Even at the height of the Jim McGuinness era did Donegal ever go into an Ulster final as such hot favourites. Personally I am never much bothered with what the bookies or the experts say — they get it wrong just as often as they get it right.
It is not beyond Fermanagh to surprise Donegal. Rory Gallagher and his players did their homework for the game against Armagh, who were, after last year’s Qualifier performances, expected to build on that success. Fermanagh went on to give an outstanding display and shocked Monaghan, who would have been everyone’s favourite after their defeat of Tyrone in Omagh.
It has often happened in the past where the underdogs get that extra push and using all the tools they have in their possession they get under the skin of the opposition; they slow the game down, contest every free, they go after every tackle as it is their last.
They go into the game under no pressure, no expectations — only the ones they place on themselves.
Declan Bonner, his management team and the Donegal players will know rightly what is at stake. Regardless if they have coasted through the Ulster championship this year and have rarely been under any pressure, they win next Sunday all history will tell us that in the year of 2018, Donegal were Ulster champions.
The entire squad will also know the consequences of not doing the business on Sunday and that is, with the greatest respect to the Fermanagh management and their players and supporters, it is Donegal’s to lose.
Donegal will, I have no doubt, go after Fermanagh from the throw-in. They will go for the jugular straight away, sowing the seed of doubt and dictating the pace and intensity of the game. They will look for some early scores to settle themselves down and if a 50 per cent chance of a goal comes their way they will be told to attack it with all the aggression that is required.
Dublin’s victory over Longford showed everyone that they have no hesitation in playing to the final whistle and having no sympathy for anyone; there is a ruthless streak about them. Donegal have showed that sort of ruthlessness in the games against Cavan, Derry and Down. They need to continue that next Sunday.
Make no mistake, regardless of who gets the best start, Fermanagh will come to play for the entire 70 plus minutes. If they concede early they will be tutored to keep going, continue with their game plan, which is to defend in numbers, frustrate the opposition and hit them on the break, use their entire squad and give it their best.
Against Monaghan, who many might suggest were not at their best, but were they allowed to be at their best? Fermanagh looked to get a few scores early on and make the opposition come out from their defensive set up. If they can get 11 or 12 scores they can make it hard for the opposition. Like it or not, the majority of the teams in the country in both football and hurling adopt the same strategy, including Dublin and Kerry.
Many will suggest that Donegal have not been tested but they can only play what’s put in front of them. They have, since the National League, developed a very attack based game plan. Yes, they cover back in numbers when they lose possession but when they go forward, it is with power and pace. They support in numbers and have definitely the players to make things happen and take plenty of scores.
Patience and discipline will be crucial early on, making sure not to get involved in any off-the-ball stuff that could lead to a sending off or an early booking for one of the defenders. That lifts the opposition and puts Donegal under increased pressure.
Regardless of how well Donegal have played in the previous games and how much they have scored will have no bearing come Sunday. Donegal know that Rory Gallagher knows both their strengths and weaknesses as players, but he will also know the hunger and desire that is in every one one of those same Donegal players. He, too, is faced with trying to stop the threat of Michael Murphy, probably the most outstanding player in this year’s Ulster championship; Paddy McBrearty, who is capable of putting up some big numbers and considering Donegal have had multiple scores in all their games this year, Fermanagh will know it’s not just about stopping two or three players on the Donegal side.
Like most, I expect Donegal to win, but they won’t have it handed to them. Fermanagh will make it hard for them; they will close down the spaces and tackle for their lives. But if Donegal can get a few scores ahead, Fermanagh will have to come out of their shell and that will suit Donegal. If Donegal get a run on Fermanagh and considering the form and the free scoring that they have shown in the previous games I think the Fermanagh defence will struggle to contain Donegal; it will be good for the Anglo Celt to be back in the Hills.
Interesting points made last week where the crowds attending the Ulster championship are well down from previous years. There has been a lot of criticism levelled at the cost of tickets and the charging for U-16s. It always amazes me that while we shout mighty loud about our games being amateur, we don’t mind charging the same prices to attend games as professional sports.