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Can Donegal avoid opening-day blip?

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Neil McGee, Donegal, and Stephen O'Neill, Tyrone, tussle off the ball. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Tyrone v Donegal, Healy Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Neil McGee, Donegal, and Stephen O'Neill, Tyrone, tussle off the ball. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Tyrone v Donegal, Healy Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Matthew Donnelly, Tyrone, in dispute with Paul Durcan and Eamonn McGee, Donegal. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Tyrone v Donegal, Healy Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Matthew Donnelly, Tyrone, in dispute with Paul Durcan and Eamonn McGee, Donegal. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Tyrone v Donegal, Healy Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

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Neil McGee, Donegal, and Stephen O'Neill, Tyrone, tussle off the ball. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Tyrone v Donegal, Healy Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

WE'LL start with a positive portent for Donegal as they prepare for Sunday's Red Hand invasion of Ballybofey; it's a full seven years since the owners of Sam Maguire opened their All-Ireland defence with day-one provincial disaster.

A less-welcome augury for Jim McGuinness & Co; just twice in the 'back door' era have defending champions been ambushed at the first hurdle, but on each occasion, it happened in Ulster.

Curve Ball has taken you on this statistical detour purely because there is so much talk about Sunday's collision of northern heavyweights.

In the green-and-yellow corner stand the Invincibles of 2012; in the red-and-white corner you have the revitalised league finalists from Tyrone. Here is the classic example of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object ... except we're not entirely sure which is which.

What is certain – barring the obligatory deadlock – is that one will be licking its wounds and qualifier-bound by Sunday evening. Ergo, back to our stat-attack examination to see if the holders of Sam tend to explode from the blocks or simply implode.

Here is our six-step guide to what we discovered ...

1 The last six champions have all hit the ground running in defence of Sam – Dublin last year against Louth, Cork in 2011 against Clare and Kerry in 2010 against Tipperary all recorded double-digit wins over unfancied opposition; Tyrone edged past Armagh by a goal in 2009; whereas Kerry crushed Clare '08 and Waterford in '07.

2 Bucking the above trend were a much-vaunted Ulster duo. It happened, famously, back in May 2003 when a Monaghan team caused tremors far beyond Clones with a 0-13 to 0-9 win over Armagh. History repeated itself in '06 when Tyrone were unceremoniously dumped by Derry, 1-8 to 0-5, having failed to even score during a surreal first half, in front of their own Healy Park faithful.

3 Obviously much depends on the draw – and the further south you go, the seemingly easier it gets to avoid the dreaded ambush. It would have beggared belief to see Kerry toppled by Tipperary (on three occasions), Clare or Waterford.

Likewise, it would have stretched credulity to envisage Louth dethroning Dublin last June.

But up north, the early competition tends to be more intense and the ambush threshold considerably lower ... Armagh have already discovered this to their cost in Cavan last weekend, so what odds a Tyrone triumph on enemy soil this Sunday?

(Editor: Not very long, actually, just a trifling 13/8).

4 Falling at the first fence is not, necessarily, evidence that the end is nigh. Armagh recovered from that Farney filleting in '03, taking the scenic route to September where they lost narrowly to Tyrone in the final. By stark contrast, Tyrone's difficulties against Derry in '06 hinted at a team starting to run on empty and, by July 8, they were already gone, banished from the 'back door' by Laois. That remains the only occasion in the qualifier era where holders have failed to make it to the August Bank Holiday weekend – aka the last-eight stage.

5 All of which leads neatly to our overall assessment of defending champions. It's a well-worn cliche that since 1990, only one team has completed back-to-back triumphs, namely Kerry in 2007. Here's a breakdown of how the remaining 11 holders since 2001 have handled the mantle/millstone: three beaten finalists (Armagh '03, Kerry '05, '08), three semi-finalists (Kerry '01, Tyrone '09, Dublin '12), four quarter-finalists (Galway '02, Tyrone '04, Kerry '10, Cork '11) and one vanquished second round qualifier (Tyrone '06).

6 Here's the rub. Defending champions are rarely vulnerable against rank outsiders (Armagh against Monaghan being the '03 exception to prove the rule), but when the real challenge comes, that's when they historically tend to buckle. Tyrone are no callow underdog; ergo Donegal could be in grave peril if their stellar standards of 2012 drop at all.

Can't wait? Me neither ...


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