Burning Issue: Are Donegal best equipped to stop Dublin winning the All-Ireland title this year?
Donegal's display in victory over Monaghan on Sunday has prompted many to suggest that they lead the queue of teams trying to stop Dublin from making it two All-Irelands on the trot this season. Is that justified? Two JOEs argue the case.
Alan Loughnane says... After watching what can only be described as an intense affair in Clones on Sunday, Donegal are showing signs of returning to the level they reached in 2012. They defeated Monaghan by three points but in a game as constipated as it was, that is a significant margin for Jim McGuinness’ charges.
Are they the team to stop the seemingly irresistible Dublin? For me, they are the only team (sorry Mayo fans) with the tools to derail the Leinster juggernaut and blow this championship wide open.
Dublin are an attacking team and so far this year they have averaged around 2-22 per game, which is astronomical scoring in a game of football. Meath tried to take them on man for man last Sunday and they were utterly humiliated. Dublin are just too good of a team to try and beat at their own game, simply because of the quality of the players they have at their disposal.
The depth they have in their squad really is frightening for other teams. For example, if you manage to keep Kevin McManamon or Bernard Brogan quiet, they can spring Eoghan O’Gara, Dean Rock and Cormac Costello off the bench and destroy you.
While Donegal don’t have the talent that Dublin have at their disposal, they do have a number of quality players as well as countless players who are willing to do the dirty work and sacrifice themselves for the good of the team.
Karl Lacey finally seems to be recovering some semblance of fitness after an injury-plagued season last year. He is a talisman for Donegal and he embodies the work rate and attitude that McGuinness has installed in the team. Ryan McHugh, despite his relatively skinny frame, is proving to be a more than able replacement for his older brother. He was outstanding in the cauldron in Clones against Monaghan and proved that despite his size, he can thrive in a bruising environment. Teams will know that the tactic of roughing up the youngster will not work, as Monaghan found out on Sunday.
Neil Gallagher was a tower of strength in the middle of the pitch while Paddy McBrearty hit three excellent points in the second half.
Colm McFadden has struggled for form at times this year and he came out second best in his duel with Drew Wiley. The St Michael’s clubman is a vital cog in the Donegal machine so I expect him to produce a much better performance next time out to prove his critics wrong.
One of my managers coined the phrase ‘big pitch, small pitch’. The idea is that you make your own half of the pitch as tight and crowded as possible while leaving the opposition half with plenty of space for your forwards to move around and run into. This is basically the Donegal system. Everybody knows that they are going to line up defensively, sometimes with 14 men behind the ball. It worked for them in 2012 when they beat Mayo in the All-Ireland and while last year was something of a disaster, they have no reason to change a tactic that has worked for them in the past.
They flood the defence with bodies and seek to turn over possession before launching up the field at speed in a counter attack. The difference between the Donegal blanket defence and other teams’ efforts is the discipline and organisation of the Donegal defence. They do not commit needless fouls or gift the opposition easy shots on goal. They create a congested pitch, which makes it difficult for teams to effectively create overlaps or gain space to manoeuvre.
Dublin backs love to bomb forward and seeing Philly McMahon and James McCarthy pop up in the full forward line is a regular trait of the Dublin style of play. But Donegal’s defensive layout will make these offensive runs very tough for the Dublin backs and midfield. The space will simply not be there for them to make these runs.
It is no secret how important Michael Darragh Macauley is to the Dublin team and his trademark lung busting runs at the heart of the opposition defence is one of Dublin’s primary offensive weapons. But this ploy may run aground against a packed Donegal defence as carrying the ball into contact against McGuinness’ men is just asking for trouble no matter how strong you are. Expect turnovers for Donegal and frustration for Dublin if the sides meet.
Donegal are my dark horses for the All-Ireland and they are currently sitting at 10/1 in the bookmakers. There are worse bets a punter could make. Donegal are creeping towards the heights of 2012 and are bubbling nicely to dethrone the Dubs.
