GAA Football

New-look Donegal should still be too strong for re-shaped Antrim

Antrim's Mark Sweeney (right) could be key to their defensive effort against Donegal. Pic Philip Walsh

Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Donegal v Antrim (Sunday, 4pm, Ballybofey)

ANTRIM eventually won their off-pitch battle in midweek but they'll probably only get one chance against Donegal - and it's highly unlikely that they'll take it.

Unlike the running of the GAA's disciplinary system, the Donegal set-up is a well-oiled machine, meticulously prepared, not prone to mucking up.

In assessing the possibility of a shock, consider the teams that have defeated Donegal in recent seasons, in League and Championship – Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Monaghan, Tyrone, Cork, and Roscommon. Only the last two are not among the recent major forces in football, and even they would expect to see off Antrim.

Donegal have enjoyed wins against almost all those counties too (their last win over Kerry was in the 2013 League), so they can truly say they're capable of beating anyone.

In contrast, the last 'big gun' that the Saffrons saw off was Galway almost five years ago, and that at a time when the Tribesmen made a habit of losing qualifiers.

The glimmer of hope for the Saffrons is that this is a different Donegal, deprived, for various reasons, of Eamon McGee, Anthony Thompson, Rory Kavanagh, Odhran Mac Niallais, Leo McLoone, Christy Toye, and Colm McFadden from the players who featured against Dublin in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final.

Yet Antrim are much-changed from last year too, with only six starters from the qualifier exit against Limerick named to line out tomorrow – captain and 'keeper Chris Kerr, Patrick Gallagher, Paddy McBride, Sean McVeigh, Mark Sweeney, and the much-mentioned Matthew Fitzpatrick.

Looking just one game further back, McBride is the only defender who lined out in last year's Ulster opener away to Fermanagh.

Both sides have brought new, young talent into their ranks, but Donegal are drawing upon proven quality. Their newcomers include lads who won the Ulster Minor crown three years ago (and reached that season's All-Ireland Final) and/or players who have Ulster U21 medals from this year.

Overall, these counties are leagues apart, certainly divisions apart, in terms of the level they regularly play at.

Antrim – and even those canny, down-playing Donegal men – may hark back to the Saffrons' success here at the same stage of the Ulster SFC in 2009.

Yet eight years ago Donegal were on their way down, relegated from Division One, while Antrim were on the up, promoted as table-toppers in Division Four.

This time around Donegal impressed in the top flight, coming close to reaching the final.

Antrim were somewhat unlucky to get relegated from Division Three, but they still dropped down.

In 2009 Liam 'Baker' Bradley had a fair few experienced and/or big men in his 15; this Antrim lacks both those aspects.

The even greater difference, though, is in Donegal, the transformation that was effected by Jim McGuinness in conjunction with current boss Rory Gallagher.

The serial under-achievers, arguably `chokers', have established themselves as a consistent top end force.

Since McGuinness took charge they've reached six consecutive All-Ireland quarter-finals, three times going onto semi-finals, twice to finals, once as winners.

Even though this Tir Chonaill team is in transition, they're still targeting the national last eight, at the least.

To that end, Gallagher's stated aim before this season began was to boost their scoring power to around 17-18 points per game.

In the League, that only came about in two matches, the opener against Kerry (1-17) and the win in Cavan (1-16). Overall, Donegal averaged 15 points per Division One outing.

However, scoring against the top teams is obviously much more difficult than overshadowing the lesser lights.

Even with the man-mountain Michael Murphy playing deeper more often in matches, Donegal have serious scoring power from the likes of Paddy McBrearty, Ryan McHugh, Eoin McHugh, Ciaran Thompson, and Marty O'Reilly, as well as from their counter-attacking defenders.

The hosts also still have plenty of experience in their ranks – Murphy, Paddy McGrath, Neil McGee, Karl Lacey, Frank McGlynn…

Antrim, as happens in counties that enjoy little success, have suffered serious 'churnover' of players. The combination of fresh faces and fewer matches contributes to a vicious circle preventing progress.

Most of the players in this Saffrons squad, although there's plenty of talent in it, simply haven't played enough matches of sufficient quality, in League or in Championship, to prepare themselves for the intensity and game-plan that Donegal will bring.

The joint-managerial team of Frank Fitzsimons and Gearoid Adams got greater defensive organisation as Division Three went on, and running power into their players' legs, but they still have a lot of ground to make up on Donegal.

The Saffrons may have shown they're not 'a soft touch' in disciplinary matters but they should still find beating Donegal far too hard a task.

This match may be more about what happens next.

Donegal have to get themselves into gear for a likely semi-final against recent big rivals Tyrone. Apart from the more established core of the team, there'll be more than half a dozen – including subs – playing for starting slots in the next round.

The concern for the visitors will be if Donegal get a run on them; with their tails up, Rory Gallagher's men can grab goals and easily reach that scoring target he set out.

The Saffrons don't carry the same threat up front, where they also appear to need more bulk than is currently listed on the team-sheet.

Antrim have to put in a positive enough performance to keep hopes up for the qualifiers, rather than having an exit from Ulster lead to exits from their squad.

The number-crunchers calculate a double-digit defeat for Antrim. The Saffrons will be determined to keep the deficit in single figures but that's the best they can hope for. Unless Donegal send on too many subs as they 'run' their bench in the closing quarter….

Donegal (possible): M A McGinley; P McGrath, N McGee, E Doherty; E Gallagher, K Lacey, F McGlynn; J McGee, M Murphy; R McHugh, E McHugh, C Thompson; J Brennan, P McBrearty, M O'Reilly

Antrim: C Kerr (capt.); C Hamill, P Gallagher, P Healy; P McBride, D Lynch, P McAleer; S McVeigh, S Beatty; R McCann, M Fitzpatrick, M Sweeney; C J McGourty, B Bradley, T McCann

Substitutes: A Hasson, K O Boyle, N Delargy, O Eastwood, D Nugent, J Dowling, C Small, S Tierney, E Walsh, S McGarry, P Branagan

Referee: Paddy Neilan (Roscommon)

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