My review of the All-Ireland prospects of the country’s top football teams has a Groundhog Day feel about it.
But I’m consoled by Magnus Magnusson’s signature line ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ from the TV quiz show Mastermind.
Today I’m focusing on Donegal and Monaghan, safe in the knowledge that regardless of what I write there is unlikely to be any kickback from either county.
They may be part of Ulster, but the subtle difference is they’re both positioned south of the border.
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Predictably, when I prodded Tyrone and Armagh last Sunday, there was a reaction. You know what they say about an elephant never forgetting.
Let’s says it is unlikely that I’d ever win a popularly contest in either county.
Hand on heart, I can honestly write that I’ve never received an abusive phone call or letter from any Monaghan GAA fan.
The Donegal fans have been slightly less forgiving, and the only time I was ever physically assaulted off the field a very small section of their fans were the culprits.
A few years ago, while walking away from Croke Park on Clonliffe Road after a match, I encountered a gang of them. They playfully surrounded me.
It was mostly a bit of craic but a couple of them threw a few sneaky digs into my ribcage.
I ‘escaped’ and sprinted to my car and sped off down the road, only to be promptly stopped by a garda for speeding. Thankfully he accepted my explanation that I was in fear for my life.
The chairman of the Donegal County Board subsequently rang me to apologise and the incident didn’t damage my relationship with the county.
Anyway, back to football matters. Though I made an exception with Armagh, I have otherwise only analysed the prospects of teams in Division 1 because frankly counties outside the top flight have no chance of winning the All-Ireland.
I included Armagh because a) their fortunes are linked to Tyrone as they meet in the quarter-final of the Ulster Championship and b) while they won’t win an All-Ireland they are the best side outside the top flight.
But I have omitted Meath, because though they played in Division 1 they are not All-Ireland contenders in 2020.
Granted they have improved under Andy McEntee – they reached the ‘Super 8s’ last year and this spring featured in
Division 1 for the first time since 1996.
Though they were competitive in this year’s League, they lost their five games. And unless the competition is scratched they will be relegated. They simply don’t have the calibre of player a squad needs if it is to challenge for an All-Ireland and, in particular, they don’t have a trace of a marquee forward.
ONLY Fermanagh, Carlow, Longford and Leitrim have smaller populations than Monaghan, but their 61,000 residents punch above their weight.
They are leading lights in both the Irish poultry and mushroom industry, while Combilift is the largest global manufacturer of multi-directional forklifts and an acknowledged world leader in this field.
On the GAA field they are no different.
Even though they have only 33 clubs, this is their sixth successive season in Division 1. As I said recently on television, we tend to patronise them and fail to acknowledge the excellence of their players and the all-round ability of the team.
Having stagnated in Malachy O’Rourke’s final season, the appointment of Seamus ‘Banty’
McEnaney for a second term has given them fresh impetus.
He assembled a high-profile management team including Kilcoo’s Conor Laverty, former Tyrone strength-and-conditioning coach Peter Donnelly, as well as back-room men David McCague and Ray Boyne.
Unlucky to lose to Galway in round 1 of the League, they subsequently drew with Dublin – they are now unbeaten against the All-Ireland champions for two seasons – beat Tyrone, then hammered Mayo, before being beaten by Donegal when reduced to 13 men.
They have a new system of play based around the Kilcoo game plan, which took them to the All-Ireland club final.
Darren Hughes operates as a sweeper in a defense-orientated counter-attacking set-up. It was particularly noticeable during the League that they have become less dependent on Conor McManus for scores though, he still hit 1-20 of their 2-69.
But it is their spread of scorers that catches the eye – nine against Galway and Mayo; eight against Dublin and Tyrone and five against Donegal.
They have the capacity through McManus to make judicious use of the advance mark; Conor Boyle has been a revelation at full-back, while Rory Beggan is one of the best goalkeepers in the business.
Finally, they are on the opposite side of the Ulster Championship to the big guns with no other Division 1 side in their pool. They meet Cavan in the preliminary round, then Antrim would be next in the quarter-finals with Down or Fermanagh then waiting in the semi-final.
