Fermanagh can believe but Donegal look too potent
ALL good things come to an end - and there's a first time for everything. That's both the fear and the hope for Fermanagh, that five Ulster football final defeats will turn into six; or that they might, just might, end up in seventh heaven, celebrating an unprecedented success after six previous attempts at winning the provincial final ended in failure.
In one sense, Fermanagh have done before what they need to do tomorrow, twice in fact, which is to win a third consecutive Championship match.
They managed that in 2003, defeating Cavan, Meath, and Mayo in the qualifiers after Down had ousted them from Ulster, before eventual All-Ireland champions Tyrone crushed them at the quarter-final stage.
The next year, Fermanagh's 'annus mirabilis', Charlie Mulgrew's 'little green men' produced some out of this world results, technically winning five matches in a row after Tyrone, much more narrowly this time, had ended their provincial involvement. After a walkover following Tipperary's withdrawal, the Ernemen again beat Meath, then Cork, Donegal, and - most famously of all - Armagh, before Mayo edged them out in an All-Ireland semi-final replay.
Fermanagh have to play with the hope they showed in those seasons, not fear. That doesn't mean changing their approach, but believing that it can bring another victory.
Despite Donegal's deserved favourites status, Fermanagh should have such belief.
Tradition still matters in football. Although that might mean some thinking Fermanagh definitely won't win a first ever Ulster title, another aspect of history is that they know they can beat Donegal, just as they knew they could beat Monaghan and Armagh. Had Tyrone managed to make it through to the semi-final Fermanagh probably wouldn't be at this stage.
However, the hoodoo that the Red Hands hold over the Ernemen isn't shared by Donegal. The Ernemen have no fear of their neighbours to the north, just as Monaghan weren't spooked by an apparently unbeatable Tir Chonaill team in 2013.
Fermanagh have won four of their last 10 Championship meetings with Donegal, indeed four of the last eight when looking only at the matches this century.
You have to go back to that wonder year of 2004 for the last Fermanagh win, but that was in Clones too, in round four of the qualifiers. That added to an
Ulster quarter-final win the previous year, which came after wins in a 2001 Ulster SFC preliminary round replay and the 2000 Ulster SFC quarter-final.
Of course, Fermanagh must make history, not repeat it.
To that end, they won't care at all if they 'win ugly', nor should for a second, as long as they win.
To do so, they'll have to make this another low-scoring encounter as they simply don't have the fire-power to out-gun Donegal in a shoot-out.
It may be simplistic to characterise this clash as 'attack v defence' but that's largely the way these two teams have shaped up so far.
Donegal have scored even more freely than Tyrone last year, indeed they've already outdone the Red Hands' three-match 2017 Ulster tally of 3-60 with 6-58 so far. If Bonner's lads repeat that average of around 2-19 they'll win this decider comfortably - but they won't need to score so much against Fermanagh. Which is just as well.
The Ernemen's defence has been extremely mean, conceding only 17 points in two matches. However, they have only scored 1-20.
They may feel they can do more than that tomorrow, as Donegal's defence has appeared decidedly dodgy, although that's a partial consequence of their more attacking approach.
Yet even with the experienced Frank McGlynn protecting the rearguard Donegal have conceded 2-43 (call that an average of just over 1-13) and their opponents also wasted opportunities, with both Cavan and Derry recording 13 wides each, while Down's shooting was poor too.
The absence of the suspended Neil McGee from full-back may make them a little more shaky; even though Fermanagh won't push too many men forward, Bonner may bring in Stephen McMenamin rather than a more attacking replacement such as Daire O Baoill.
The key could be that Donegal have more margin for error, having won their games by an average margin of nine points, compared to three for Fermanagh.
Donegal's scoring power from distance is significant against a deep-lying, very hard-working defensive team. Their 'scoring zone' from frees is large, and covers both sides of the pitch, thanks to the talents of captain Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty. Those two can also fire over from range in open play, as can the likes of Michael Langan, Ciaran Thompson, Leo McLoone, Odhran Mac Niallais, and even half-back Paul Brennan.
