GAA Football

Donegal must rediscover killer instinct in crucial seven days

Michael Murphy's ankle injury has visibly limited his influence on Donegal this summer
Picture by Seamus Loughran
Cahair O'Kane

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifier round 4B: Donegal v Cork (Saturday, 4pm, Croke Park, live on Sky Sports 3 HD)

IN ANALYSING Donegal’s failure to win back the Ulster title, Cork will take enough confidence to believe they can cause an upset on Saturday afternoon.

On review, Rory Gallagher’s men let Tyrone off the hook in a big way. There was little they could do about the stunning scores Sean Cavanagh and Peter Harte kicked but, across the 70 minutes, the 2012 All-Ireland champions had enough ball in the areas of the pitch where they could have wounded Tyrone fatally. One must deduct they lacked the killer instinct of old.

Their strategy in a final-quarter they dominated territorially appeared to be: We hold the lead, so we’ll hold the ball. Tyrone would have thrived on turnovers, so Donegal didn’t want to offer them any. Whether it was that they ran out of legs to attack or they simply felt it was better not to is something only the next seven days will answer.

Whether Donegal make it past day one will depend on rediscovering that counter-attacking threat. Cork have stumbled back to their feet since Tipperary managed to fend off the heartbreak of two years ago that could easily have come flooding back when the Rebels drew level with a minute to play.

You get the sense from their performances against Limerick and Longford they have yet to square themselves up. The standing count is at seven and Donegal are standing the other side of the referee just waiting to pounce.

The question is whether Rory Gallagher’s men will let them cling to the ropes and battle their way through another few rounds. For a long time, the clamour for Michael Murphy to play at full-forward has existed. Rarely has it looked more like the right move.

The Donegal captain has clearly been struggling with an ankle injury throughout this year’s Championship. Sporadic would best describe his involvement in games. Playing him away from goal was a ploy so he could hound, tackle and deliver an example to his team-mates. He simply has not been able to do that this summer.

If Rory Gallagher has any doubts about his team’s ability to thrive in Croke Park as they once did, then he will have no option but to put Murphy inside. Giving his team the option of alleviating themselves with an odd early ball could be the difference. Even if it only works two or three times in the game, should Donegal get scores off it, then they will have increased on their captain’s impact of late.

Another reason to put him inside is the concern over how much is left in the tanks of Karl Lacey and Anthony Thompson as the raiding attacking forces they were. Thompson has been redeployed as one of the team’s sweepers and rarely ventures beyond halfway these days. Lacey still supports the attack when he can, but his own injuries have caught up on him as well.

Such is the evolution of a team. Those individuals may not be able to carry the can as they once did, but Ryan McHugh, Eoin McHugh and Marty O’Reilly have gone a long way towards quickly stepping into their shoes. Donegal still retain an attacking threat from deep, primarily through that trio.

Donegal still pose a threat from deep through the likes of Ryan McHugh  

Cork’s threat is not exactly unrecognisable from what Donegal faced when these two met in the All-Ireland semi-final four years ago. But it has changed. Colm O’Neill must take every big game like this as a blessing after his injury woes. His near-post finish against Longford shows the retention of his predatory instincts.

Paul Kerrigan and Paddy Kelly also played that afternoon when the sides were level seven times in the first-half, only for Tír Chonaill to wheel away in the third-quarter as they so often did. Donnacha O’Connor is among their subs for Saturday, but neither Daniel Goulding nor Brian Hurley is named in their 26-man panel.

Their squad does include returning hurling duo Aidan Walsh and Alan Cadogan. It would be no great surprise if at least one of them is drafted into the starting 15 before throw-in. Peter Kelleher has made a decent impression in his fledgling days in the Rebel red, but he is the kind of forward the McGees just love to see coming down the road.

Strong, robust, but without the kind of blistering pace that will trouble the Donegal pair. Eamon, rather than Neil, picked him up in the league clash in Ballyshannon back in February, which Donegal won by double scores, 2-14 to 1-7.

With Colm O’Neill reintroduced to the Cork starting side, it’s likely Neil McGee will pick him up and the elder sibling will stay on Kelleher. He does have a serious eye for goal, but his National League tally of 3-1 from six appearances underlines how Cork will struggle unless he finds the net at some stage.

And ironically, goals are something Donegal have struggled to keep out on recent visits to Croke Park. In eight visits since the All-Ireland final in 2012, they have conceded 15 goals and kept just two clean sheets - against Dublin in 2014 and Galway last year.

With the likelihood that Donegal will need a goal or two themselves, can Cork afford to take Eoin Cadogan off the edge of the square if Michael Murphy goes? That would leave Colm O’Driscoll potentially in against Patrick McBrearty, a match-up which will suit Donegal fine. The two younger O’Driscoll brothers, Barry and Kevin, will look to probe from the half-back line, but they could find themselves preoccupied with the McHughs, O’Reilly and Odhran Mac Niallais running at them.

Four years ago, the battle of Karl Lacey and Paul Kerrigan was central to that semi-final. They scored two points apiece, both offering their strengths to the afternoon’s fare and perhaps they will be reunited. But you sense that Rory Gallagher would much rather have Ryan McHugh try to distract Kerrigan with trying to defend and leave Lacey to a different task.

Cork have stumbled back to their feet against Limerick and Longford but, if Donegal have any true aspirations, they must find their killer instinct. Donegal by four.

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