| 12.3°C Dublin

The one-game championship?


30 June 2012; Anthony Thompson, Donegal, in action against Matthew Donnelly, Tyrone. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final, Tyrone v Donegal, St Tiernach's Park, Clones, Co. Monaghan. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

30 June 2012; Anthony Thompson, Donegal, in action against Matthew Donnelly, Tyrone. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final, Tyrone v Donegal, St Tiernach's Park, Clones, Co. Monaghan. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE


30 June 2012; Anthony Thompson, Donegal, in action against Matthew Donnelly, Tyrone. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final, Tyrone v Donegal, St Tiernach's Park, Clones, Co. Monaghan. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Late last January, with the temperature dial hovering around freezing point, Jim McGuinness took his seat beside his assistant Rory Gallagher in the stands of the Athletic Grounds in Armagh and began to run the rule over the day's events.

Monaghan and Down met in the first of the McKenna Cup semi-finals, but the real object of their interest was surely the second semi-final between Tyrone and Fermanagh.

McGuinness was on his way back to work in Glasgow later that evening via Belfast, but swooping into Armagh on the way was still an imperative for him.

An opportunity to watch Tyrone in the flesh was one to be seized upon.

Winning an All-Ireland and second Ulster title and then a prestigious career move to Celtic, where his skills in player development and mental coaching could be put to good use, clearly hadn't diluted his thirst for knowledge and reconnaissance on prospective opponents.

Hence every opportunity he has got to watch them in action first hand he has used, as recently as their league final defeat to Dublin.

Life had not yet returned to normal for many in Donegal when the bobbing balls in the drum dictated the shape their defence of the Ulster and All-Ireland titles would take.

Out on only the second championship weekend, Donegal knew they would have to hit the ground running and peak for that date. Everything would be geared around it.

Thus, the meeting of the north's protagonists is the Ulster final in all but name.

The province prides itself on the competitiveness of its flagship championship, but, for 2013, it looks like everything has again been distilled down to one game.

It stands to reason. Donegal have played eight games to win the last two Ulster championships. In six of the eight games, the winning margin has been six points or more. In the two semi-finals against Tyrone, it has been three and two points respectively.

So Donegal-Tyrone has been the only game that has really mattered in Ulster over the last two seasons.

McGuinness has had a propensity for looking at the bigger picture over the first two seasons of his stewardship – it's been a project, a process, a four-year plan.

Only this year has any punctuation been introduced with a full stop firmly inked after Tyrone and May 26. It's hard to remember a match that has been up in lights in the province for so long.

Their are parallels with the classic 1994 Ulster quarter-final between Derry and Down, in that the venue Celtic Park, like MacCumhaill Park in this case, had been an issue beforehand and Derry, like Donegal now, were All-Ireland champions facing one of their recent predecessors in their opening match.

Any observation of their season or Donegal's defence has rarely failed to name check the date or the opponents in their opening encounter.

When they lost to Mayo in their second last league match in Castlebar on March 24, McGuinness revealed how the squad would take a week's break and then "press the button" for championship training.

It didn't matter that relegation still stalked them. They were looking beyond that, McGuinness' way of ventilating their total focus on May 26.


They trained three times the week of the Dublin match as planned. Colm McFadden came off with cramp, a consequence of the schedule, and Donegal were relegated.

But, drawing on the same psychology you might associate with Padraig Harrington, McGuinness maintained dropping down a division could inadvertently work better for them.

For some reason the depth of Donegal's squad is much more of an issue than it was in 2012. Even McGuinness himself has acknowledged its limitations as part of a trade-off for indifferent league results.

They used 27 players in the league but really that figure is 20 and, of those, only Ryan McHugh and, to a lesser extent Ross Wherity, are really sustainable for the championship.

The importance of Karl Lacey, David Walsh and Christy Toye all returning to full fitness can't be overstated.

They are no more vulnerable to injury than they were last year, but then they got quite lucky with Michael Murphy missing the Cavan and Derry games, Eamonn McGee out for the Cavan game and Neil Gallagher sitting out the Ulster final against Down. Outside that Donegal essentially had a full squad to choose from.

Can they really step their way successfully through the minefield of tears, strains and inflammations again this summer?

The other challenging question is how much they can extract from Colm McFadden, Neil Gallagher, Frank McGlynn and even Lacey, who fulfilled their potential to the maximum in 2012. Can they, as individuals, reach any further?

That really is the burning question.

The other searching question falls to Mickey Harte. He doesn't tend to personalise these things, not publicly at least, but losing three successive Ulster championship matches to McGuinness' Donegal outfit is not something he would ever care to have to enter on his stellar CV.

His spring makeover has been impressive. Without winning the trophy, Tyrone got as much out of the league as they could have hoped for.

The contrast to McGuinness and Donegal in approach to the competition could not be any greater.

Sean Cavanagh was resurgent, hitting 0-23, nine from frees between midfield and centre forward and he's worth the two-point gap alone that divided them in Clones last year.

Playmaking roles for Matthew and Mark Donnelly have also worked out well.

The disappointing aspect for Harte is the pace of progression, after serious injury, of Ronan O'Neill and Kyle Coney. Their talent is not in question, but their readiness for this Ulster championship is.

Like last year the Ulster draw looks heavily weighted to one side. Derry, many people's idea of a bolter in the province after winning the Division 2 league title and Down, the great enigma, meet in the other quarter-final presenting an opening for at least three of the other five on the 'lighter' side of the draw.

Right now it looks like Monaghan's to seize. In a similar shaped draw last year they were slightly unlucky not to advance to an Ulster final after losing a healthy lead to Down.

But they have made improvements under Malachy O'Rourke, the development of Owen Duffy and Kieran Hughes in attack helping to share responsibility for so long the burden of Paul Finlay and Tommy Freeman and more recently Conor McManus.

Monaghan are an experienced, hardened championship team best placed to reach a final. The trouble is, no one else will respect that rite of passage.

Peter Canavan admits to being more comfortable in his second year as an inter-county manager and has placed a heavy emphasis with Fermanagh on defence, while Cavan, for all their possible team variations, will miss the huge influence of Gearoid McKiernan.

Antrim look to have fallen off the back of what has been a tightly bunched peloton in recent years however.

Armagh will see opportunity, too, and, with Jamie Clarke hitting three goals in a challenge on his return from his travels, they have every right to expect more games in this Ulster championship than any other since they won the title in 2008. Will it be two or three wins for them however?

Winning a third successive Ulster title would place this Donegal in illustrious company – Armagh (2004-06), Down (1959-61) and Cavan (1947-49) being the last three teams to achieve it.

It's a shot at history they might not miss.

Irish Independent