Pressure on to save Donegal's season
Bowing out of All-Ireland race would be disaster for Jim McGuinness' reign after surrendering top-flight status and Ulster title
DONEGAL were not the only county disappointed by last Sunday's Ulster final result, but they are the only ones to admit it.
When James Horan, Jim Gavin and Eamonn Fitzmaurice scanned for potential All-Ireland quarter-final opponents, they never expected to find Donegal on the list. Of course, Donegal may still not make it to the last eight, but if they beat Laois this evening, they will, as reigning All-Ireland champions, be the biggest beast in the qualifier bowl when the draw for the quarter-finals is made at around 8.30pm.
And since Donegal could not be re-matched with Monaghan, it would leave them facing Mayo, Dublin or Kerry next weekend. Both Mayo and Kerry have bad experiences of Donegal from last year, while Dublin found them hellishly awkward to beat in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final.
Laois can't be especially pleased with the unexpected turn of events either. They were spouting all the right things this week about how they couldn't wait to joust with the All-Ireland champions but, in reality, they would have much preferred to be taking on a Monaghan team that had lost the Ulster final.
History casts an icy stare on beaten provincial finalists playing a qualifier tie on a six-day turnaround, and one suspects that if Monaghan had lost last Sunday, they would have found it very difficult to pick themselves up so quickly. Donegal will discover today whether or not that is also the case with them, but if any squad and any manager were to beat the six-day hoodoo, you would back Jim McGuinness and his men to achieve it.
Former Donegal star Tony Boyle said during the week that while losing the Ulster title off such a pedestrian performance would come as real jolt to Donegal's system, the fact that they were still All-Ireland champions would be a significant help in the rehabilitation process.
"The provincial championships are in the past now. There's only one title left to be won and that's the All-Ireland. The Donegal lads still hold the title, so they will be thinking to themselves: 'we're the All-Ireland champions even after what happened last Sunday; one defeat doesn't make us a bad team overnight.'
"It's the results from here on that decide their season, not results up to now. They will try to draw a line under the Ulster championship and move on, starting against Laois," he said.
Nonetheless, they were so well beaten last Sunday (0-13 to 0-7) that there must be serious grounds for concern in Donegal. Only Monaghan in 2010 scored as little in the Ulster final since Donegal lost to Derry by 0-8 to 0-6 in 1993.
Then, like last Sunday, Donegal were reigning All-Ireland champions, but at least they had an excuse for such a dismal return as the game should never have been played. The newly-laid Clones pitch resembled a flood plain due to the torrents which fell in the hours leading up to the game, making it the ultimate lottery.
It was significant too that Donegal were without the aforementioned Boyle, who was the best full-forward in the country at the time.
Last Sunday's final was altogether different, played solely on its merits in perfect conditions, so Donegal could have no excuses. Nor did they offer any, although clearly the early loss of Mark McHugh was an important factor in lowering their efficiency levels.
However, their biggest problem was the poor to average form of so many star names who had thrived since the start of the McGuinness reign. Last Sunday's result left them and their manager facing a challenge the likes of which they haven't faced before.
When they set out on the great adventure in 2011, they did so from a low base after being whipped in the 2010 championship. Every win was a bonus to be deposited in the Bank of Experience, which eventually paid out a handsome dividend.
Now, the challenge is completely different. Monaghan's raid has depleted their confidence reserves and raised the interesting question of whether they have the wherewithal to replenish it quickly.
Up to now, the McGuinness era has been characterised by certainty, a belief that he knows exactly what he's doing all the time. That applied most of all when they dropped out of Division 1 this year, becoming the first reigning All-Ireland champions to be relegated since Kerry in 2001.
Donegal's erratic form didn't seem to concern anyone in the county, least of all McGuinness, who implied that relegation was of no consequence.
"It doesn't make any difference. We don't really like the league, to be honest. It was always about the summer for us – it always will be about the summer for us," he said.
Once McGuinness had spoken, everyone in Donegal believed him. And while he may not have regarded relegation as even a small setback in the greater plan, it still pointed at a dip in consistency that most All-Ireland champions would worry about.
For instance, it's impossible to envisage Brian Cody saying he didn't care about the league. Cody regards good form at any time of year as a sign of general good health which is best maintained.
Fifteen weeks after dropping out of Division 1, Donegal surrendered their Ulster title to a team that had won Division 3. It's territory where Donegal did not expect to find themselves, but there's still such huge faith in McGuinness and the players that the majority of their supporters will travel to Carrick-on-Shannon today full of confidence that they will land back-to-back All-Irelands.
A sceptical minority are less convinced and fear that once the spell has been broken, it could be very difficult to regain the magic. After all, this is a Donegal squad where most players suffered some very big defeats prior to the arrival of McGuinness. Having enjoyed two outstanding seasons, could they drift back as quickly as they advanced?
It's almost unthinkable that it would happen but after last Sunday, opponents will look at them in a less reverential way. Laois, who are seeking their eighth successive qualifier win over two seasons, will view them totally differently to how they would if they were playing Donegal as Ulster champions in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
However, the bigger issue is how Donegal view themselves. Confidence underpinned everything they did over the past two seasons but now its basis has been challenged in a very stark manner.
A convincing performance against Laois would go a long way towards resuming normal service but if they were to lose two championship games and two titles in six days, it would leave Donegal in a state of shock for a very long time.
It's against that background that McGuinness, the master persuader, will deliver his team talk this evening.
Donegal and the qualifiers
Precedent: Not encouraging for Donegal. Of the 15 beaten provincial finalists who have played qualifier games on the following weekend, only Dublin in 2001 (they beat Sligo) and Down last year (they beat Tipperary) have won. Even then, Dublin had seven days to recover. Players and managers have repeatedly complained that asking beaten provincial finalists to play a qualifier tie six/seven days later is unfair. This is the last year that it will apply, as an amended qualifier system will be in operation next season. Donegal will be experiencing the six-day turnaround for the first time.
Qualifier Record: Donegal have a good return, winning 15 and losing six of their 21 games. They have played three Round 4 games as beaten provincial finalists, winning in 2002 (v Meath) and 2006 (v Fermanagh) and losing in 2004 (to Fermanagh).
How others fared: Kerry in 2008 and Cork in 2011 were the only reigning All-Ireland champions to lose a provincial final in the following season under the new system. Kerry (2007 All-Ireland champions) lost the 2008 Munster final to Cork, but beat Monaghan in the qualifiers before going on to reach the All-Ireland final, where they lost to Tyrone. Cork (2010 All-Ireland champions) lost the 2011 Munster final to Kerry, but recovered to beat Down in the Round 4 qualifiers. They lost the All-Ireland quarter-final to Mayo.
Championship impact: Dublin, Kerry and Mayo will all be hoping that Laois win today. Any of the trio would prefer to play Laois in the All-Ireland quarter-final rather than Donegal, especially if the champions were to turn in an impressive performance today. If Donegal beat Laois, they cannot play Monaghan in the last eight as repeats of provincial final pairings are avoided.