You heard it here first and be sure to send me a cut of your winnings when Donegal take Sam back to Ulster.
Conor Heneghan says... There was no shortage of television viewers disturbed by what they saw in the Ulster Final in Clones on Sunday, but the managers of the counties with serious aspirations for All-Ireland honours may well have been disturbed for a whole different reason altogether.
Donegal’s performance in victory over Monaghan might not have been the prettiest – that was more down to the dour nature of the game rather than anything Donegal did wrong – but Jim McGuinness won’t care, the players won’t care and the fans won’t care that much either. Why? Because Sunday’s victory produced unmistakeable evidence that the men from the hills are back.
The performance in Clones bore all the hallmarks of the Donegal side that romped to All-Ireland success a little less than two years ago. With an incredibly organised and disciplined defensive structure providing the foundation, Donegal sucked the life out of Monaghan with the result that their half of the pitch was often more claustrophobic than getting into a six-man lift with eight fat guys.
The McGees ensured that Conor McManus and Kieran Hughes barely got a look in, the old reliables McGlynn, Thompson and Lacey stopped attacks further up the pitch and broke at speed from the half-back line, while the performance of Ryan McHugh rivalled anything that his brother produced in his All-Star winning campaign of two years ago.
Michael Murphy might not have made much of a mark on the scoreboard but he foraged to great effect, Paddy McBrearty looked back to his self and Odhran Mac Niallais is arguably the find of the Championship so far.
Forgive me, however, if I’m not willing to clamber aboard the Donegal for Sam 2014 bandwagon just yet. On Newstalk on Monday night, Brendan Devenney made the bold claim that his own county would beat Dublin if and when they meet in the Championship and although the man himself probably won’t mind me saying that he’s fond of a bold pronouncement or two every now and again, he was getting a little bit ahead of himself in my opinion.
Devenney referenced the infamous All-Ireland semi-final between the sides and confidently predicted a Donegal win if they meet again on the basis that his own county, who were then in Year One of the McGuinness project, have improved since then.
What Devenney didn’t say is that Dublin have also come on in leaps and bounds in that time and while I won’t elaborate too much on that score, I’ll just point to the evolution of two players as an example, Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly, who were still a little raw three years ago but are now two of the most complete players in the country.
I do expect Donegal and Dublin to meet in the semi-final and I do expect Donegal to really put it up to the Dubs but I’d still fancy Jim Gavin’s men to progress. Dublin might not have faced much opposition up to now but it’s hardly their fault and besides, they have showed an ability to win ugly if necessary.
Last year’s All-Ireland Final win over Mayo was hardly ugly but it wasn’t a walk in the park either and given Gavin’s tactical intelligence and the apparent level of detail in their research on the opposition (did anyone hear Pat Spillane on about it ahead of the Leinster Final on Sunday?) they’re not going to go into any game unprepared.
As for Donegal themselves, they’re not exactly bulletproof either. Despite the introduction of the likes of Mac Niallais and Darach O’Connor, they still would suffer hugely if one of their key players – McGlynn, Lacey, Neil Gallagher and Murphy, for example – got injured. Colm McFadden, meanwhile, the most lethal forward in Ireland two years ago, is not hitting the same heights and I feel that they will need Murphy close to goal and firing if they are to beat the Dubs or even go all the way.
Finally, romantic as the notion might be, I’m not giving up on my own Mayo just yet. The Green and Red haven’t hit the heights of last year and there have been major flaws evident so far, but they peaked too soon in 2013 and I rather like them hovering under the radar as they appear to have been doing so far this year.
And then there’s Kerry, whose display in the Munster Final against an admittedly woeful Cork side shouldn’t be forgotten in a hurry. Have Kerry ever been THIRD favourites for an All-Ireland ahead of the quarter-finals before? We’re reluctant to drag out the phrase ‘long grass’ but it’s exactly where they are right now and they’re only loving it.
Be afraid people, be very afraid.