Danny Hughes: Donegal's passage to Ulster final is not clear-cut

Having beaten Antrim comfortably, Down are in a position to really have a go at Donegal in Sunday week's second Ulster semi-final Picture by Seamus Loughran

DOWN will meet Donegal in the Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final, a fixture many will have predicted before the ball was thrown in last weekend.

While Donegal will be overwhelming favourites, I saw enough from last weekend’s win against Derry to suggest that the Tir Chonaill men’s passage to an Ulster final may well not be as straightforward as some fans may think.

As a Down supporter, I was wary of the threat a date with Antrim would pose in the opening round.

I knew it would be hard for Down to replicate another Ulster final appearance this year, while with a disappointing League campaign and relegation behind them thusfar, Antrim had nothing to lose when coming to Newry.

In truth, I assumed the Saffrons were probably better than their League form suggested, but they weren’t.

I would always contend that a team which possibly lacks depth of ability and experience should at the very outset not be found wanting in determination or indeed tactical awareness.

I would usually apportion this responsibility of preparing the team directly at the management’s door.

As Carlow’s result now demonstrates, if you get your tactics right and instil belief in your players, there are endless possibilities.

Antrim appeared to lack belief and indeed Championship intensity.

Conceding kick-outs in the first half of the match last weekend effectively allowed Down to build a seven-point lead by half-time.

I was thinking to myself, when watching Antrim, where was the preparatory work into how the modern game is being played?

For example, Monaghan pressed Tyrone hard on their kick-out, effectively making Niall Morgan go long and reducing the success rate of a kick-out re-start from 90 per cent to 50 per cent.

In a game of inches, you need every last percentage to count, when your starting base – perceived quality in depth – is behind that of your opponents.

When Antrim eventually realised that their strategy wasn’t working, they were able to arrest the haemorrhage and effectively go toe-to-toe with Down. At that stage, though, the damage was done.

The All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers draw has been kind to Antrim.

A game versus Offaly has to be welcomed and, with their opponents’ current set-up in complete disarray following the appointment of a new management team after the Wicklow defeat, Antrim supporters would hope to get over this tricky encounter in Tullamore.

Meanwhile, Donegal will represent a big challenge from a Down perspective, but I certainly wouldn’t fear them.

You have to remember that Derry had chances and, after hitting the post in the second half, made some very poor shot selections.

A lack of experience at the top level was possibly a factor, effectively making it easy for Donegal to pull up without ever needing to get into top gear.

On a positive note, Derry put up more of a challenge to this Donegal team than many would have predicted and it was only the two goals that separated the sides in the end, not a huge margin considering where both counties are currently stationed in the contender stakes.

Therein lies my reasons for optimism from a Down perspective.

Donegal remain suspect at the back and Derry demonstrated this by scoring 16 times at Celtic Park.

Invariably Down are better than Derry and have more experience at this level, especially when accounting for Down’s run to an Ulster final last year.

Down will still need to play extraordinarily well and hope Donegal have an off-day.

This would mean keeping Paddy McBrearty restricted to a few pot shots and, on his current form, it’s hard to see him remaining scoreless, even on a bad day.

I remember presenting McBrearty with a Vocational Schools trophy what seems only a few years ago and, even at that stage, he was a beast of a man.

As time has progressed, he has developed even further and has every attribute you want from an out-and-out striker.

Donegal have another reason for optimism and that is the return to action of Odhran Mac Niallais (inset). He is class personified and reminds me of Kerry’s Maurice Fitzgerald, with his laid-back style and deadly accuracy.

In a time of overdeveloped athletes and spoilers, Mac Niallais represents another time, a time where ability was enough in itself to warrant selection on any team.

Donegal will make the Super 8s and, at a time where the elusive Sam Maguire has never been as difficult to win, achievement of a place in the round-robin at that stage is the best a lot of teams can now hope for. Why? Because Dublin look unbeatable.

Jim Gavin’s men will win Leinster, of that I am certain.

Historically, Meath made Leinster competitive and kept a rein on Dublin’s domination.

You had Kildare dare to dream over the years and even Westmeath chalked up a title under Paidi ó Sé.

Those teams have all fallen away and wins for Longford and Carlow at the weekend are further proof that there is radical thinking needed outside Dublin.

Counties cannot compete commercially with Dublin, indeed this is the case even in comparison to Kerry or, dare I say it, Mayo.

Club Tyrone’s fundraising activities are Ulster’s best example of collective thinking and combined effort.

Likewise in Monaghan, similar shoulders are put to the wheel to eke out enough money to support the senior county teams.

What this year has demonstrated so far is that historically strong inter-county teams such as Meath and Kildare are not producing the necessary standard of players of which they were previously associated.

And it is just not the latter two counties mentioned. Why is this?

Is it player apathy?

The absence of appropriate coaching at underage level surely has a part to play.

I am yet to be convinced that development squads are the route to underage improvement.

However, having quality coaches go into clubs will lift standards across the board and is, in my opinion, the fundamental starting point. This has to be financed centrally, by Croke Park.

Lack of success in any county creates a vicious circle of general player apathy and I believe that this is best demonstrated in a significant amount of counties, especially the so-called aristocrats like Meath, who are now being beaten regularly by lower-tiered teams.

In order to make the Championship more exciting, there has been structural changes to the competition, but this doesn’t solve the problem and may even exacerbate it and create a bigger gulf between the weak and the strong.

So I would suggest, in tandem with funding changes, further structural changes are required.

Reducing playing numbers to 13-a-side will help to counter-act overly defensive football.

It also ties in nicely with the reduction in permitted inter-county squad numbers brought in a few years ago, previously 30 players, reduced to 26 on a match day.

While it is brilliant to see minnows beat the odds, you can’t assume that their realistic goals are the same as Dublin’s, Kerry’s, Mayo’s and Tyrone’s. This is not an excuse to establish a ‘B’ Championship, but the one thing all counties outside Dublin need now is money. And plenty of it.

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