Wednesday 11 December 2019

Today's football championship previews

Dermot Crowe

Connacht SFC Final: Mayo v Roscommon, Hyde Park, 2.0

The recent qualifier draw places the consequences of defeat in this western showdown in sharper relief. The losers face whoever emerges from the Tyrone-Armagh tangle and a losing Connacht finalist would be vulnerable in that company.

Roscommon have plenty of incentive anyway. They are reigning champions lacking a ringing endorsement -- their title was won without beating Mayo or Galway, and by upsetting a fancied Sligo in the final. They won with a pleasing brand of football and brought the same adventure to Croke Park against Cork but if you were digging the handy escape route out of Connacht then you would favour Roscommon's path in 2010.

This is only relevant in the valid need for the team to now establish its bona fides with a win over one of the acknowledged big two in the province, which the county hasn't been able to achieve since 2001. Wins over New York and Leitrim, both impressive in their own way, leave uncertainty as to the team's true measure. If they beat Mayo, they will remove those reservations and that is a huge lure.

There is also a horrendous mauling by Mayo two years ago in Fergal O'Donnell's first championship match on their list of grievances. Being at home should also give them a lift and there is a positive air around Roscommon now of a kind not felt in ten years.

Mayo, captained by Alan Dillon (left), have been regularly playing at a much higher level in the league but Roscommon aren't as removed from the standard as recent spring tides suggests. Notably, of the Mayo starting team, seven will be playing in their first Connacht final, which will bring its own pressure. The team's form has been unconvincing. They needed extra-time to defeat London, and recovered from a poor first half to overcome a shockingly inept Galway. Mayo's kicking prowess and finishing has never been their strong point but this season, and especially against Galway, it has merited a public enquiry.

Roscommon have a match-winning full-forward line and a style of play that offers more in coherence and intuition than their Mayo counterparts. Defensively, they still have questions to answer and Alan Freeman and Jason Doherty in particular offer a serious threat. Mayo's free-taking has been a worry and in that department Roscommon look the more settled. This is new territory for the home team and a step up on what they have encountered so far in their evolution. They have enough talent and momentum to take themselves up another rung on the credibility ladder.

Mayo: R Hennelly; K Higgins, A Feeney, T Cunniffe; R Feeney, D Vaughan, T Mortimer; A O'Shea, S O'Shea; K McLoughlin, A Dillon, A Moran; C O'Connor, A Freeman, J Doherty.

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Roscommon: G Claffey; S McDermott, N Carty, S Ormsby; D Keenan, P Domican, D Ward; M Finneran, K Mannion; S O'Grady, K Higgins, C Cregg; C Devaney, S Kilbride, D Shine.

Verdict: Roscommon

Ulster SFC Final

Derry v Donegal

Clones, 4.0

For the first time since 1998 Ulster's showpiece does not contain one of the twin towers of that period, Tyrone and Armagh, lending the occasion some new colour tones and guaranteeing a result that will be groundbreaking. Derry haven't contested a final in 11 years; their last win was two years before that when they defeated Donegal.

Donegal's form is almost unpardonably ragged, not having won an Ulster title since they took Sam Maguire back to the hills in 1992. In the intervening years they have lost five finals, two to Derry, three to Armagh. So a win for either county will spark deserved and overdue celebrations.

Donegal have been a notorious sleeper over the last 20 years. Mind-numbing predictability in their play and poor discipline off the field were two recurring themes halting their progress. The devastating defeat by Cork in Croke Park two years ago was a sorry exposure of their regression, crudely illustrating how many light years away they were from the modern winning standard.

Jim McGuinness arrived with a clear vision of where he wanted to take the team and a sincere mission to lift the county out of its sloth. His methods aren't for everyone but Donegal had been an incorrigibly resistant patient when it came to reforming its ways. His governance has achieved consistency and results not associated with Donegal for a long time. Seeing Michael Murphy (pictured) deployed in the middle of the field might be an abomination for the purist, but Donegal have won the Division Two league title, and reached this final defeating Tyrone, who along with Down and Armagh, were packed off to fight in the trenches of the qualifiers. The players evidently believe in what he is selling.

That is obvious in Donegal's work ethic which has been transformed. Of course, somewhere in the matrix of tactics and vaulting ambition there has to be a few good footballers as well. Donegal have always had those and now, individually and collectively, they are getting more out of themselves.

Derry's ability to produce a performance like they did in the semi-final defeat of Armagh was never in doubt but they are notorious for dipping the next day out. With Paddy Bradley already injured, the loss of his brother Eoin is a cruel blow and reduces their prospects without obliterating them entirely. Derry carry a more potent midfield threat than the Donegal pair of Rory Kavanagh and Kevin Rafferty, both of whom have had injury issues in the last couple of weeks. Neither county named a side ahead of today. Despite losing both Bradleys, Derry still have attacking bite with Conleth Gilligan, Enda Muldoon and Mark Lynch on board.

They won't fear Donegal and will presumably have some trick for restraining Michael Murphy, something they failed to do when they sides played out a highly entertaining league encounter earlier in the year. This is expected to be a more grinding affair; Donegal may be able to grind that bit more.

Derry (probable): D Devlin; SL McGoldrick, K McGuckin, D McBride; B Og McAlary, C Kielt, M Bateson; J Diver, M Friel; M Lynch, J Kielt, B McGoldrick; C O'Boyle, E Muldoon, C Gilligan.

Donegal (probable): P Durcan; K Lacey, N McGee, P McGrath; F McGlynn, A Thompson, K Cassidy; R Kavanagh, K Rafferty; R Bradley, M Hegarty, M McHugh; P McBrearty, M Murphy, C McFadden.

Verdict: Donegal

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