Monaghan’s League form does come with a health warning.
They were the first top-flight team back training last autumn, which gave them a definite edge in fitness in the early rounds.
Though their game plan makes them difficult to beat, it has its limitations as Galway found out when their former manager Kevin Walsh deployed similar tactics.
There is no Plan B if opponents get ahead of them, and it’s an energy-sapping system that demands extraordinary levels of fitness.
Also, there is a lot of football mileage in the squad and if they make it to Croke Park later this year they will be found out – especially if the games come up quickly in a Championship run off in a hurry.
Though nobody can question their consistency, Monaghan haven’t actually delivered much silverware. It is five years since they won an Ulster title and 35 years since they secured their only Division 1
National League title.
Their failure to beat Tyrone in the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final was a cruel blow. They’re still largely reliant on the same bunch of players and while Jack McCarville and Conor McCarthy can be excellent, they have been woefully inconsistent.
At 33, McManus cannot carry them much longer and they looked a beaten docket last summer after big Championship losses to Cavan and Armagh.
This Monaghan side is nearing the end of their natural cycle and although the Ulster draw gives them hope, truly their prospects of becoming a top-four side has vanished.
DUE to their peripheral location, as well as decades of government neglect, Donegal has been left behind economically.
Remember, Donegal doesn’t have a rail connection to anywhere – never mind the capital city.
During my time as a rural ambassador, I learned two interesting facts which illustrate the magnitude of the problems the Donegal economy faces. Only one third of the traffic on the Wild Atlantic Way ever ventures further north than Tuam – while the average time tourists spend visiting Malin Head, one of the most iconic locations in Ireland, is 28 minutes.
They get there – and then they leave. This reflects the lack of facilities in the region for visitors.
Maybe the new government might start to address the imbalance.
In the meantime, their football team continues to remind us that the county does exist. They have an identical League record to Monaghan: two wins, two defeats and one draw.
They’re my favourite team in Ulster – plenty of young talented players, who are blessed with an abundance of physicality and pace. Any manager/coach would relish the prospect of being in charge of them.
Michael Murphy is still at the peak of his powers and, together with Patrick McBrearty, they have the capability to unhinge most defences and provide two options if Donegal decide to use the advance mark.
They have been the most consistent team in the Ulster Championship since 2018 and are aiming for a three in a row this season.
Former Mayo boss Stephen Rochford ought to have a bigger influence as coach, having got to know the players last season. And after a season in the top flight, they should be more street-wise in the Championship.
Goalkeeper Shaun Patton is now as influential for them as the big three of the position – Stephen Cluxton, Niall Morgan and Rory Beggan.
Don’t forget that in the second-best game of last year’s Championship they finished level with Kerry in the Super 8s. So they’re close to achieving the big breakthrough.
The downside is that they haven’t delivered when it really mattered.
This was evident again in the League, when they faltered within sight of the finishing line against Mayo, Galway and Dublin – securing just one out of a possible six points.
They’re not nearly ruthless, or clinical, enough when it comes to putting away teams when they’re on top. Their decision-making is flawed once the finishing line is in sight and physically they look lethargic at the end of games – perhaps a result of how physically demanding their running game is.
This has been a recurring theme, even before Declan Bonner’s reign.
The only top-six sides Donegal have beaten since 2014 are Tyrone and Monaghan. In 2018 they got into a winning position in Ballybofey against Tyrone, in what was effectively an All-Ireland quarter-final, but ended up losing by seven points.
Last year they allowed a Mayo team on its last legs to bully and beat them in Castlebar with a place in the last four at stake, albeit they were badly hit by injuries that day.
If Odhrán Mac Niallais could commit to the cause, it would help. This gifted footballer might be the missing link.
Donegal remain over-dependent on Murphy and the Ulster draw hasn’t been kind to them.
Donegal face Tyrone in the quarter-final, either Derry or Armagh in the semi-final and quite possibly Monaghan in the final. Essentially, until they beat a top team from outside Ulster, I will harbour doubts about Donegal.