GAA Football

Stat attack: All the numbers and analysis ahead of Sunday's Ulster final

The battle between Jamie Brennan and Jason McLoughlin will be among the key duels in tomorrow's Ulster final. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

TEAM TALK
Donegal (probable): Shaun Patton; Stephen McMenamin, Neil McGee, Paddy McGrath; Ryan McHugh, Leo McLoone, Eoghan Bán Gallagher; Hugh McFadden, Jason McGee; Ciaran Thompson, Michael Langan, Eoin McHugh; Jamie Brennan, Michael Murphy, Patrick McBrearty

THE big calls facing Declan Bonner is whether to retain Niall O’Donnell from the start or return Ciaran Thompson to the starting line-up, and whether Eoin McHugh keeps his place ahead of Daire Ó Baoill. Thompson was flown by helicopter to Breffni Park to play off the bench against Tyrone, and if Jason McGee hasn’t recovered then he would step in there and O’Donnell would keep his place too. But if McGee is fit, as expected, then someone will miss out. The McHugh-Ó Baoill one is a straight shootout. The Kilcar man starting was a slight surprise in the semi-final but he seems likely to hold on to the spot now.

Cavan (probable): Raymond Galligan; Jason McLoughlin, Padraig Faulkner, Conor Moynagh; Martin Reilly, Killian Clarke, Conor Rehill; Conor Brady, Gearoid McKiernan; Oisin Kiernan, Dara McVeety, Niall Murray, Oisin Pierson, Thomas Galligan, Conor Madden

WHILE there will be debate over what’s best to do with Cian Mackey, there is no real evidence to suggest that Mickey Graham will break from what’s been working by starting him. Naturally, should Cavan lose, the microscope will fall on that decision but there’s no winning with it. 70 minutes would be a stretch for Mackey but his impact over half a game can still be colossal. After missing the replay win over Armagh through suspension, Ciaran Brady is set to come back into the side, most likely at the expense of one of the Oisins in attack. Whether it’s Pierson or Kiernan, it will mean a slight reshape. The other 14 are expected to be as they were two weeks ago, although Caoimhin O’Reilly may sneak in if there is to be a surprise.

TACTICAL TAKE: DONEGAL
NOT only did their win over Tyrone display their adaptability, but it showed just how deadly their forward line can be even when playing a completely different game. Becoming a more offensive unit under Declan Bonner stood to sense with their front five as it is, and Michael Murphy drifting in. Their half-back line has pace and scores too, although in a more man-for-man approach there are question marks about their defensive abilities. That was no doubt why they shut up shop on Tyrone. Whether that’s a template they intend to build on, or to break out as and when it’s required, we need more evidence. They are unlikely to be as defensive tomorrow, but by stepping out they may be opening the door to Cavan. If they shut the game down and stifle Dara McVeety in particular, Donegal will win. Leaving it open carries that little bit more risk, but you’d still fancy their forwards if it becomes a shootout.

TACTICAL TAKE: CAVAN
MICKEY Graham has earned plenty of corn already this summer, but this is the big test. Their attacking play has been excellent in the three games so far, but it is methodical by its nature. They still lack the natural forwards and rely instead on out-thinking their opponents. Hitting 0-23 in the replay win over Armagh was testament to the way in which they did just that. If Donegal give them space then there’s no reason to feel that the same approach won’t work well for Cavan. But if the Tír Chonaill men close the game down, it poses different problems and the big question is whether the Breffnimen would have the answers for that. Conor Brady seems likely to be detailed with a full-time man-marking assignment on Michael Murphy, with Ciaran Brady the likely sweeper, though that role could possibly fall to Conor Moynagh too. Dara McVeety will start out and move into full-forward early on, and how much ball they can get him will determine their fate.

How the teams are likely to match up against each other for Sunday's provincial final.

MAN OF THE MOMENT
Dara McVeety
LAST year’s championship meeting of these two sides has been widely discussed over the 12 months from then until now, but the factor most overlooked was Dara McVeety’s injury. He suffered a badly torn hamstring in the Division Two final at Croke Park and was only fit for the last 17 minutes off the bench in Ballybofey. Prior to that, he had been playing the football of his life as Mattie McGleenan stationed him at full-forward. The ability to win ball was complemented by his directness and pace. Until that injury, he was unquestionably one of the form forwards in the country last year. He has rebounded brilliantly this summer, with Mickey Graham getting the same return out of him since sticking him inside. Armagh’s decision to play without a sweeper in front of him was footballing suicide. Donegal will not do the same, and it’s whether he can get enough ball at full-forward that will determine their attacking joy. They might have to bring him out at some point, but they’d rather not.

KEY BATTLES
Eoghan Bán Gallagher v Gearoid McKiernan
THERE is a slim chance that Gallagher might actually be asked to go to full-back on Dara McVeety and that Neil McGee might be the man for this job, but that seems unlikely to be plan A. Donegal will hope that the Killybegs man will have enough about him to push McKiernan on to the back foot when they have the ball. Lest we forget that Gallagher scored the opening goal in last year’s decider. The key to defending against Swanlinbar’s finest is to expect the unexpected. He has made an art form of arriving off the shoulder at exactly the right time, and one of his biggest assets has been the development of a right foot that seems to kick more scores than his naturally-favoured left now.

Cavan may attempt to curtail Donegal talisman Michael Murphy by asking Conor Brady to do a similar job to the one he did on Jarlath Óg Burns in the replay win over Armagh.

