Donegal look weary but experience will see off Tribe
All-Ireland SFC Qualifier round 4B: Donegal v Galway
(Saturday, 6pm, Croke Park, live on Sky Sports 1)
DONEGAL will travel to Croke Park for this evening’s Qualifier clash with Galway and not one person in Headquarters will know what Tir Chonaill outfit will turn up.
So far in this year’s Championship, Rory Gallagher’s men have mixed bipolar periods of brilliance with lethargic displays to indicate their reservation at the GAA’s top table is on the verge of expiration. That’s what makes this tie so intriguing.
After their last two performances, a win against Derry and defeat to Monaghan in Clones, the general consensus is that Rory Gallagher’s men are too long on the road together. They have run out of steam already.
They are over-reliant on Michael Murphy and they are showing the same signs of fatigue that derailed their All-Ireland defence in 2013. By 8pm on Saturday, we’ll all be better placed to confirm or dispel those theories.
Yet when Gallagher's side annihilated Armagh in the Ulster SFC quarter-final seven weeks ago, every team in the country were advised to shelve their All-Ireland ambitions because Donegal had found another gear.
Cruelly beaten in last year’s decider, they were back with a bang.
Most importantly, the management team had supposedly added attacking flair to the greatest defensive system ever devised.
In those early stages of the provincial Championship, Murphy was pulling the strings like never before and Paddy McBrearty was unplayable in the Tir Chonaill full-forward line. He probably still is, in fairness, yet fast forward to the first day of August and such premature praise has been ridiculed.
Sunday Game pundit Pat Spillane and RTÉ commentator Martin Carney have already prophesised Donegal’s fall from grace.
In a sneak preview of his Sunday newspaper column, the Kerry legend rightly reveals how Gallagher’s men lacked intensity in the provincial decider against the Farneymen.
Yet after one afternoon of wayward shooting against Malachy O’Rourke’s men – where they kicked 16 wides – he argued they don’t possess the firepower to challenge for the Sam Maguire.
Carney’s analysis, in truth, was a bit more measured: "They had to peak, or come close to their best for May 17th against Tyrone and then they had to take Armagh with the greatest of respect because they were playing at the Athletic Grounds," he said.
"They got locked in a dogfight against Derry, which they were put to the pin of their collar to come out of, and they were beaten by Monaghan in their fourth game.
"So they have played a hell of an amount of hard football against good, quality opposition.
"They look to me to be a tired enough team at the moment. Structurally, they've been solid, but I don't think the intensity in the tackling or that kind of free-wheeling running from their back line has been as evident."
There is no doubting that such an Ulster run would zap the energy out of most teams but make no mistake about it, Donegal still have enough quality to beat Kevin Walsh’s young and energetic Tribesmen.
After taking the game to Mayo in their provincial semi-final for 60 minutes, Galway stuck to their game-plan against Armagh and left the Cathedral City with a deserved three-point win.
Gary Sice, captain Paul Conroy and Michael Lundy are creative from the half-forward line while Damien Comer and Danny Cummins have stepped up in the absence of star forward Shane Walsh.
Adrian Varley, meanwhile, has been drafted into tonight’s line-up at corner-forward in place of Peadar Óg Ó Gríofa.
Yet while their attack caused Armagh problems, it could be argued the Tribesmen were found wanting against Derry at Pearse Stadium.
Danny Cummins’s goal on 61 minutes was the forward line’s first and only score from play in the entire 70 minutes.
Gary Sice (0-07) and Paul Conroy (0-02) kicked nine points from frees while half-backs Gary O’Donnell and Gareth Bradshaw scored their remaining two scores as Brian McIver’s men went down 1-11 to 0-08 in Salthill.
Expect Donegal’s intricate system to stifle the Galway attack even further.
After coming of age in this year’s Championship, two-time All-Ireland U21-winning midfield duo Tom Flynn and Fiontán Ó Curraoin will be handed their first major test of the Championship.
They will face one of the best midfield dictators in the business in Neil Gallagher, who will be ably supported by the attacking Martin McElhinney.
At the back, however, questions remain over the quality of Galway’s defence and this is the area Donegal will be keen to exploit.
Karl Lacey is out of the game and although the four-time Allstar will be a huge loss to Donegal, it could be an opportunity for the management team to get mileage in the legs of Leo McLoone, who returned to the panel at the beginning of last month.
Experienced half-back Anthony Thompson, meanwhile, is another useful option at Gallagher’s disposal.
When the sides last met in Championship football - at the same stage of the 2009 competition – Frank McGlynn, Eamon and Neil McGee, Lacey, McLoone, Murphy and Colm McFadden all started in Donegal’s 0-14 to 0-13 win.
Goalkeeper Paul Durcan and midfielder Gallagher were ruled out through injury but they will play an integral role this evening.
By stark contrast, only full-back Finian Hanley and Bradshaw are survivors of that era for the Tribesmen.
In order for Donegal to win this year’s All-Ireland, they could potentially have to go through Mayo, Dublin and Kerry if they emerge from tonight’s game.
At this stage of the season, Croke Park experience is vital and it will be one of the aforementioned ‘big three’ – and not Galway – that will determine just how many miles are left in Donegal’s tank.
Galway: B O'Donoghue; J Duane, F Hanley, C Sweeney; L Silke, G O'Donnell, G Bradshaw; F O Curraoin, T Flynn; G Sice, P Conroy, M Lundy; A Varley, D Comer, D Cummins.
Donegal: P Durcan; P McGrathm N McGee, E McGee; R McHugh, A Thompson, F McGlynn; N Gallagher, M McElhinney; C Toye, O MacNiallais, M McHugh; P McBrearty, M Murphy, C McFadden.