McGee ban sets new poser over McManus threat
Rory Gallagher should turn to Karl Lacey as the man to shackle Conor McManus in Saturday's Ulster semi-final in Kingspan Breffni Park.
That's according to former Donegal All-Ireland winner Tony Boyle, who believes that in the absence of the suspended Neil McGee, Lacey is best equipped to curb Monaghan's top attacker.
"Obviously, it depends on Karl being fully fit and things are kept so tight in the camp up here that you never quite know what's going on. But if he's right, he's the man I would put on McManus," said Boyle.
McGee has been handed a two-match suspension by the Central Hearings Committee after being sent off against Fermanagh in the quarter-final and while he has the option of appealing, his prospects of getting a reprieve appear slim.
His offence against Fermanagh would normally merit a one-match ban but a second game was added as he was previously suspended after an incident in this year's Allianz League tie with Kerry.
McGee and McManus have waged intensely private wars in the last three Ulster finals but now Gallagher must plan a new strategy in an attempt to counter the Monaghan captain.
Lacey has been troubled with a calf injury for the last few months and missed the win over Fermanagh but Boyle believes that if fully recovered, he should be matched directly against McManus.
"Karl is one of the best man-markers in the game when asked to do that job. He'd go about marking McManus in a different way to Neil.
"That would be interesting and would pose a new type of challenge for McManus who, in fairness, is one of the top forwards in the game," said Boyle.
It's 2-1 in Monaghan's favour in their successive Ulster final clashes with Donegal over the last three seasons and while it scarcely makes them a bogey team, Boyle believes that their style has been a significant factor.
"Monaghan are the one Ulster team that Donegal have found very hard to handle.
"Malachy O'Rourke has them playing a very physical game - they match Donegal on that front any day and after winning two of the last three Ulster finals, they would feel they have the measure of Donegal.
"Teams can get a run on each other for no real reason. In my days, we always felt we could handle Derry, who were strong at the time but we found Down hard to beat. Yet, Derry felt they could handle Down. It was a sort of triangle between us.
"Donegal have done very well against Tyrone over the last few years but have found Monaghan a much different proposition. Having said that, we definitely left last year's Ulster final behind us. A lot of chances were missed, yet Monaghan only won by a point. The Donegal lads will feel they owe Monaghan one after that," said Boyle.
Donegal are attempting to reach the Ulster final for a sixth successive year, a feat not achieved by any county since Down played in every final between 1958 and 1969.
And while that highlights Donegal's resilience, it also raises the question of how long more can they remain so consistent.
Seventeen wins from 19 Ulster games since the start of the 2011 season is a remarkably high yield but, as Mayo discovered last Saturday, the landscape can change dramatically when least expected.
"That's always an issue for a team that has been doing well for a long time. You can never be sure before a big game whether the same hunger is there. It's only when the going gets really tough that you find out.
"We've seen nothing to suggest that the appetite isn't as strong as ever in Donegal but you never know. If they didn't have so many injury niggles, I would be a lot more confident. And losing Neil (McGee) is a big loss.
"He has always been a real warrior, the sort of man you want to have alongside you, especially against a team like Monaghan," said Boyle.
While league performances may appear irrelevant at this time of year, Boyle has concerns over what happened in the final round of Division 1 games in April when Monaghan beat Donegal by a point.
Donegal led by 1-4 to 0-0 in the first half but were reeled in and eventually beaten, a result which saved Monaghan from relegation.
"It would have been good for Donegal to win that one and relegate Monaghan. As it is, Monaghan will feel that even if they fall behind, they can come back and win."
The league game was in Castleblayney, while the last three Ulster finals were in Clones, all home venues for Monaghan.
"I actually think that's an important factor and that playing in Cavan will help Donegal. It's not that they haven't done well in Clones but it's still Monaghan's home ground.
"From a psychological viewpoint, they won't be as comfortable in Cavan as they would have been in Clones," said Boyle.
He believes that a good start is vital as once the game settles into a slog - as happens so often in Donegal v Monaghan ties - winning from behind will be very difficult.
"It takes an awful lot of energy to pull back a three- or four-point lead. It's easier to defend it," he said.
The last three Donegal-Monaghan clashes produced only one goal, while Monaghan's 0-11 last year was the lowest score to win an Ulster final since Derry's 1-7 beat Donegal in 1998.
"I doubt very much if it will be high-scoring this time either," added Boyle.
"We can expect another tough, hard game all the way through but if Donegal start well, I still think they have enough in them to win. This is still a very driven group of players."