Michael Murphy v Conor Brady
AGAIN there are a myriad of options for Mickey Graham to choose from, the most obvious other being Killian Clarke. But to do that would take too much away from Cavan’s own attacking play, and in doing so leave a very real possibility that Michael Murphy will be unplayable anyway. So it seems more plausible that the task will be left to Conor Brady. He picked up Jarlath Óg Burns in the replay win over Armagh and tagged him everywhere around Clones. How much of the difference in Burns’ display was down to Brady and how much was down to his injury concerns, it’s hard to tell, but the Cavan man did what he was asked to do. In Donegal’s semi-final, Murphy was simply far too many for Padraig Hampsey, someone who has given him tough games in the past. His ability to fetch ball at midfield and use it right almost every time makes him almost unparalleled in the sport.

Jason McLoughlin v Jamie Brennan
IT was only with Patrick McBrearty’s injury last summer that Declan Bonner finally began to lean on Jamie Brennan as a pivot in the forward line, and the Bundoran man has made the most of his opportunity. With 4-19 to his name, he’s the second-top scorer from play in Ireland this year, behind only Ryan Murray, whose spring was spent in Division Four. Brennan’s finishing ability was evident in the win over Tyrone, and what makes him tough to mark is the low centre of gravity allied by pace and a deceptive power. Jason McLoughlin had a brilliant start to the summer, outstanding against Monaghan and then putting the clampers on Jamie Clarke in the drawn game with Armagh, but the replay was a much tougher affair. He has the pace to match Brennan, but it will be the strength test that challenges his more greatly.

EVER-PRESENTS
Players that have played every minute in league and championship in 2019
Donegal: Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Hugh McFadden (700 minutes)
Cavan: Raymond Galligan, Killian Clarke, Martin Reilly (720 minutes)

LAST CHAMPIONSHIP MEETING
2018 Ulster SFC preliminary round: Donegal 2-22 Cavan 1-15
BEFORE a ball was kicked in Ballybofey, most observers suspected Donegal would progress to the quarter-finals – but few expected the gulf in class to be so stark.
Despite raising the first green flag of the day through Caoimhin O’Reilly after 16 minutes, Cavan were blown away by their slick hosts. Donegal could afford to miss a couple of gilt-edged goal chances in the first half, take the foot off the pedal in the second half and still cruise to an eight-point win.
Played in front of a disappointing 9,612 crowd, the game lacked a Championship edge from start to finish.
The Cavan defence, quite literally, didn’t lay a hand on the countless Donegal runners as they racked up 1-10, all from open play, in the opening half.
From a Cavan perspective, it was a genuine pity Dara McVeety wasn’t fit enough to start. They needed all their best players to be fit and firing on all cylinders to stand a chance of upsetting Donegal on their home patch.
To kill any giddy romanticism in the Cavan ranks, Donegal rattled off the first six points of the second half to cruise into a 10-point lead after 44 minutes. Michael Murphy was having a field day.
Declan Bonner withdrew some of his star performers in the closing stages while substitute Cian Mulligan put his hand up for a starting place against Derry on May 27 with a confident finish to the net in stoppage-time.

Donegal: S Patton; E Gallagher, N McGee, C Ward (0-1); S McMenamin, P Brennan, R McHugh (1-0); H McFadden, L McLoone (0-1); C Thompson (0-3), M Langan (0-3), F McGlynn; P McBrearty (0-4), M Murphy (0-6, 0-3 frees), J Brennan (0-2)
Subs: C McGinley for C Thompson (53), D O’Connor for F McGlynn (53), C Mulligan (1-0) for R McHugh (60), M McHugh for F McGlynn (64), S McBrearty for J Brennan (67), C McGonagle for M Langan (70)

Cavan: R Galligan; J McLoughlin, P Faulkner, N Murray (0-1); K Brady, C Brady, C Moynagh; K Clarke, B Magee (0-1); C Mackey (0-2 frees), O Kiernan, E Flanagan; C O’Reilly (1-3, 0-3 frees), G McKiernan (0-7, 0-2 frees), C Bradley
Subs: F Reilly for K Brady (22), R Connolly for N Murray (h/t), A Cole (0-1) for B Magee (44), M Reilly for C O’Reilly (45), D McVeety for E Flanagan (53)

WHO’S THE REF?
Conor Lane (Cork)
THE man in the middle of two of the last three All-Ireland finals, Lane’s first outing in Ulster this summer was a very good one. While the early Cavan penalty was debatable, and ultimately critical in their win over Monaghan, the rest of his decision-making was pretty much spot on. He’d enjoyed the trip to New York for the summer’s opener between the hosts and Mayo, and was untested by Dublin’s facile win over Kildare two weeks ago. Still has tendencies to be erratic in terms of how he referees the tackle. Cavan would have been happy with him against Monaghan, but there’s no guarantee he’ll give the same decisions tomorrow.

WEATHER WATCH
THE sea of colour that the coalescence of blue and yellow could have provided in Clones is unlikely to appear, with the need for half-zips and hoodies a likelihood. Seems fairly certain to be showers throughout the game, though at 17 degrees and without much wind, it might not be all that unpleasant.

BETTING CORNER
Donegal 1/3
Draw 8/1
Cavan 3/1
Handicap
Donegal (-3) 10/11
Draw (-3) 9/1
Cavan (+3) 11/10
First goalscorer
No goalscorer 11/2
Jamie Brennan 6/1
Patrick McBrearty 13/2
Michael Murphy 8/1
Conor Madden 8/1
Man of the match tips
Jamie Brennan 8/1
Conor Moynagh 28/1
Have a punt
Over 1.5 black cards 6/5
Total points 35 or more 11/10
Half-time handicap draw (Donegal -1) 13/2

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