Sport Gaelic Football

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Today's football championship preview

Ulster SFC PrelimInary Round

(extra-time if necessary)

Donegal v Antrim

Ballybofey, 3.30

Both of these counties had poor championships last year but in the meantime Donegal's mood has been lifted by a regime change and winning Division 2 of the league. Antrim, who had a marginally better summer in 2010 simply by managing to draw one match, have spent the spring struggling with injuries and form. After a couple of promising promotions, they are now headed back in the other direction and will play Division 3 football next year.

Some of their injuries have healed but the McGourtys are both absent, with CJ a long-term casualty following a recent hip operation. Michael McCann is included after recovering fitness, although he is short of match practice and while named in the middle of the field he could see action at the edge of the square. Antrim include four players making their championship baptisms with one of those, Ricky Johnston, given the number 3 shirt. This places him in the presence of Donegal's most influential player, Michael Murphy, although Murphy spent much of his time in the league final out the field.

Jim McGuinness has developed a reputation for tactical preoccupation which suggests that there could be a whole new bag of tricks in store today. But the primary principle of a large army of players tracking back will probably stay much the same. How Antrim deal with that, what kind of counter-tactic they employ to handle the crowding which frustrated Laois in the league final, remains to be seen. That's right, it may not be pretty.

Two years ago, Donegal's notoriously unstable championship behaviour was demonstrated when Antrim travelled to Ballybofey and won. Antrim were well beaten by Donegal in the recent league campaign but they should present a tougher examination today. The goalkeeper Seán O'Neill is one of the newcomers included by Liam Bradley, with the wing-forwards, Conor Murray and Mark Sweeney, completing the set.

Donegal haven't won their opening match in the Ulster championship since 2007. They started well last year against Down, with Dermot Molloy adapting immediately to an elevation in rank, but Down came back to beat them and in the qualifiers Armagh won with shocking ease and convenience. That malleability is being eradicated by McGuinness and his backroom team and on the field they have a work ethic which is new to Donegal and their more mellow instincts.

In terms of the results so far, it reflects well on the sideline even if it displeases the aesthetes. Ulster, however, is no place for squeamish aesthetes.

The debutant Johnston is said to have had an encouraging time on Murphy in the league tie but the big man is a hard one to subdue on a day like this and Molloy and Colm McFadden have also been posing scoring threats. Donegal will look down the long road out of an Ulster preliminary round and see that they might have the legs for it.

They are capable of defeating Antrim and will not be afraid of Cavan, who await the winners. A win over Cavan would open up a semi-final encounter with Monaghan or Tyrone. With two matches in the bag, they'd feel they have every chance.

But that is assuming they negotiate this hurdle first. And McGuinness is slowly building a Donegal which assumes little and consumes even less.

Donegal (probable): P Durcan; K Lacey, N McGee, P McGrath; F McGlynn, A Thompson, M McElhinney; R Kavanagh, K Rafferty; M McHugh, D Molloy, A Hanlon; R Bradley, M Murphy, C McFadden.

Antrim: S O'Neill; K O'Boyle, R Johnston, C Brady; T Scullion, J Crozier, A Healy; M McCann, A Gallagher; C Murray, T McCann, M Sweeney; P Cunningham, B Herron, K Niblock.

Referee: M Deegan (Laois)

Verdict: Donegal

-- Dermot Crowe

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