’t do it with two sweepers.

But they deserve credit for making a real contest of a match against a team that had hammered them by 11 points last season. The one thing every football manager strives for is improvement and McCartan can see that in the eyes of his players.

The new policy of containment over entertainment almost worked but those who said Down missed an opportunity as Donegal “were there for the taking” are taking an optimistic slant.

Down scored only three times from play and never got to within a point of Donegal. Had the free from Donal O’Hare, who was exceptional, gone over the bar instead of off the upright and into Eamon McGee’s hands with nine minutes left, it would’ve made for an interesting conclusion.

There are lots of critics seemingly intent on trying to find chinks in McGuinness’s armour. But, in a minefield province, Donegal are progressing. Has everyone forgotten it took 19 years to win Ulster after the 1992 All-Ireland? Now, 70 minutes might even be enough.

And if this year’s league positions are used as markers, Donegal have already knocked out two Division One sides - Tyrone finished second and Down eighth - so they’ve had to hit the ground running.

Cavan have toppled Armagh, who came sixth in Division Two and 14th in the country let’s say, as well as Fermanagh, third in Division Three, 19th overall, just to earn a pop at Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final.

Should Monaghan, 17th, beat Antrim, 23rd, and they take on Cavan, 21st, in for the right to face Donegal in Clones.

Compare this to Munster and Cork having to defeat Limerick and Clare (first and fourth in Division Four, so 25th and 28nd), Kerry getting past Tipperary and Waterford (27th and 30th).

In Connacht, Mayo have hammered Galway and Roscommon (fifth in Division Two and fourth in Division Three, 13th and 21st), while fifth in Division Four and 29th placed Leitrim’s path to a provincial final has seen them win against a New York team that don’t even take part in the Allianz League and London, who finished as the basement team in eighth place in Division Four, 32nd overall.

Whatever people say about Dublin, their passage isn’t as simplistic as many of the opponents. Jim Gavin’s team defeated Westmeath, the team who finished second in Division Two, 10th overall, to set up a provincial semi-final against Kildare, who finished fourth in Division One.

The other side of the draw in Leinster will see Meath, after wins over Longford, last in Division Two and 16th overall, and Wicklow, last in Division Three and 24th overall.

On Sunday, Meath play Wexford, whose sole outing in thus year’s championship was a win over Louth, who came fourth in Division Two and were 12th overall. For the record, Meath were second in Division Three (18th) and Wexford seventh in Division Two (15th).

Teams remaining in provincial championships

Team league position/ Average grade of team(s) beaten

Donegal, 7th/ 5th - (Tyrone 2nd and Down 8th)

Dublin, 1st/ 10th - Westmeath

Wexford, 15th/ 12th - Louth

Cavan, 21st/ 16½ - (Armagh 14th and Fermanagh 19th)

Mayo, 4th/ 17½ - (Galway 13th and Roscommon 21st)

Monaghan, 17th/ 19th - Antrim

Meath, 18th/ 20th - (Longford 16th and Wicklow 24th)

London, 32nd/ 22nd - Sligo

Kildare, 3rd/ 26th - Offaly

Cork, 5th/ 26½ - (Limerick 25th and Clare 28th)

Kerry, 6th/ 28½ - (Tipperary 27th and Waterford 30th)

Leitrim, 29th/ 32 - (New York n/a and London 32nd)

To suggest Donegal’s performance from Sunday wouldn’t have beaten Cork, Mayo, Kerry or Dublin is an unfair. To steal another McGuinness utterance, it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

Is it fair to ask if Cork would’ve beaten Donegal had they replicated their 1-20 to 1-11 win over Clare? Or when Mo Farah won the 5,000 and 10,000 metres at the Olympics was it suggested he didn’t run well enough to win the 400 metres?

No, it wasn’t. Donegal played and beat the situation they found themselves in, as they always do. They got over the line against Down and that’s all that counts.

Now, it’s over to Cavan and Monaghan and that’s all McGuinness is looking at for now. Will you believe him this time?