Donegal revival a lesson to the rest -- Kernan
DONEGAL's dramatic transformation since being thrashed by Armagh in last year's All-Ireland qualifiers should serve as a lesson to all counties that a change of attitude can overcome what might appear to be insurmountable difficulties.
That's according to Joe Kernan, an All-Ireland winner with Armagh in his first season as manager in 2002, who was stunned by the negative body language of the Donegal players during and after last year's qualifier tie in Crossmaglen, which they lost by nine points.
"They looked likes fellas who couldn't wait to get out of there. They had taken Down to extra-time in the Ulster championship a few weeks earlier so you'd expect them to be all fired up for the qualifiers but, instead, a lot of them looked as if they couldn't wait to be out of the championship," said Kernan.
"Armagh beat them by nine points and, in reality, it was a humiliation for Donegal. Fourteen months later, most of those lads are back as Ulster champions and in with a decent chance of reaching the All-Ireland final.
"It shows that if you do the right thing, you never know where it might take you."
Plotting Donegal's path towards doing 'the right thing' is new manager Jim McGuinness, who has set the team up in a way which has made them extremely difficult to beat.
"Donegal always had good very footballers who played off the cuff, but they didn't adapt to the modern game as quickly as others," Kernan added.
"You've got to work at this thing five or six days a week and obviously Jim has managed to get that mindset into the squad. They're working harder for each other than I've ever seen Donegal do before and he has them playing to a system which they obviously believe in.
"They were edgy in the first round against Antrim but have improved all the way since then. You can see their self-belief growing with every game."
It wasn't until Donegal beat Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final that they began to attract national attention and, since then, they have seen off Derry and Kildare.
Ultra-tight defensive security has been central to their progress, but Kernan believes that if they are to advance further, they will need to be a little more direct in their attacking approach.
"They're inclined to overdo the passing at times. I've seen them with two forwards inside, marked by two backs, but they don't always get quick ball," he said.
"Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden are two fine inside forwards who can thrive in that sort of one-on-one situation but they need quicker ball. The danger for Donegal is that moves will break down while they're trying to thread the ball through defences."
Now, they are moving onto another level against Dublin, who like Donegal, have also beaten Kildare and Tyrone this year.
Kernan was impressed by the manner in which Dublin broke from midfield and got quick deliveries into the full-forward line against Tyrone, in particular, but predicts that it won't be as easily achieved against Donegal, who have become experts at closing down opponents' attacking channels.
"That's why it's crucial for Dublin to remain patient. Donegal will frustrate them in a way they haven't come across yet, so Dublin need to be calm and measured," he said.
"I would also expect Dublin to get most of their scoring chances from the wings rather than down the centre.
"When you're moving ball at this Donegal defence, you'll get pushed out to the wings; that's where the openings will come, so Dublin will need to have their shooting boots on from the angles."
Kernan expects Dublin to eventually figure out the tough Donegal puzzle and book an All-Ireland final place for the first time in 16 years.
"There's a steely edge to Dublin this year which makes them that bit stronger. They will have learned from their experiences over the last few years. I feel that sooner or later Donegal will have to push up a bit and Dublin will hit them on the break.
"They have been going well in that area this year and while Donegal are brilliant at holding their lines, the openings have to come some time."
While Kernan expects Dublin to win a close contest, he believes that Donegal's progress this year has set a great example for counties who believe that they underachieved this year.
"There's no great secret to what Donegal have done. They put in a good manager who has organised them very well and who has got the players working extremely hard as individuals and as a unit.
"Put Donegal's natural flair on top of that and you have rapid progress. It's a formula other counties should be looking at. Who would have said this time last year that Donegal would be one win away from the All-Ireland final now?"