Donegal manager Declan Bonner has faith in squad
Donegal, the newly crowned Ulster champions, face a tough opener to the new Super 8 Football Championship when they take on the reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin in Croke Park on Saturday evening. (Throw-in 7 pm)
It may be a tough challenge but it is one Donegal manager, Declan Bonner, and his players are relishing after showing the rest of Ulster a clean pair of heels following big wins over Cavan, Derry, Down and Fermanagh.
Derry, in the quarter-final, got the closest to Bonner’s new look side with six points between the sides at the finish. Donegal had already put Cavan to the sword in the preliminary round by eight points.
And they followed up the win over Derry with a ten point hammering of Down and they had 12 points to spare at the end of their dismissal of Fermanagh in the Ulster final.
“Back at the start of the season, we wanted the Ulster Championship and we wanted to reach the Super 8s,” said Donegal manager Declan Bonner at Monday afternoon’s Press briefing in the Villa Rose Hotel, Ballybofey.
“We achieved the Ulster Championship, but right away the focus started on the Super 8s and it’s Dublin first. There’s no bigger task, but it’s a challenge we’re looking forward to.
“It will be a big test. Dublin are the benchmark. They have been the top team for the last few years since 2014.
“Dublin have set the benchmark and it’s at a very high level now. Jim Gavin has done a brilliant job with Dublin. They are well organised. The guys that come off the bench all make an impact.
“They actually normally finish stronger in the last quarter and they have a lot of experience coming off the bench. They are formidable opposition, they haven’t won the last three All-Irelands by being an average team. They’re actually one of the top teams that ever played gaelic football.”
Dublin have been the top team in the country for the last three years and are chasing a fourth All-Ireland crown in-a-row. They crusied through Leinster to claim an eighth provincial crown in-a-row with an 18 point win over Laois, from Division Four of the Allianz League, in the final.
They also recorded a 23 winning margin over Wicklow, also from Division Four, in the quarter-final and they also proved too strong for Longford in the semi-final and were 19 points ahead of the Shannonsiders when it was all over. Longford finished in third place in Division Three behind Fermanagh and Armagh.
Donegal go into the tie without their ace marksman and top scorer in the championship, Patrick McBrearty, which is seen as a body blow to Donegal and their prospects for 2018.
The Kilcar sharpshooter was Donegal’s leading scorer in the Ulster Championship. In four games he kicked 0-19, the bulk of them from play. He was forced out of the final against Fermanagh early in the second half.
“He’s one of the top forwards in the country so it’s a huge blow, there’s no doubt about it,” admitted the Donegal boss.
“We knew fairly early, on the Monday after the Ulster final, that Patrick was gone. It’s a huge blow for Patrick and a huge blow for the whole squad. But someone will have to step in. It’s big boots to fill, no doubt, but someone else will get a chance.”
The Donegal boss is happy that he has the depth in his squad to fill the vacancy being left by McBrearty, who was having a good season and was already being touted as a possible All-Star.
“We are happy with the squad of players that we have and quite happy with the players that will step up. There will be changes no doubt; probably from the Ulster final even, that’ll step in and do a job for us on Saturday night.
“Those guys are doing it night-in night-out at training and there’s a very competitive edge there at the minute. It’s not just about the 15, it’s those six guys that have to deliver a performance in that last quarter or that last 25 or 30 minutes.
Daire O Baoill replaced McBrearty in the Ulster final when he limped out of the game. It seemed a strange replacement at the time as O Baoill is more recognised as a defender.
O Baoill’s club colleague Cian Mulligan, who has become something of a super sub, is also an option. Mulligan, who is blessed with lightning pace, hit the net against both Cavan and Derry when sprung in the second half.
Odhran MacNiallais, another of the Gaoth Dobhair men in the squad,is also another option believed to being considered by management.
Bonner confirmed at Monday’s press briefing he had made a decision on who was going to fill the vacant slot. But he was keeping it to himself.
However, he did insist that he had belief in his squad and faith in his players.
“To me any of the players in our squad are well capable of changing matches when they come off the bench. You have to have belief in those players, and I have. Anyone in that squad I know can go out and deliver a performance.”
Other than McBrearty, the Donegal boss has reported a fully fit squad with long term injured Martin McElhinney, Marty O’Reilly, Nathan Mullins and Kieran Gillespie all back in training and in the frame for Saturday evening’s showdown.
Three time All-Star full-back Neil McGee is also back in the frame for selection having missed the Ulster final win over Fermanagh, serving a one match following his straight red card against Down in the semi-final.