Only one extreme or the other will see Scotstown halt Gaoth Dobhair charge
Ulster Club SFC final: Scotstown v Gaoth Dobhair (tomorrow, 2pm, Healy Park, live on TG4)
IF Scotstown are to bridge the 29-year gap back to their last Ulster Club success, then it has to be one extreme or the other.
Gaoth Dobhair, after a run of underage successes, are searching for a first ever senior provincial club title and having torn Crossmaglen to pieces, the Donegal champions have assumed the mantle of favourites.
Rightly so, for they’ve proven in recent months that they can cope with whatever’s put in front of them. Right from beating St Eunan’s in Letterkenny first up to fearlessly plundering four goals against Cross two weeks ago, their style of play has looked like the perfect mix for success.
They scorched the grass off Healy Park two weeks ago. Crossmaglen pushed up, as expected, and Gaoth Dobhair unleashed a ruthless fury into the massive spaces in behind.
But Cross contributed to their own downfall. Not through their naivety, but their half-heartedness.
Their plan was, as always, to suffocate Gaoth Dobhair as high up the pitch as they could.
But they got caught too often in the halfway house. They tried to push up on kickouts but didn’t do it well enough, and that was the worst thing they could have done.
At times, Gaoth Dobhair had five across their full-back on their own kickouts. Crossmaglen either had to push five up, or drop off completely. They did neither for most of the game, and that’s really what hammered them.
Yet look at the 20 minutes either side of half-time. That’s when they managed to do what they’d set out to do, and from 3-5 to 0-5 down, they hit six of the next seven scores and close the gap to four before Kevin Cassidy’s goal killed it.
The trick to beating Gaoth Dobhair is in denying them the ball, rather than trying to take it off them.
To juxtapose them with their opponents past and present, whose eye-pleasing traditional styles are as the result of years of work on the basics, this Gaoth Dobhair side are products of their own very different repetition.
Their hand-passing game is exceptional. The comfort they have on the ball clearly originates from intense, small-sided handpassing games in tight spaces.
No matter what area of the pitch they’re in, they’re exceptionally hard to dispossess. Crossmaglen couldn’t get it off them pushing up, and they got crucified in behind.
Cargin tried the opposite tactic in the quarter-final, but dropping off one and sometimes two sweepers allowed the runners from deep the chance to build up their head of steam.
Daire Ó Baoill and Odhran McFadden-Ferry did so much of the damage against Crossmaglen. The latter was at the heart of a routine move that underlined just how exceptionally well drilled they are.
When Gaoth Dobhair countered, he didn’t concern himself with the early part of the attack. He just sprinted to between midfield and centre-half-forward, where he became the outlet for the kick pass. Time and again they utilised him to transition at lightning pace.
With Kevin Cassidy’s brain and big shoulders making him very difficult to play against at full-forward, they also have the permanent outlet for the kick.
They are also exceptionally cute. The taking of almost every single free beyond the scoring zone was disrupted. They were happy to concede the 13 metres knowing the extra few seconds were critical to them getting back in shape.
Scotstown are notoriously similar to Crossmaglen in their style. They want to play man-to-man football. It suits them, with their brawn.
If the Monaghan champions could have chosen their Ulster final opponent, it would have been Cross. Tactically, they’d have been able to go on about their usual business. Having to face Gaoth Dobhair has made for a lot more consideration for Kieran Donnelly the last two weeks.
They have scraped their way to this stage, hanging on against Burren, coming back from the dead against Eoghan Rua. There should be no illusions on the Donegal side’s part that they’ve hit anything near their potential in those two games.
Yet it’s hard to draw your mind away from how Kilcar tore them apart in Clones last year, sucking them in and slicing them open. Ten points separated them in the end.
No doubt the patience Scotstown exhibited in prising a deep-lying Coleraine apart in the dying minutes of the semi-final was evidence that they have done serious work on attacking into such defensive walls.
But it’s what they’ve learnt about how to defend against searing pace on the break that will determine their success. Much of the evidence from the Coleraine game suggested it will remain a struggle.
There are only two options for them – one extreme or the other.
It’s not impossible to press up on Gaoth Dobhair and win, but it all boils down to forcing their kickouts long and creating a battle. That means over-committing at times – something the Donegal men did themselves, sending Daire Ó Baoill into the attacking half on Crossmaglen’s restarts and leaving a Cross forward completely free.
They took risks at the right times and they were handsomely rewarded. If Scotstown have the intestines to match such well-calculated risks, they have the quality to claim the Ulster title that would finally bring this team in out of the rain, to stand and bask in the sun with their famous fathers and uncles.
But they are the team having to do most of the counter-thinking before a ball is kicked.
Gaoth Dobhair have been the best team in Ulster this autumn, and that’s how it’s set to stay.
Emmet Caulfield v Kevin Cassidy
Since coming out of retirement, Cassidy has been a sage presence at full-forward for Gaoth Dobhair. The timing of the run and the way he uses his body make him exceptionally hard to deal. In Colm McGoldrick, Caulfield came up against a not-dissimilar operator the last day. He’ll have to take that experience – which wasn’t always nice – and use it to restrict Cassidy, who’s hit 2-5 from play in their two games in Ulster.
Paths to the final
Monaghan SFC round one: Scotstown 1-14 Carrickmacross 2-8
Monaghan SFC round 2A: Scotstown 0-10 Ballybay 0-9
Monaghan SFC semi-final: Scotstown 1-17 Magheracloone 2-11
Monaghan SFC final: Scotstown 1-13 Ballybay 0-13
Ulster SFC preliminary round: Scotstown 2-17 Derrygonnelly 1-11
Ulster SFC quarter-final: Burren 0-10 Scotstown 0-13
Ulster SFC semi-final: Scotstown 1-14 Coleraine 2-10
Donegal SFC group stage: St Eunan’s 1-6 Gaoth Dobhair 0-10
Donegal SFC group stage: Gaoth Dobhair 0-12 Naomh Conaill 0-6
Donegal SFC group stage: Dungloe 0-5 Gaoth Dobhair 0-10
Donegal SFC quarter-final: Gaoth Dobhair 8-13 Bundoran 3-12
Donegal SFC semi-final: Gaoth Dobhair 3-14 Sean MacCumhaills 1-7
Donegal SFC final: Gaoth Dobhair 0-17 Naomh Conaill 0-7
Ulster SFC quarter-final: Cargin 1-13 Gaoth Dobhair 3-11
Ulster SFC semi-final: Gaoth Dobhair 4-11 Crossmaglen 0-16