To have any chance of rattling the champions, Downcannot afford to play this game on Donegal's terms
Down can make things interesting if they stick to their own game plan, writes Colm O'Rourke
This game between Donegal and Down does not seem to hold the whiff of danger that was promised in the match between Donegal and Tyrone but at least it is two sides who operated in the league's top division, even if both headed south at the end of the campaign.
Both teams of course had very different attitudes to the league. James McCartan would love to have stayed up. The real business of football is in Division 1 and a team with aspirations of winning a provincial title, never mind the All-Ireland, needs to be playing against the top teams.
Jim McGuinness, on the other hand, seemed to shrug his shoulders and say 'c'est la vie', such is life. He then got on with mowing the long grass that Tyrone were hiding in. McGuinness made no bones about the fact that the championship was the only thing of interest and when you are All-Ireland champions you can get away with that. Down and James McCartan have no such luxury.
When these sides met in the league, Donegal won by five points. In last year's championship, Donegal humiliated Down by 2-18 to 0-13, and it was that game that really advertised the fact that Donegal were capable of running up a big score. It was the first real sign of Donegal Mark II, with a greater emphasis on attack. The building blocks of defending were still in place but backs now began to move forward with much greater intent and demonstrated an ability to score that I did not think existed. Donegal showed that day that they had several different ways to skin the cat.
Donegal also demonstrated against Tyrone that the defensive spider's web is in working order. And the goals also arrived at exactly the right time too, even if they gave a slightly false impression at the end.
What is clear from that game and almost every other one that Donegal are involved in is that they are almost unbeatable if they are in front heading into the last quarter. The opposite is of course also true: a team can only beat Donegal by leading with 15 minutes to go. It is then that a proper match will take place as Donegal will have to attack more which will leave the odd hole at the back for a counter-attack. The number of teams capable of that can be counted on one hand – and that is after cutting off a few fingers.
Down tried to employ a more modern form of defence against Derry with a sweeper in front of Eoin Bradley. The best that could be said for it was that it was a miserable failure. James McCartan felt it worked a lot better in the second half but my impression was that the ball rarely came in and Bradley started to move outfield. The danger passed, more through the work of Kalum King, Kevin McKernan and Mark Poland far upfield than good defensive play. If Brendan McArdle at full-back for Down does his impression of a little boy lost today the Donegal full-forward line of Paddy McBrearty, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden will make hay, even if it is raining. And it will be with goals.
So Down must get their defence right before they can contemplate playing football and that might mean eight or nine defenders most of the time, three midfielders and three forwards. It will put a lot of pressure on Donal O'Hare and John Laverty to score and Poland to create the openings as he did so well against Derry.
The big concern for Laverty is his physique up against the McGee brothers. In fact, no mother should allow their sons take on these Donegal defenders unless they can run faster than them, hit harder, jump higher and have a very high pain threshold. In other words, a marine, and most of those can't play football.
The expression 'in harm's way' springs to mind here. It is attributed to Admiral John Paul Jones who was trying to get a ship off the French to fight the British in 1776. He told them, "I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast as I intend to go in harm's way". More recently, there was a film of that name starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. The Down forwards could do with John Wayne today to protect them when they go in harm's way as forwards over the last year may have survived the ordeal but have lost all the battles.
Having said that, the loss of Karl Lacey and Neil Gallagher is significant. Donegal may give the impression that all the moving parts of their team are completely interchangeable and that the collective overrides all individuals. It may be true in general but Gallagher and Lacey are two of their top five players from last year. They are not replaceable in the same way even if Lacey played only a bit part in beating Tyrone.
The modus operandi for Donegal will be the same as always. The process of wearing the opposition down physically and mentally starts at the first whistle and against good teams can take up until the last quarter. It is the exercise of superior willpower. After that it is a mopping-up operation.
What seems to happen is that a lot of teams who play Donegal appear to think they are playing against a cult programmed to do
the same thing over and over again until the opposition wilt. It suits Donegal perfectly if this view is abroad in opposition dressing rooms as it underestimates the footballing ability of many of the Donegal players. Ultimately, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy too. People think that eventually Donegal are going to overpower them and so it happens.
Some day the strongest link of any team becomes their weakest. Down cannot afford to play the match on Donegal's terms or they have no chance of winning. That sounds very simple, but what it means is a number of iron laws. The first thing is to avoid, where possible, physical contact. Keep the ball moving and certainly don't bring the ball into the tackle as it is Donegal's greatest strength. Keep even more men back than Donegal, be in front at half-time and don't give away a goal. Easy in theory.
It reminds me of the coach who had all the moves written in chalk on the board for his team to digest and he asked one player to come up and explain a certain move. The player came up and promptly rubbed out everything. "What was that?" asked the coach. "The opposition," replied the player. A lot of what is talked about never happens but good players who are mentally tough make it up as they go along.
The Donegal players do that very well. The test for Down is to hang in long enough to start making Donegal feel uncomfortable. That has not happened for two years so Down need Brendan McKernan and Kalum King to dominate the middle and starve the Donegal forwards of possession. Possible but unlikely.
It looks more like another Ulster final for Donegal and to make three in a row would be a massive achievement in itself.