Fermanagh will, of course, try to bottle up the runs from deep of players such as Ryan McHugh and Jamie Brennan, and may have the numbers to do that, but more powerful men such as Eoghan Gallagher and McLoone - who carries a goal threat from midfield - may be able to break through the defensive walls.
Shaun Patton's kick-outs have been impressive, providing the platform for many Donegal attacks; at the other end of the field the Tir Chonaill forwards may well put some heat on Pat Cadden, a forward converted to goalkeeper.
Knowing how Fermanagh will play and overcoming their tactics are two different things, however.
In the searing heat of the semi-final against Monaghan it seemed certain that Fermanagh would fade. They certainly suffered, and struggled to score in the second half, but came good in the end with a late goal from skipper Eoin Donnelly. They'll probably need to net at least once tomorrow to have any hope.
Rory Gallagher's in-depth knowledge of many of the Donegal players, from his time in the senior set-up, and more recently with their U21s and on the club scene, will help to an extent.
His assistant Ryan McMenamin has brought in the snapping, snarling, hunting in packs attitude that he displayed himself as a player. They'll need someone to 'dog' Murphy and curtail his influence on proceedings.
Yet, for all the hopes of a fairytale finish for Fermanagh, Donegal look to have too much attacking talent, too many options.
Gallagher lost two tight, tense finals as Donegal manager, against Monaghan in 2015 and Tyrone in 2016. He'll hope for another such match tomorrow - but even then he's likely to suffer the same fate and lose once more.
Man of the moment...
All eyes will be on Ryan McHugh - at least Declan Bonner will hope so. The Donegal boss cunningly highlighted how the Kilcar speedster has been 'targeted' by opponents this season, calling for protection from referees, much to the annoyance of former Fermanagh manager Dominic Corrigan and, no doubt, the current Erne mentors.
However, the man in the middle for this final, Meath's David Gough, tends to let teams go at each other, and is too good to be influenced by managerial mind games, but be assured that the Donegal supporters will loudly draw the ref's attention every time McHugh's runs are brought to a halt by Fermanagh.
In the absence of his similarly quick cousin Eoin McHugh, who is in the United States of America this summer, Ryan's pace is particularly important in unlocking defences, although Donegal do have plenty of other attacking players and approaches.
Donegal have impressed so far with their running game and their counter-attacking - but both of those aspects will be limited by Fermanagh's defensive approach. Declan Bonner's side will have to be patient, but they have the footballing intelligence and quick ball-handling skills to probe and poke for openings in the green wall that will face them. Donegal can also go over that obstacle, with plenty of accurate shooters from distance.
Tir Chonaill also have plenty of options on the bench if they need to try a different approach. The pace of Cian Mulligan has brought him two goals and he's likely to come on again during the second half. The passing and shooting skills of Odhran Mac Niaillais - who netted twice against Fermanagh two years ago - may also be held in reserve until a little more space opens up, which Daire O Baoill and Mark McHugh may well get some game-time again.
Fermanagh know that they'll probably have to increase their scoring average (just 11.5 so far) in order to win this final, but they are also aware that they can't take too many risks against a side with Donegal's attacking prowess.
Turnovers in the opposition half are one potential source of scores, but pressing up on Donegal's kick-outs could be a risky move, given the accuracy of Shaun Patton's longer deliveries over the top, and the size of the men who can win aerial ball for Tir Chonaill.
Fermanagh will surely try to keep the game tight for as long as possible and then deploy some of their attacking options - the Corrigan brothers, Ruairi and Tomas, and maybe even the enigmatic Seamus Quigley.
A few high balls directed into the Donegal square could also pay dividends for the likes of Sean Quigley and Conall Jones, especially in the absence of the suspended Neil McGee.
