Dick Clerkin: 'Donegal show they have the three key elements required to challenge Dubs'
If you are a pundit that ever said Michael Murphy was overrated, a career change should be a strong consideration.
Before throw-in, all the talk around Ballybofey was about the return of Diarmuid Connolly to the Dublin camp. At the final whistle, the Glenswilly colossus was all that anyone was talking about, such was the influence he had on yesterday's entertaining Super 8s encounter with Meath.
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Having both played against and watched Murphy since he first arrived on the scene in 2008, I can scarcely remember a better performance. For a half an hour after yesterday's hard-fought victory over Meath, in baking heat, he signed autographs and posed for photos with wide-eyed youngsters. He even sponsored Donegal's match-day mascot, young Thomas Gallagher. If Carlsberg did Sundays and all that…
After Galway hammered them by 15 points two years ago in a Round 4 qualifier game, having been roundly beaten by Tyrone in Ulster, it was difficult to see Donegal rising to be All-Ireland contenders again in the near future.
With only three survivors from their 2012 All-Ireland-winning team in their starting line-up yesterday, that Donegal are front-line contenders to Dublin's crown is a testament to the ongoing development work there. Murphy, however, continues to be the pivotal glue that binds everyone together, as the old have gradually made way for the new in the passing years.
Along with Murphy, Stephen Rochford's positive influence is telling in any conversation I have with those close to the Donegal set-up. There is a freshness and energy in their play this year that often follows the introduction of a new voice in the dressing room, as Rochford complements the home-grown passion of Declan Bonner and Karl Lacey.
All that aside, are Donegal genuine contenders this year? That is the only question that anyone really cares about at this stage. In short, yes. To beat Dublin, there are three non-negotiable elements that any realistic challenger is going to need in their locker. A reliable and accurate goalkeeper, a physical middle third, and at least three out-and-out scoring forwards. Donegal, arguably more so than the other contenders, tick all of these boxes.
Not for the first time this summer, they dominated contested kick-outs around the middle third yesterday. The towering McFadden, Murphy, McGee and Langan won't be out-fetched, and with Patton's ability to drop the ball into their fingers from 60 yards, they can rest assured they won't be outplayed in this sector by too many. Patton's telepathy with Murphy has to be witnessed in the flesh to be believed.
The speed and accuracy with which Patton launched Donegal counter-attacks is as good anything I have seen in the game. Their long kick-out over the top is a tactic that they deployed with devastating effect in their 2014 defeat of Dublin when they shocked the GAA world.
Going into yesterday's game, Andy McEntee would have identified its threat. The pace and coordination at which it is executed in real time, however, makes it so difficult to defend against.
McBrearty's 24th-minute goal, was a case in point. With a veritable chasm in the standard of kick-outs between Patton and Meath's Andrew Colgan, McEntee was always fighting to keep his team in contention.
Up front, McBrearty, celebrated his 100th appearance for Donegal with a performance that in normal circumstances would have secured him the crystal. Along with Ryan McHugh, he caused an otherwise stubborn Meath defence no end of trouble. Jamie Brennan was kept quiet by his own high standards by the excellent Seamus Lavin, but still finished with two points and was a handful for the tenacious Dunboyne defender throughout.
Donegal's All-Ireland credentials will ultimately rest on whether they can keep their key outfield men fit during the busy schedule ahead. The continued fitness and form of Murphy, McHugh, McBrearty and Brennan is pivotal to their challenge, as the supporting cast and bench, while solid in many respects, do not have the same star quality or big-game experience the aforementioned players possess.
For Meath's part, they can be very satisfied with their opening Super 8s outing, at a venue few teams have prospered in over recent years. Their honesty of effort was a throwback to Meath days of old, and will hearten their growing support.
Experience, however, can't be fast-tracked, and Andy McEntee will have to simply take the harsh learnings from yesterday's game on the chin, and try and work the further improvements needed into his team one big game at a time.
Donegal might have survived a scare yesterday, but they still won the game by ten points. After the first round of results, along with Tyrone and Kerry, it is a strong likelihood that they will go on to join Dublin as the four All-Ireland semi-finalists. A mouth-watering prospect whatever the permutations.