Tuesday 12 November 2019

Comment: Donegal have rich potential but punishing schedule hardly a reward for new Ulster champions


Michael Murphy is congratulated by Donegal fans after the Ulster SFC final victory. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Murphy is congratulated by Donegal fans after the Ulster SFC final victory. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Donegal's reward for the most convincing Ulster title success, as far as attacking statistics are concerned? The hardest possible route to an All-Ireland semi-final there is.

Confirmation that Donegal, as Ulster champions, will play Dublin in the first round of the All-Ireland quarter-final series in Croke Park, and that they will follow up with an away game against Roscommon or the qualifier team that beats them, came yesterday.

Donegal will not have a home match, in Ballybofey, until the third round, the August Bank Holiday weekend, August 4/5.

By then they may well be out of contention. Given the way the third-round qualifier draw fell yesterday morning, keeping the three Division 1 teams, Mayo, Monaghan and Tyrone, apart and thus increasing their prospects of progression to the fourth round, the prospects of one of that trio meeting Roscommon is strong.

What odds then of Donegal coming off the back of a potential loss to Dublin in Croke Park on the opening weekend and thriving in Castlebar against Mayo, in Clones against Monaghan or Omagh against Tyrone. Roscommon in Dr Hyde Park would pose equally taxing problems.

The luck of the draw perhaps but a terrible stroke of luck at that and a decision that shouldn't be left to fortune at all.

The reward for each of the provincial champions, if the provincial championships are to have any elevated status beyond direct passage to the 'Super 8s', should be a home match first up. And at the very least a home match second, if the four Croke Park games are tied to the first weekend.

That would provide Dublin with their opening two games in Croke Park but Galway and Kerry both find themselves on the road on the second weekend too, against provincial finalists or the fourth-round qualifiers which again potentially puts them in the line of fire of Mayo, Monaghan or Tyrone away.

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But having Dublin first up in Croke Park crystallises Donegal's predicament that bit more.

They've come a long way since their 15-point defeat to Galway in last year's fourth-round qualifier which came so soon after an equally numbing Ulster championship exit to Tyrone.

In between, there were struggles with Longford and Meath that reflected the deepening malaise.

When they lost their Division 1 status it represented a further blow. The performances against Kerry, Galway and Dublin in defeat and their final-day draw against Mayo gave hope but losses to Monaghan and Tyrone, their chief Ulster rivals, left a nagging doubt that Donegal had it in them to recover this year. But they have done just that spectacularly.

Avoiding Tyrone and Monaghan helped but in amassing 8-76 in four games, an average of 2-19 or 25 points per game they have eclipsed Tyrone's 3-60 or 1-20 (23 points) average return per game.

That's a marked rise on their returns in either 2015 or 2016 when they last reached provincial deciders, losing both, but in each year they had to negotiate Monaghan and Tyrone.

Donegal are routinely being mentioned as potential challengers to Dublin, based on this Ulster championship, but that's a leap too far.

They have made improvements. Eoghan Bán Gallagher has developed into one of the most penetrating runners from deep positions in the game while Ryan McHugh's form has been resurgent after a relatively quiet 2017 championship.

Fermanagh simply had no answer to him on Sunday, deploying three players on him at different times as he operated in that twilight zone between half-back and half-forward.

Michael Murphy's deployment through that midfield/centre-forward channel had been developing for some time but now the argument that Murphy has a role to play in the full-forward line has been blunted by his impact and necessity to be where he is stationed now. Shaun Patton's emergence as first-choice goalkeeper prompted Peter Boyle's departure during the league but Patton's kick-outs have gone furthest to fill the void left by Paul Durcan.

They also lost Eoin McHugh and Michael Carroll, now both playing in the US, while Jason McGee and Niall O'Donnell committed to the U-20s but the availability of all four in the future indicates the potential Donegal have to quickly put themselves back in that top-four bracket that they slipped out of in recent seasons.

For now, though, they have the trickiest draw to negotiate, just to stay alive in the competition.

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