Last 10 in the Championship
2016 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Donegal 2-12 Fermanagh 0-11
2006 All-Ireland qualifiers round four: Fermanagh 0-8 Donegal 0-11
2004 All-Ireland qualifiers round four (Clones): Fermanagh 1-10 Donegal 0-12
2003 Ulster quarter-final: Fermanagh 0-10 Donegal 0-6
2001 All-Ireland qualifiers round one: Fermanagh 1-6 Donegal 0-15
2001 Ulster SFC preliminary round replay Fermanagh 1-9 Donegal 0-11
2001 Ulster SFC preliminary round: Donegal 1-16 Fermanagh 2-13
2000 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Donegal 0-13 Fermanagh 1-12
1992 Ulster SFC semi-final (Healy Park): Donegal 2-17 Fermanagh 0-7
1991 Ulster SFC semi-final (Healy Park): Donegal 1-18 Fermanagh 0-13
Michael Murphy (Donegal) v Che Cullen (Fermanagh)
Although Che is an identical twin, Fermanagh might wish that he could be cloned in Clones. The Ernemen must restrict the influence of Donegal skipper Michael Murphy if they are to have any chance of winning. Derry kept him a bit quieter when they moved Chrissy McKaigue onto him and Che did a decent job against the Glenswilly giant in the Championship meeting two years ago before being black-carded in the 48th minute.
The problem is who then deals with Patrick McBrearty, given that Che marked Monaghan star Conor McManus? Maybe the Belnaleck man's double, Lee, could be handed that task.
Who's the ref?
David Gough (Meath)
Fermanagh are likely to be happy enough about his appointment, given that the Meath man likes to let the game flow and allows defenders a certain amount of leeway in the tackle. The Ernemen can be confident that they can get bodies around attackers without risking giving away too many frees. Donegal, though, surely had few if any complaints about how he handled their Ulster opener against Cavan and they're no shrinking violets themselves when it comes to making contact in defensive areas.
Somewhat surprisingly the Slane clubman has still be given an All-Ireland Final, although he's generally regarded as the best current official.
A lovely day for it, although the players might wish for it to be a little cooler. Temperatures should be around 21, 22 degrees during the senior final, with wind speed to be around five mph at most. Humidity levels are only likely to be c. 60 per cent after a low chance of some early morning rain. Let's hope the entertainment is as good as the weather.
Donegal (probable): S Patton; P McGrath, S McMenamin, E Gallagher; P Brennan, C Ward, R McHugh; H McFadden, L McLoone; F McGlynn, M Murphy (capt.), M Langan; C Thompson, J Brennan, P McBrearty.
Declan Bonner must make one change, with Neil McGee suspended; given that Fermanagh won't commit too many men forward, the Donegal boss could bring another attacking type, such as Odhran Mac Niallais, into a re-shuffled side but defender Stephen McMenamin may get the nod to deal with the physicality of Sean Quigley, especially as Caolan Ward struggled somewhat against Down's admittedly powerful Connaire Harrison.
Fermanagh (probable): P Cadden; K Connor, C Cullen, M Jones; B Mulrone, J McMahon, L Cullen; E Donnelly (capt.), R Jones; P McCusker, D McCusker, A Breen; C Corrigan, C Jones, Sean Quigley.
Fermanagh's team hadn't been announced at the time of writing but few, if any, changes were anticipated, not least because of the superbly disciplined display in the semi-final. Seamus Quigley is unlikely to force his way back into the starting side but he's one of a few attacking options that may be called upon, along with Ruairi and Tomas Corrigan, the height of Tom Clarke, or the experience of Eamon McHugh.
Last Championship meeting
2016 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Donegal 2-12 Fermanagh 0-11
Donegal appeared in a bit of bother in Ballybofey just before half-time when Neil McGee was sent off for a forearm smash on Ruairi Corrigan, resulting in a penalty for Fermanagh as well. Had Sean Quigley converted the spot-kick then Pete McGrath's side would have gone in front, but instead, after a lengthy delay, Mark Anthony McGinley saved the poorly struck effort to preserve the hosts' 1-6 to 0-7 advantage.
Despite their numerical inferiority Donegal went on to dominate the second half, helped by Fermanagh sitting back too much and allowing Donegal to run at them. Odhran Mac Niallais was the star of the show, netting an early goal from a Frank McGlynn assist, then scoring another after a flowing counter-attack following a Fermanagh error, although there was a 'square ball?' question over that one.
Match odds: Donegal 1/5 Draw 12/1 Fermanagh 9/2
Handicap odds: Donegal (-5) Evs Handicap draw (Donegal -5) 10/1 Fermanagh (+5) 10/11