Saturday 17 August 2019

Peter Canavan: Revitalised Michael Murphy holds key to Donegal ambitions

Bonner has county's main man in top form ahead of clash with ex-manager Gallagher

Any plan that Fermanagh and Rory Gallagher have to deal with Donegal will have to start with stopping talisman Michael Murphy. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Any plan that Fermanagh and Rory Gallagher have to deal with Donegal will have to start with stopping talisman Michael Murphy. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

Maybe it was written in the stars. When Rory Gallagher teamed up with his native Fermanagh not long after leaving Donegal, perhaps we should have seen this Ulster final pairing coming.

Gallagher's connection with Donegal adds an extra element to Sunday's clash in Clones. That edge was apparent from early in the build-up to the final with reports that Donegal journalists weren't allowed to attend Fermanagh's media night. Whatever the truth of that, there will be no love lost between the sides.

The game will also give us a great contrast in styles. We can be fairly certain what Fermanagh will bring to St Tiernach's Park. They will be organised and diligent and look to survive by playing on the break and winning frees.

And we know that Donegal under Declan Bonner prefer to play on the front foot. It's an approach that has seen them deliver some swashbuckling displays.

That change in style has been a significant one for Donegal. It was a brave move, especially considering the success their way of playing over the last few years has brought them.

The safe option would have been to stick with the status quo but Bonner put his own stamp on it. I think it has paid off and has breathed new life into them, especially their captain Michael Murphy.

The extent of Murphy's talent has been something of a problem for Donegal in so far as he's so comfortable both out around the middle and near the goals that Donegal have been trying to get him to play both roles.


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And to a large extent, he's been able to do that through a combination of an iron will and the delicate, silky stuff that he has in his locker too.

From centre-field, his game management outstrips almost anyone in the country. He can control the tempo of things and dictate the play. Close to goal, he's an obvious threat and, with the right service, close to unstoppable.

Since he has come in, Bonner has let him spend more time closer to goal and I think he's revelling in it. He's kicked 0-13 so far in the championship and generally looks like a player who is enjoying his football. He's been well managed too. He's only 28 and in his prime but he has a lot of hard miles on the clock. So this year he came back a little later in the league and looks to be timing his run nicely for the championship. While Murphy was resting, Donegal's young players were left to figure things out for themselves. I know Donegal were relegated but that experience will only stand to them in the long term.

So any plan Fermanagh have to topple Donegal will have to start with curbing Murphy. Tyrone did that well in the Ulster Championship last year. Paudie Hampsey trailed him wherever he went but he had plenty of help.

Fermanagh might ask Che Cullen to track him given the excellent job he did on Conor McManus in the Monaghan game but Murphy is a much different proposition. He'll go roaming rather than stay inside where McManus does his best work.

Of course, Gallagher will know these Donegal players inside out. And he'll have the Fermanagh men briefed on all the little things he picked up on Donegal over the course of his time with them. And while the significance of that can be overstated, it will certainly give them an edge. But that's about the only area I can see where the Erne men have an advantage. After that, the deck is stacked firmly in favour of Donegal because no matter what way you slice it, they have the edge. They are a bigger county with a deeper panel and more talent at their disposal.

They have more big game experience with Donegal contesting six of the last seven Ulster finals, while their a dressing room still has a healthy smattering of All-Ireland winners from 2012. Conversely, Fermanagh have never won an Ulster title.

There's a chasm in terms of the underage system the players have come through too. From working with the Tyrone U-21s, I can attest to the quality of the young players Donegal have coming. Meanwhile, Fermanagh's youngsters are fortunate if they manage to win a game at underage level.

Form is on their side too. If you were to have a conversation about the Footballer of the Year right now, Murphy, Paddy McBrearty and Ryan McHugh would be in the mix. Those three are at the peak of their powers, operating at a level very few players in the country can claim to be. And I'd have Eoghan Bán Gallagher and Jamie Brennan in the running for the Young Player award too.

When you crunch the numbers, it doesn't give Fermanagh any encouragement either. Donegal have played three games to Fermanagh's two in the Ulster Championship. And Bonner's men have scored an average of 2-19 across those matches, while Fermanagh have hit just 1-8 in their two outings.

A lot depends on how Donegal approach the game. Declan Bonner has the big calls to make in terms of how they set up. He has the cards, everything is in his favour. The pressure is on him now to set up in the right way to get the job done.

Against Derry, there were signs of them going back to the style of play they learned under Jim McGuinness. But I expect them to go after Fermanagh from the off on Sunday. It won't be lost on them that Fermanagh's goalkeeper Pat Cadden is actually one of the best forwards in the club game in the county and has been brought in for his kick-outs and is largely inexperienced in the position.

So I expect them to bring the heat on him from early in the game.  They did that brilliantly against Down, pushing up hard on Marc Reid's kick-out to the point where he was left with only the option of trying a risky short one or booming it down the middle. Donegal made hay off Down's kick-outs that day.


They'll have noticed too that Armagh's goal in the Division 3 final came off a high ball that wasn't dealt with so don't be a surprised if they drop a few on top of Murphy or Hugh McFadden early on to see how they go.  

So it's all stacked against Fermanagh. The neutrals would love to see them get over the line here. Having spent some time there a few years ago, I know how much it would do for the county if they were to get their hands on the Anglo Celt Cup for the first time. And while that would be the result for the romantics, the cold, hard facts state it's hard to look past Donegal and I can see them winning with five or six to spare.

* * * * *

Most people will know by now that Tyrone under Mickey Harte are almost unique in that they don't partake in the challenge game circuit. For whatever reason, Mickey just doesn't see the value in them and in my time we never played in one.

However, before the turn of the year they parted with that tradition when they agreed to a challenge match against Carlow. And, as fate would have it, the pair were drawn together in the qualifiers.

Turlough O'Brien's men won that night in what was said to be a very feisty affair and this week Carlow coach Stevie Poacher was quoted as saying that Dr Cullen Park will be a bear pit. Expect fireworks.

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