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Ulster aces must take next step up

Donegal need to put recent shortcomings behind them if they are to seriously challenge Dublin

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Donegal captain Michael Murphy

Donegal captain Michael Murphy

Donegal captain Michael Murphy

Three case studies that make you wonder if Donegal are the real deal or the great pretenders …

1: The 2018 Super 8s finale in Ballybofey: after Paddy McGrath lands a 54th minute point, Donegal lead Tyrone by 1-11 to 0-10. They have one foot in the All-Ireland semi-finals.

2: The first round of this year's Allianz Football League: the death throes of stoppage-time in Ballybofey and Donegal lead Mayo by three points. It should be even more, but a win is a win.

3: Round three of the league, against Galway in Letterkenny: Ryan McHugh has released Ciaran Thompson who roofs a spectacular goal to leave the hosts 2-5 to 0-4 ahead after 42 minutes. All but over.

Here's what actually happened …

1: Mickey Harte's bench blitzes Donegal, who are outscored 2-7 to 0-2 down the home straight, turning a four-point deficit into a seven-point Tyrone win.

2: Mayo work one final chance through the centre before James Durcan pulls the trigger and his deflected shot flies to the top corner. Frustrating stalemate snatched from the jaws of victory.

3: Just ten minutes after Donegal lead by seven, Galway are level - all thanks to a brace of softly conceded goals converted by two roaming corner-backs. And by the final whistle, Galway have edged a one-point triumph.

Haunt

This Saturday evening, Donegal return to the familiar haunt of Croke Park. The last team to scuttle Dublin in summer combat - that famous ambush of 2014 - have lost six and drawn one of their subsequent seven meetings.

Worse again, even if Dublin remain the elusive benchmark, they aren't the reason why these eye-catching back-to-back Ulster champions have failed to reach the last two All-Ireland semi-finals.

Each time they blew it on the last day of the Super 8s - more specifically in the last quarter against Tyrone. It was a slightly different story last August in Castlebar, where the visitors were overwhelmed physically, if not on the scoreboard, by Mayo. All of which begs the question: is there something holding back Declan Bonner's gifted collective from maximising their potential?

"We have a few players who can operate at a really high level," says Brendan Devenney, the former Donegal forward turned pundit. He identifies six in that bracket: goalkeeper Shaun Patton, Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Ryan McHugh, Paddy McBrearty, Jamie Brennan and, of course, Michael Murphy.

"So, we're kind of blessed ... once those guys get into a danger zone, they can make something happen."

Only trouble is, the opposition have found it too easy, at times, to make things happen at the other end.

There are several mitigating factors, according to Devenney. Injuries to key personnel have weakened Bonner's hand in the last two summers - he lost McBrearty at the business end of 2018, and Gallagher last July.

He also cites the knee injury travails of Kieran Gillespie - "the real deal, the lad has everything" - who could have resolved the centre-back trouble spot.

Meanwhile, for the early league rounds, Bonner has been without two of his best man-markers in Stephen McMenamin and Paddy McGrath.

Devenney is still far happier watching his county now compared to what he describes as "the dark days of Rory Gallagher where there was no Plan B at all other than sit and try and defend, and hit on the counter-attack."

"Bonner came in and if you remember the first game, Donegal against Kerry in the (2018) league, it was 2-18 to 3-14. And I was like 'Wow!'

"Every manager," he expands, "has to know how to play both games. And for Declan Bonner, along with opening up, he had to get his defence right."

However, this task has been rendered more difficult by Donegal's failure to "replace the heroes" of 2012, he argues, alluding to the "teak tough" defensive structure of the Jim McGuinness era, embracing not just sweepers but defenders who could all man-mark too.

Problem

"That's where part of the problem is for Donegal now. And I think a lot of counties have the same (problem). We seem to be unearthing forward talent and it's all on the exciting side of the game."

He cites last year's Super 8s thriller against Kerry, finishing 1-20 apiece, as a game that "tells you everything about Donegal at the minute. I mean, they can hit 1-20 against the second-best team in Ireland and can put on a brilliant game, but they're going to concede a lot."

While the short-term challenge for Donegal is a fascinating showdown with a familiar Dublin foe under new management, the longer-term challenge is this: after two years of Ulster domination, can they crash through the glass ceiling of the Super 8s?

"If you look at Tyrone or Monaghan, defensively they look like they're a wee bit more able to shut out teams than we are. But what they lose, going forward, is what we have," says Devenney, who now hosts the 'DL Debate' podcast on HighlandRadio.com.

Striking the right balance is key.

"If you look at how well Monaghan set up, particularly in the first half, against Dublin, if we could get that into our game I think we're right up there. But I just can't see us ever being that tight.

"Can they get to a semi? I think Kerry have probably got a bit better. The Dubs are the Dubs. After that, you've a wee bit of a chasing pack. It's hard to pick between Monaghan, Donegal, Tyrone and Galway."

Crucial to their prospects, of course, will be avoiding injury. To one player more than any other.

"Every time Donegal need a lift or need a bit of magic, Murphy's there. What a player. What a leader," Devenney enthuses.

"People say to me he's the best player playing for Donegal ever. I say if you cut him in half, he would be number one and two. He's so far ahead, it's just unbelievable."


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