Too many pitfalls for a successful Donegal defence
Published 16/05/2015 | 01:00
Never before has a draw highlighted the imbalance of the provincial championships quite like the roll of the balls for Ulster last October.
Traditionally the most combative, the most competitive, of the provinces, the 'lower half' is even more concentrated, stacked with five teams that could rightfully consider themselves to be 'top 12' or, at the outside, 'top 14' teams in the game.
For defending champions Donegal reclaiming their title has the capacity to feel like death by a thousand cuts.
Around every corner there is a potential ambush awaiting them. To even get to the same stage as Kerry or Cork they must beat Tyrone and Armagh.
Yet ask any of the protagonists involved and they, quite probably, wouldn't change a thing. This will be a provincial championship worth its weight or gold.
If you are Donegal or Tyrone at the very foot of the mountain, the scale of the climb is steeper than ever, but the rewards at the summit are arguably more rewarding than ever too.
When Donegal won a third Ulster title last July, Jim McGuinness declared it as their best ever win because of the manner in which their character was questioned in the aftermath of their 2013 implosion against Mayo in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
But there is no doubt that to defend this title successfully now would supplant that achievement and quite possibly would rank as the hardest-won Ulster Championship of all, eclipsing their 2012 success and Armagh's 2005 title.
That so few of the team opted to retire reflects a team still with targets to reach. Rory Kavanagh retired, Leo McLoone opted out and Dermot Molloy followed, but the commitment of Colm McFadden, Frank McGlynn, Christy Toye and Neil Gallagher was telling.
Clearly, the Ulster draw didn't put them off. On the contrary, they might just see it as their greatest challenge.
Under Rory Gallagher, Donegal may be a little less structured and a little more impulsive. But not much. The fundamentals put in place by McGuinness are solid and obviously very successful.
Not surprisingly, Patrick McBrearty has prospered under the new management and is now clearly established as chief wing commander to Michael Murphy in attack. His scoring returns spiked considerably throughout the National League.
Arguably the most defining games in the Ulster Championship will play out over the first two weekends of action. Logic is that Donegal will retain Tyrone in the headlock they have had them in since 2011, a status very much re-affirmed in their league encounter in Ballybofey at the end of March.
Yet the logic of Tyrone's fall from Division 1 doesn't add up. They imploded against their two biggest Ulster rivals, Monaghan and Donegal, yet held the last two All-Ireland champions, Dublin and Kerry, to draws, Dublin requiring a late goal to avoid a rare Croke Park defeat.
As Gallagher pointed out last week, they took four points from the other 2014 All-Ireland semi-finalists, Donegal managed just one, against Mayo. That clearly implies that Tyrone are nowhere near as bad as those two performances suggested.
Their concern is the fitness of Sean Cavanagh, who continues to provide such a leadership role for them. Doubts remain as to whether they are equipped with the collective physical strength and game-plan to take down Donegal in Ballybofey.
But they have plenty going for them, the return and form of Cathal McCarron, the versatility of Mattie Donnelly and the availability again of the likes of Justin and Joe McMahon and Conor Clarke who have the dimensions required for what Ballybofey requires.
Still, this Donegal team have mastered the art of long-term planning for games like this.
If Monaghan survive Kingspan Breffni Park a week later, their current favouritism will seem wholly justified.
Like Tyrone, they had a couple of bad days against Mayo and Dublin in the league, but victory away to Donegal by 0-9 to 1-4 underlined how well they are equipped with different game-plans to meet different needs.
Colin Walshe is expected back over the summer and Conor McManus is continuing to progress even into his late 20s.
Cavan's problems are obvious, just one goal in seven league matches and just two in their last 13 in League and Championship. It's a distinct lack of cutting edge that is hampering more sustained progress.
Their cause has not been helped by the unavailability of Eugene Keating, while former captain Alan Clarke and David Givney have also departed.
Last year's championship campaign was most disappointing, culminating in a heavy defeat to Roscommon and the suspicion is that they remain stuck in neutral.
Armagh are well-placed to make further progress in the province, their fast counter-attacking game being fine-tuned impressively during the league. Any analysis of their championship performances last summer has them in the slipstream of the top four.
A probable Athletic Grounds quarter-final date with Donegal has the potential to showcase the best and worst of Ulster football, but it's a battle they can win.
The transformation in Down is best gauged by a comparison with the 2010 All-Ireland final and their recent Division 2 final, when only Kevin McKernan duplicated across both starting teams.
Mark Poland would have doubled that figure, but for freak incident just before throw-in when a ball struck him in the face.
The exodus has been quite rapid, though. There is still the possibility of Martin Clarke rejoining the squad at some stage and they would benefit from his direction, however fleeting it might be.
Derry appear to lack sufficient firepower to mount a sustained challenge beyond a potential home win over Down.
Fermanagh have made sustained progress in Peter McGrath's second year and look to have jumped ahead of Antrim.
The attrition and potential for injuries that four games have surely makes the defence of their title too difficult for the champions.
Monaghan and Armagh look most likely to exploit any slip-ups.