Tuesday 17 September 2019

Ciarán Whelan: 'Donegal have the skills to make a big bid for Sam Maguire'

Read Ciarán Whelan every week in The Herald

Michael Murphy of Donegal celebrates after the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship semi-final match between Donegal and Tyrone at Kingspan Breffni Park in Cavan. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Michael Murphy of Donegal celebrates after the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship semi-final match between Donegal and Tyrone at Kingspan Breffni Park in Cavan. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Ciarán Whelan

While the football championship has failed to spark to life in Leinster and Munster, Ulster has provided the greatest talking points. It was the same last weekend with Donegal emerging as genuine All-Ireland contenders.

I’ll qualify that by saying that if supporters think the game is moving totally away from the days of the blanket defence, I’d urge caution.

Obviously spectators prefer man-on-man, lovely open football played with an adventurous spirit, but Championship football is all about winning and teams will implement very defensive strategies if that is what they think gives them the best chance of staying in games for as long as possible, with the hope of striking late-on for victory.

Anyway, I would have ranked Donegal in the top four or five prior to the Championship commencing, but I’d revise that now and promote them in that list following their two games so far this summer.

When Declan Bonner took over as manager at the start of last year he was chiefly intent on changing the style of play that was ingrained in that squad from their years under the tutelage of Jimmy McGuinness and Rory Gallagher.

That was not an easy task, but over time he has blended his squad into a very potent, dynamic unit. He had to reset their minds and develop a more attacking style of play.

In the 2018 League they were relegated from Division 1 after collecting only three points, a win over bottom of the table Kildare and a draw with Mayo in their final game. They conceded nine goals in their seven games and scored six.

The pace of life in Division 2 was possibly the right thing at the right time for this squad of players as Bonner, along with his back-room set-up which includes Karl Lacey and former Mayo manager Stephen Rochford, could remould their team.

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Lacey was a brilliant footballer for Donegal and showed the footballing intelligence to move from a more man-marking corner-back role to eventually a playmaker’s role under McGuinness, while Rochford has a fantastic reputation as a coach dating back to his All-Ireland club success with Galway’s Corofin in 2015.

It’s a strong management/coaching ticket whose skill sets and expertise probably complement each other.

Donegal advanced to this year’s Division 2 final and after a shaky start against Meath, pushed on to victory - learning lessons along the way.

Since then they have illustrated their flexibility with wins over Fermanagh and Tyrone. In these games they have illustrated their ability to win in different fashions, with specific game-plans for the challenge in front of them - a key ingredient of a successful team.

The clash with the Ernesiders was of the arm wrestle variety in which they had to show plenty of patience to eventually break down a stubborn, packed defence.

Against Tyrone they were able to showcase more of their footballing ability and were more clear-cut victors than the final scoreline of 1-16 to 0-15 suggests.

In many ways it illustrated that they are well down the road of merging the McGuinness/Gallagher strategies with those of the current management team.

Donegal showed great tactical awareness on the pitch and made Mickey Harte’s Tyrone look naïve.

Hugh McFadden dropping back to sit in front of the D negated Tyrone’s long-ball tactic they had utilised effectively at times, none more so than against Dublin in Croke Park during this year’s League. The shape in defence then allowed them to spring forward and move in waves with Eoghan Bán Gallagher - what an exciting player he is - and the likes of Ryan McHugh to carve openings in the Tyrone rearguard for others to exploit.

The fact that 11 different players have scored from play for Donegal in this year’s Ulster Championship tells you plenty about their ability and flexibility of roles and positions.

Donegal have the right sort of mix and age profile to go a very long way this summer. They have experience in the guise of Neil McGee, Ryan McHugh, Frank McGlynn, Paddy McGrath, Leo McLoone, Paddy McBrearty and the Godfather and guiding hand of the team, Michael Murphy, along with the talent that has emerged in recent seasons like Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Jamie Brennan, Jason McGee, Michael Langan and Oisín Gallen.

They also have a goalkeeper in Shaun Patton whose trajectory and at times cushioned-weight on his kick-outs are a dream for his own midfielders. Patton will guarantee them a lot of possession in games and with the attacking game, energy and dynamism they possess, they will have opposition management teams up till all hours studying DVDs to try to find weaknesses in their game.

That said, Tyrone were one-dimensional and naïve. The early black card shown to their most creative influence, Peter Harte, was obviously a huge blow and they will need to improve massively to have a say at the business end this summer. Mickey Harte now faces one of the biggest tests of his management.

This weekend the footballers of Galway and Roscommon take centre-stage in the Connacht final in Pearse Stadium, Salthill.

The conditions in Salthill will be a factor here and you only have to look back at the recent Leinster SHC duel between the hosts and Wexford to see the influence the setting can have on games.

Galway have kept a low profile this year while all the talk has been about Roscommon following their shock victory over Mayo.

That was a great victory for the Rossies, but Mayo shot an alarming number of wides - something I don’t see this Galway team doing on Sunday.

Roscommon have added an extra physical edge to their defensive game under manager Anthony Cunningham and have the forward line to cause Galway problems. However, I expect the home side to advance and take their place in the Super 8s.

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