Saturday 25 May 2019

Colm O'Rourke: Donegal throwing off shackles in title march

Michael Murphy, Odhrán Mac Niallais (pictured), Frank McGlynn and Paddy McBrearty are playing as well if not better than ever. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Murphy, Odhrán Mac Niallais (pictured), Frank McGlynn and Paddy McBrearty are playing as well if not better than ever. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

If Thursday was the longest day of the year then this afternoon for Fermanagh and Laois is likely to be long, hot and uncomfortable.

In Fermanagh's case it will be all hands to the pumps as they try to repel what is likely to be waves of attacks from Donegal, who I expect to go for the jugular straight from the throw-in. The manner of Monaghan's defeat is the best possible warning to Donegal. Fermanagh will set up as normal, a 14-1 formation which will retreat en masse and attack with a few up at the most.

The object of the exercise is to win. The aesthetics of football do not matter. Victory is all that counts; if they achieve that goal, it will be beautiful in their eyes; did anyone in Fermanagh object to their style when they beat Monaghan with that last-minute goal? The pitch invasion afterwards was not one of dissatisfied supporters.

Legislators have failed to save football as football, but that is for another day. Smaller counties cannot play on the same terms as others, so I do feel criticism should be tempered somewhat. If Fermanagh dig out a one-point win today in a low-scoring dog of a match then the scenes will be of utter joy, with not one second's thought as to how many hand-passes were involved.

Rory Gallagher has made Fermanagh a mirror image of what Donegal were like when he was the big boss there. It did not take much changing as Fermanagh had embarked on the ultra-defensive mode a long time ago. It has served them well in relative terms and the real sign it is working is reflected in their presence, most of the time, in Division 2 of the Allianz League. That is their glass ceiling. They can fairly well hold their own there but any higher and they would be murdered by the top teams.

Donegal are on the way to being one of those big teams. Declan Bonner has changed his side for the better in that he identified the strengths of youth and re-energised the old guard. Michael Murphy, Odhrán Mac Niallais, Frank McGlynn and Paddy McBrearty are playing as well as, if not better than, ever. Perhaps it is not the case but it looks as if Bonner decided that any more of this ultra-defensive football would only sour his experienced players and the way to reinvigorate them was to set them free. As a result they are playing schoolyard football, a far less inhibited style than they have been restricted to for many years.

It often happens too that a few young players give a lift to older players, not the other way round. The younger player lifts the team by deeds, by words, by their innocent imagination of what is possible. So long, of course, as they are not total plonkers!

I have often thrown a young man into a team as I knew that the wiser heads would have to lift their game and mind him. So Donegal have Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Caolan Ward, Ciaran Thompson and Jamie Brennan to lead rather than follow. Very few other counties have young players of such calibre. They also have Ryan McHugh, who can fit into either the country and western camp or the disco dancing scene. He is a great player with a big engine.

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It is hard to see Fermanagh being able to resist for the 80 or so minutes that will be played this afternoon. Certainly Che Cullen and James McMahon will put their bodies on the line and will run into a lot of Donegal forwards, but after Conall Jones and Eoin Donnelly they are getting a bit thin on talent. The blues brothers in the shape of the Quigleys will pack a punch - and new Donegal have a weakness at the back - but they won't get much, if any, direct ball. The Fermanagh style will not be able to exploit that.

This is a final between a young Goliath and a Fermanagh side who landed the big punch on Monaghan, but maybe people have forgotten that they also beat Armagh fair and square. Maybe Donegal have lulled me into a false sense of security but they look to be a team of today, tomorrow and will be even better next year.

This final looks a mismatch in terms of quality. Fermanagh will try to disrupt Donegal from their new free-flowing game. It may even work for a while, but I will be surprised if they can keep it up in the heat of Clones. Fermanagh need to get in front early and make it a low-scoring, ugly match and hope that Donegal get totally frustrated. A clear-cut win for Donegal is the most likely outcome.

It is hardly likely to be much different in Croke Park. The only betting is on how much Dublin win by. Under or over 15 points is the only show in town. Old men with very grey hair remember when there was a Leinster championship. That was then and this is now. Just as well that the Dubs' support is holding up - nearly 40,000 for the semi-final. Of course there was a big crowd from Carlow in particular, and Longford and Laois also brought numbers but without Dublin the Leinster Council would be in rag order financially. This does not mean much to most supporters, yet smaller crowds following Dublin would lead to fewer coaches in every county. So the Dubs are the Bank of Leinster, hopefully more AIB than Bear Stearns or Anglo.

So today Laois are trying to drive across Mount Everest in a Trabant, the most popular car in the former East Germany - although not one to impress a girl on a first date. Anyway, Laois are on a damage limitation exercise and a good performance could still leave them in with a big shout of getting to the Super 8. Not all the teams coming through the back door are going to be Division 1 sides so Laois should be looking on the bright side of life.

The glass for them is half full in that regard and their camp exudes a sense of calm which was probably last seen when Mick O'Dwyer was around, although it did not last too long then. A great survivor of that era is Ross Munnelly. His left foot still kicks points but the Dublin backs do not respect age or years of service. He is in for a difficult afternoon.

In the semi-final win over Carlow, who refused to play until it was well over, Laois lost their captain Stephen Attride to injury. In the Bible, John 15:13, it is said that no greater love can a man have than to lay down his life for his friends. Attride took that a bit too literally against Carlow when he cut out a very dangerous attack at the end, put his head in the way of harm and ended up with two fractures of his skull.

Strangely enough, he is not playing today; I thought it would take a bit more than that to keep him out! Anyway those friends are now being tested. John O'Loughlin will relish the fight, so will Colm Begley and the Kingstons, but this is a very limited Laois team who plied their trade in Division 4 this year.

Manager John Sugrue, a Kerryman, is credited with building a very solid foundation, with promotion in the league and now a Leinster final appearance. Sugrue has done it in a very quiet way too and the attention has focused on his team, not on the manager. He obviously did not get the disease of ego which afflicts some of his managerial colleagues. There are a good few around who should get a sign on their backs which reads, 'Look at me'.

Neither has Jim Gavin succumbed to self-importance, even if he seems to be speaking more than normal and did not mention the "process" at all recently. This could be the start of the revolution and Gavin could be ready to cut loose and tell us what he really thinks. He always gives the impression that he feels that those of us in the fourth estate give protection to a right crowd of eejits. Perhaps he is right.

Problems galore arise for the Dubs. Who to pick, who to leave off. Cian O'Sullivan is back, so too Jack McCaffrey, and Bernard Brogan is back in training. Even the Pope himself could not organise a miracle to get himself back as quick as this from a cruciate injury. It shows just how much it means to these players as they feel the hand of history. Strangely they have talked about the Super 8 from early in the year. This was unusual as they never get ahead of themselves; in this case it is understandable as they keep beating teams who bear a striking resemblance to Junior B club sides.

Eventually things will change; some will even live to see it, but at the moment Dublin have bigger fish to fry. Today is a small step forward. Dublin will not operate on cruise control as players who start and finish will keep the pedal down. Hopefully Laois will salvage pride and give themselves something to aim for after getting a bite from the big dog. Dublin to win easily, and if Laois can keep it under 10 points they can justifiably claim credit - something all other teams in Leinster are very short of.

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