Donegal can get back to winning ways in all-Ulster showdown
Allianz National Football League Division Two: Donegal v Armagh (tonight, 7.15pm, Ballybofey, live on eir sport 2)
FOLLOWING two surprise defeats on the bounce, pre-season promotion favourites Donegal need to get back to winning ways – and fast – if they are to keep alive hopes of an instant return to the top tier.
There were warning signs in the Tir Chonaill’s opening two games, even though they won, having found themselves trailing to both Clare and Meath before coming good in the end.
Without a host of key men, those performances were disjointed and sporadic at times, and Tipperary made Donegal pay at the third time of asking by downing the Ulster champions in Thurles.
Fermanagh expected to reap the whirlwind in Letterkenny last weekend but, despite a strong start, Donegal fell worryingly short after the break, managing to breach the Erne defence on only two more occasions as Rory Gallagher’s men took control.
It is a bit early in year for panic stations, especially considering the personnel they have been without, but Declan Bonner has battened down the hatches this week in a bid to focus attention on righting recent wrongs against Armagh tonight.
Both counties currently have four points and sit slap bang in the middle of Division Two. Whoever wins will spend tonight looking up while the losers could find themselves looking nervously over their shoulders.
The Donegal panel has been strengthened since that Fermanagh reversal though with the return to the panel of Gaoth Dobhair quintet Neil McGee, Daire O Baoill, Cian Mulligan, Odhran McFadden-Ferry and Michael Carroll.
It is two weeks now since the sun set on their All-Ireland ambitions, defeated by the all-conquering Corofin, and they could yet have a huge say in Donegal’s destination come the end of this League campaign.
In the wake of that semi-final defeat, Odhran MacNiallais confirmed he planned to take an extended break and is not expected to feature in county colours until the summer, while Kieran Gillespie remains on the sidelines as he recovers from a cruciate injury.
However, along with the Gaoth Dobhair boys, the experienced Paddy McGrath and Michael Murphy could also come back into the fold. The Glenswilly ace starred the last time Donegal faced Armagh in the League, plundering two goals at the Athletic Grounds five years ago, and his return would be a huge boost.
Like tonight’s opponents, Armagh have also blown hot and cold throughout the League
Indeed, although they recorded their first win of the campaign against Tipperary last time out, they still gave their supporters a sweat at the end in a game they had largely dominated.
Assistant boss Jim McCorry mentioned the need to kill off opponents after that game, and he needn’t look much further than their early games in the League for further examples of points dropped.
Against Kildare and then Clare (when a couple of key decisions went against them), the Orchard blew late leads to take home just a point when two would have set them up perfectly.
Defensively, they snuffed out the threat of Tipperary well for the majority of last week’s game. However, the pace and precision of the Meath attack opened them up time and again in Navan, and Donegal are similarly blessed in terms of speed and movement.
The Tir Chonaill’s cause was undoubtedly harmed by the early red card shown to Caolan McGonagle last week, but the likes of Jamie Brennan, Oisin Gallen and Cian Mulligan - if he is involved - will fancy themselves to do damage.
Whether McFadden-Ferry gets the nod to start remains to be seen, but he would the obvious candidate to shackle Jamie Clarke, while Caolan Ward or possibly even Neil McGee could be tasked with looking after the dangerous Stefan Campbell.
The stakes are high in Ballybofey for both counties, and Armagh travel with confidence after some strong performances. However, with their grip on possible promotion loosened considerably in recent weeks, Donegal are fancied to edge to a much-needed win.
* Meanwhile, motorists have been advised to get on the road early for tonight’s game. A large crowd is expected and supporters coming from the Donegal direction will be further delayed by roadwork traffic management outside Ballybofey.