Donegal can shade Kerry in heavyweight battle at Croke Park
All-Ireland Senior Football Championship quarter-final phase two: Kerry v Donegal (tomorrow, Croke Park, 4pm, live on RTE)
By Andy Watters
STYLES make fights and this should be a rock-em-sock-em battle to remember between the heavyweight champions of Ulster and Munster.
It’s Kerry wonderkids like David Clifford and Sean O’Shea against the veterans in the Donegal defence; Paddy McBrearty and Jamie Brennan against a Kingdom rearguard that may not be as leaky as suspected; the potential clash of Michael Murphy and David Moran in the midfield and Donegal’s running game versus Kerry’s kicking strategy…
There are so many factors at play in a game that will see the winner progress to the brink of the semi-final stage and the losers sent back to the drawing board with a lot of work to do if they want to join them there.
Both sides go into the game on the back of convincing home wins in their Super 8 openers. Donegal’s 2-19 to 1-13 victory in Ballybofey over a Meath side mauled by Dublin in the Leinster final was impressive but since it the Tir Chonaill men have been rocked by the news that wing-back Eoghan Ban Gallagher will miss the rest of the season.
The Killybegs clubman had been an ever-present in League and Championship and will be sorely missed but manager Declan Bonner at least has capable replacements in Gweedore’s Daire O Baoill or perhaps the Kilcar clubman Eoin McHugh.
Donegal’s nine-point win was impressive, but expected, while Kerry’s 10-point victory over Mayo in Killarney was hailed as a new footballing dawn. Mayo had seen off Down, Armagh (by a point) and bitter rivals Galway over the three preceding weekends and that heavy workload must have contributed to their inability to match Kerry’s energy and intensity and the class of Clifford and O’Shea (seven points each) was too much for their defence.
The challenge for Kerry is to prove that they can live up to all the hype and do the same again away from home and tomorrow is undoubtedly a step up for them. The Kingdom have been almost unbeatable in Killarney in recent years but the men in green and gold have struggled to find the same fluency outside their own borders.
Croke Park has not always been a happy hunting ground and since their last All-Ireland title was captured against Donegal in 2014, Kerry’s record at ‘Headquarters’ reads: Played nine, won four, lost four and drawn one.
That tells the tale of an inconsistent side that has struggled to crack it on the biggest stage against the toughest opponents despite the individual talent in their ranks.
And when it comes to talent there isn’t a better individual in the country than David Clifford at the minute. The Fossa clubman’s display last weekend had the purists raving. All he needs is the ball in his hands and when he gets it he can beat markers for fun if they commit or simply stroke it over their heads and over their bar if they stand off him.
The steady supply of ball Clifford captured allowed the likes of O’Shea, Stephen O’Brien, James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney to flourish so Donegal manager Bonner will need vintage performances from full-back Neil McGee and sweeper Hugh McFadden to restrict his influence tomorrow.
McFadden will also have an impact in the crucial midfield battle. Last weekend it was David Moran’s aerial superiority that laid the foundations for Kerry’s win. Moran, ably supported by Adrian Spillane, was in superb form and so Donegal’s McFadden, Jason McGee and Michael Murphy will need to match that. They will have their work cut out.
Kerry pushed up on the Mayo kick-outs last weekend, forcing David Clarke to kick the ball long and then dominated the centrefield battle but Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton has been in sublime form this year and his range and accuracy will always give the Ulster champions a regular outlet from restarts.
Patton’s kick-outs are a conundrum for Kerry. If they press high, Patton can kick long and accurately into pockets of space like he did against Cavan in the Ulster final. Michael Murphy gobbled up restarts for fun against Cavan with clean catches or breaks into the eager hands of Ryan McHugh.
Donegal have the physicality to handle the Kerry midfield pair but they will be concerned about the pace of Clifford and co. so they could well drop off Shane Ryan’s kick-outs, get their defensive system set up and challenge the Munstermen to work the ball through them.
Kerry are capable of doing that but the memory of Cork’s three second half goals in the Munster final will have cautioned them against over-committing in attack because Donegal can and will hurt them on the counter.
Gallagher’s pace out of defence will be missed but Bonner can still count on the irrepressible Ryan McHugh and the likes of Ciaran Thompson, McGee and Brennan to break with pace and an end product and supply McBrearty, who hit 1-6 last week against Meath, with the ammunition he needs to post a game-winning total.
The sides have met just twice in the Championship and on both occasions the winner lifted that year’s Sam Maguire. Donegal reigned supreme in a quarter-final back in 2012 and Kerry got their own back in the final two years later. Defensive errors were crucial in both games - in 2012, the Kerry defence allowed Colm McFadden’s sideline ball to drop into their net and in 2014 it was Paul Durcan’s stray kick-out to Kieran Donaghy that ultimately settled it.
In a game of high stakes another slip-up tomorrow could decide this game so the side that cuts out the unforced errors and plays closest to their potential should win it.
Kerry are capable of conjuring up brilliant moments but they will struggle to break down Donegal’s defence and the Ulster champions’ counter-attacking system should ask questions the Kingdom will be unable to answer over the course of the game.
This game should keep the fans interested right to the finish and Donegal have the tools to shade it and kick on to the semi-final stage.