Colm O'Rourke: Derry have the legs to run neighbours into meltdown
With careers on the line, Donegal will hope today turns into a dogfight
The GAA did not get the lift-off from last week's televised game it was hoping for. The black card, or lack of it, dominated debate so it was just as well the second half between Tyrone and Down turned into a great contest.
It was nearly even more important that the result did not go against Tyrone or Mickey Harte would have blown a head gasket altogether. Yes, he had a point about the referee, but his defence, or lack of it, should have been a more pressing concern.
There is another heavyweight collision in Ulster today. True, the gloss has gone off Donegal, but whether it is a little or a lot remains to be seen. I wrote them off as serious contenders before their Allianz League final defeat by Monaghan because it is nearly two years since Donegal have put the fear of God into teams and since then the fear shadow has progressively shortened.
What I mean by that is teams get a reputation based on their play which gives them an advantage and the fear of being dominated by Donegal physically and mentally becomes a self-fulfilling thing. Until of course someone beats them, and since Clones last year when Monaghan dismantled Donegal, there has been a change of attitude in those playing them.
Yet that should not take away from what Donegal managed. They won an All-Ireland the hard way and that will stand the test of time no matter how much they have slipped. As you get older, you cease to be fascinated by changes of style or overly impressed by management because the game moves on. Nobody will ever crack it completely and what Jim McGuinness achieved should be set in that context. I always thought he became a bit paranoid in some of his public utterances after that big win but the achievement and the manner of it was enormous. Whether it was pleasing on the eye or how some of the issues around the team were handled is an entirely different argument.
It appears from some reports that Donegal have been away in camp and will unveil a new team plan today. Much more likely will be that that this will be like Henry Ford's original cars – you could have them in any colour you liked so long as it was black. Donegal are similar. The basic building blocks of their game will remain the same. That starts in defence, which has creaked for the last year and let in goals galore.
Donegal's whole system of collective defending has effectively broken down and the result is that teams are now running up big scores on them. Where the ball was once being delayed out the field teams are now able to attack them at pace before the cavalry has time to get back in numbers. I think they need more than a training camp to correct that failing because part of the problem is that the legs don't carry them to where they want to go as quickly as before.
Now they have injuries and a suspension. Rory Kavanagh pays a heavy price for his red card in the league final and misses the game. Neil Gallagher is carrying an injury and while I was not a big fan initially I changed my mind and saw how important he was in that All-Ireland success. With Karl Lacey also struggling and Mark McHugh gone, it means Donegal are much less formidable.
If you want to add to that then Colm McFadden is in decline and Michael Murphy has gone back a lot. The captain also seems to be operating on a short fuse too so the future is not bright for Donegal, especially as no new star has emerged.
That may appear to be a complete dismissal of Donegal but there is nothing worse than a sting from a dying wasp. Pride and loyalty as much as fitness or technique play a huge part in a team which has been together on a journey like Donegal's. Many saw the bad days, then looked down from the mountain top to well appreciate the difference between the two.
If Derry are to win today, they will have to outpace Donegal. The speed gene has gone from Donegal so players like Seán Leo McGoldrick, Enda Lynn and Gerard O'Kane need to run at Donegal from all angles. If Derry start running around and handpassing in circles 40 metres out then Donegal have them on a leash. Derry's forwards have to take on their men they get possession and this is where the McGee brothers are vulnerable. They must also break the code on Paul Durcan's kick-outs, he is very accurate and if the Derry forwards switch off, he will find his man. He is probably the second best behind Stephen Cluxton at ensuring his team holds on to the ball from his kick-out. Mark Lynch faces a big test today. Johnny Cooper from Dublin did a number on him in the league final and he hardly got a kick. There is a view that if someone marks him tightly and belts forward at every opportunity that he becomes a peripheral figure. Today is his greatest test of leadership and if he is not up to it after a great league (up to the final) then Derry will not win.
This is not a very good Derry team by any standards and they are not as good as they looked against Mayo in the league semi-final but probably not as bad as they looked when Dublin blitzed them early in the final. What they have in their favour is home advantage which was valuable during the league and they have more pace than Donegal. Donegal will hope that they can do what all good corner-backs of the past were experts at: slowing a man down to their pace. If it becomes a bit of a dogfight then Donegal have a better track record in that regard.
The sands of time are beginning to run out on Donegal and the McGuinness style of total management control with lives put on hold is usually only a short-term thing. Having gone away to teach old dogs new tricks, Donegal must win today or there is a danger of meltdown. There are too many older players on this team who would find life on the road through the qualifiers a real turn-off. So there are careers as well as a match at stake today.
Derry are younger and improving, the opposite of Donegal in the life cycle of a team. I don't think Derry will win either Ulster or the All-Ireland but even if I don't have huge confidence in them, I still feel Donegal have run their course.
Sunday Indo Sport