Donegal must restore defensive lockdown to beat Derry – Boyle
The difficult circumstances in which Jim McGuinness finds himself for Sunday's Ulster quarter-final clash with Derry at Celtic Park may leave him with no option but to return to the ultra-defensive model which launched Donegal as such a compelling force three years ago.
That's according to Tony Boyle, one of Donegal's best ever forwards and an All-Ireland winner in 1992.
After conceding a record low average of 8.8 points in six championship games in 2011, Donegal evolved their game into a more attack-based system in the following season and were rewarded with an Ulster and All-Ireland double.
They maintained that approach last year but while they surrendered both titles, background difficulties were blamed for the decline.
Those consisted mainly of injuries to such important figures as Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher, Anthony Thompson, Mark McHugh, Neil McGee and David Walsh, which restricted their training at various stages.
Injuries aren't as prevalent this year, although Gallagher remains a doubt for Sunday due to an ankle injury. And with his midfielder partner Rory Kavanagh missing the game through suspension and McHugh gone from the panel, McGuinness may be forced to return to basics in an attempt to chisel a way through to the Ulster semi-final.
"Losing Rory to suspension is a disaster," Boyle said. "He's been having a great season and would have a massive presence. If big Neil is out too, it puts real pressure on Donegal around the middle of the field, especially since McHugh isn't around.
"He's one of the best in the country at picking up loose ball and using it well."
Derry's strength around midfield adds to Donegal's dilemma, which may tempt McGuinness to return to a defensive lockdown. "It wouldn't surprise me to see Donegal working off the tight defensive game of a few years ago, even if that means conceding primary possession to Derry around the middle of the field," Boyle added.
"Jim is a great man for coming up with plans and schemes, but he might go for a tried and trusted one on Sunday because this is a massive game for Donegal.
"With due respect to Antrim and Fermanagh, you would expect Sunday's winners to beat them in the semi-final. Once you get to the Ulster final, you are guaranteed to be in the last 12 in the All-Ireland championship, which is lot different to facing into the first round of the qualifiers."
An emerging Derry might find the back-door campaign less arduous than the vastly more seasoned Donegal squad, who are used to the more direct route, having played only one qualifier game in the last three seasons.
After being demolished by Mayo in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final, a first-round Ulster defeat might hasten Donegal's unravelling, while a win could re-energise them into a real All-Ireland force.
Derry's heavy defeat by Dublin in the National League (Division 1) final was generally regarded as a damaging psychological blow after an excellent campaign, but Boyle believes the books have been balanced by subsequent events.
"Donegal did very well in Division 2 and once promotion was earned, it didn't matter how they fared in the final against Monaghan. The big thing was to avoid injury but then they had Rory (Kavanagh) sent off. On top of that, Mark (McHugh) left the panel after that, so whatever psychological edge Donegal might have had over Derry is gone now," said Boyle.
He regards Mark Lynch as one of the Derrymen who must be curbed if Donegal are to make progress and recommends that Eamonn McGee be assigned to mark him in the same way as Dublin despatched Jonny Cooper to shadow the Derry captain in the league final.
"Eamonn did a great job on Sean Cavanagh in the first round of the Ulster championship last year. He could be the man to track Lynch in much the same way.
"It's crucial for Donegal to keep Derry's score as low as possible – that's why going back to swarm defence could be the right move for this game, at least. I'm sure Jim will have considered it."
Donegal find themselves in the unusual position (in recent years at any rate) of being outsiders in an Ulster championship clash as uncertainty abounds as to their true status at present.
McGuinness has lost influential sidekick Rory Gallagher and the versatile McHugh since last year, while the absence of Kavanagh and the doubts over Gallagher all combine to raise doubts about their summer prospects.
"Donegal people have grown used to doing well in Ulster after two wins and a losing final. The more experienced lads know what it's like to have bad years, but some of the others haven't experienced that. I would be still hopeful that despite the setbacks, there's enough in this squad to get through," said Boyle.
"The best chance to make it happen on Sunday might be to go back to the tried and tested defensive system and, when the chances arise, move the ball up to Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and Paddy McBrearty.
"When you have three lads like that up top, you'll get scores so the important thing is to keep Derry's total as low as possible.
"It's all about getting out of Celtic Park with a win. I think they'll manage but anyone who is expecting an open game will be disappointed. It's all about doing whatever it takes to win, even if it's not pretty."
Back to the future?
Donegal conceded 4-17 in their final championship game against Mayo last year, which was totally alien to the defensive excellence which applied under Jim McGuinness since the start of 2011.
So how will McGuinness structure them for the Ulster opener against Derry on Sunday?
"It wouldn't surprise me to see them working off the tight defensive game of a few years ago," said former Donegal star Tony Boyle.
The table shows Donegal's average 'for' and 'against' scores in the championship over the last three seasons. Number of games in brackets.
Year - For / Against
2011 - 12.5pts / 8.8 pts (6)
2012 - 17.4pts / 12.0 pts (7)
2013 - 12.4pts / 14.4 pts (5)