Ciarán Whelan: 'If they push up on the Mayo kick-out Donegal could gain a winning foothold in the contest'
What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago this weekend a Dublin team – aka ‘The Startled Earwigs’ – were ruthlessly annihilated by Kerry in an All-Ireland SFC quarter-final.
The Kingdom won 1-24 to 1-7, 17 points clear in a game that was over as a contest nearly as soon as it had started as Kerry burst out of the blocks at breakneck speed.
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Fast forward ten years and the current Dublin team are three games, but in reality two victories, away from immortality.
In Omagh on Sunday, I expect a good tussle – just not one between Dublin or Tyrone’s ‘A’ selections.
I think Jim Gavin will rest the likes of Stephen Cluxton, Brian Fenton, Con O’Callaghan, Paul Mannion and Jack McCaffrey and possibly Jonny Cooper too. However, the Na Fianna man did have to endure a long injury-enforced absence so may benefit from the game.
We could see the return of Diarmuid Connolly in a forward division including Cormac Costello, Paddy Small and Bernard Brogan.
Likewise, I see Mickey Harte leaving off some of his front-liners, especially Peter Harte, who is only one black card away from a one-match suspension.
With both counties already through to the semi-finals, I think the pitfalls and dangers of injury, fatigue or suspension totally outweigh any positives that could be gained by victory in Omagh.
However, the match of the weekend takes place tomorrow night in MacHale Park, Castlebar. It promises to be a belter and I hope for the sake of the Super 8s that it is.
I expect Donegal to edge Mayo out narrowly, but growing speculation that Paddy McBrearty is injured and could be ruled out gives the hosts a better chance, even if Mayo’s record in Castlebar is not the greatest.
For me, Donegal can be trusted more to deliver in such a high-stakes encounter, while Mayo’s form is up and down and they have failed to deliver a consistent level of performance this summer – in fact throughout the season.
I don’t subscribe to the theory that with all their injuries at the time, and because of the hectic scheduling of games, they effectively conceded defeat to Kerry in Killarney once their hosts got on top of them.
I thought it highlighted one of the key differences between some of the top counties - the speed with which their goalkeepers can restart.
It could be crucial again in Castlebar tomorrow night as Shaun Patton’s kick-outs are quick, accurate and varied while David Clarke’s can be slow and have too much ‘hang time’ on them.
Clarke is an excellent shot-stopper and strong in the air, but Donegal may attempt to repeat the strategy that Kerry adopted for their clash with James Horan’s men in Killarney, and they have the players to mirror it.
In the likes of Michael Murphy, Jason McGee, Michael Langan, Ciarán Thompson and even Ryan McHugh on the move, they have targets for ‘keeper Patton to hit with his radar accuracy. But also, as importantly, if they push up on the Mayo kick-out, as Kerry did to such destructive effect, they could gain a winning foothold in the contest.
For Mayo, who have been curtailed by injury all summer, it is now or never and their backs are really to the wall. But at the same time, they are just 70-plus minutes from an All-Ireland semi-final.
However, they must get their match-ups spot on and I think Horan might be considering a surprise move.
It is generally expected that Aidan O’Shea will be given Greco-Roman wrestling duties on Michael Murphy, but I think Horan may opt to give the man-marking job to Lee Keegan.
While Keegan has not looked 100 per cent fit recently, the two-week break will have done him the world of good and he seldom lets his county down on the big occasion.
In fact it seems to bring out the best in him and he’ll relish the idea of curtailing the influence of Donegal’s leader, Murphy.
Murphy is Donegal’s on-field manager and general. It is him who controls their tempo and changes of strategy.
That said, I don’t agree with the conclusion of Meath selector Colm Nally who said after Donegal’s victory over the Royal County: “He (Murphy) is just an outstanding player. If you took him out of the game the result would probably be reversed. I won’t call them a one-man team but he is the closest I have seen to it.”
For me there is an awful lot more to this Donegal side than Michael Murphy and all over the park they have ambitious, intelligent footballers who are very comfortable in possession and can play the game at tempo in accordance with a variety of different game-plans.
It is true that stopping Murphy is one of, if not the, toughest jobs in Gaelic football at the moment - but Keegan has the physical strength, footballing ability and divilness to give the job a right cut.
The potential match-ups are intriguing and that’s why Mayo will have to have all their big guns blazing, especially players who have been inconsistent or absent through injury recently - Patrick Durcan especially.
If Keegan is given duties on Murphy, who will mark Ryan McHugh, the catalyst for so much of Donegal’s attacking game?
McHugh needs to be tracked the length and breadth of MacHale Park. Dublin’s Eoin Murchan reduced the Kilcar man’s influence last summer, but I don’t know if Mayo have someone capable of performing a similar job and that could ultimately tip the game Donegal’s way.
However, to conclude on this game, I feel that Mayo cede periods of dominance to opposition and have not found a level of consistency this summer that suggests they have the game to take out a Donegal side that will be buoyed by their display against Kerry, especially having dealt with the absence of three defenders so impressively.
BENCH PRESS: Jack McCaffrey could be rested on Sunday along with Stephen Cluxton, Brian Fenton and Con O’Callaghan
MAIN MAN: Michael Murphy is Donegal’s on-field manager