Donegal’s basic principles on show as they set up early Jim v Mickey meeting

Donegal v Monaghan Dr McKenna Cup 2024.  Donegal’s Ciaran Thompson and Monaghan’s Jason Irwin.  Picture Mark Marlow
Donegal v Monaghan Dr McKenna Cup 2024. Donegal’s Ciaran Thompson and Monaghan’s Jason Irwin. Picture Mark Marlow (" ")
Dr McKenna Cup semi-final: Monaghan 0-11 Donegal 4-14

IT was ahead of the 2011 Ulster semi-final between Derry and Armagh that Mickey Harte, according to Jim’s book, guffawed with laughter as Tony Donnelly told Jim McGuinness that he and then-assistant Rory Gallagher were “in our seats”.

The subliminal meaning that McGuinness inferred was that Donegal were the upstarts looking to take their place.

Thirteen years on from that encounter, a Jim McGuinness team is back chasing a Mickey Harte team.

Derry are, just as Tyrone were then, reigning back-to-back Ulster champions.

They will get their first chance to hop off each other in Saturday’s McKenna Cup final, for which Omagh’s Healy Park is the natural geographical fit. A familiar sideline with familiar, slightly more worn protagonists, only with the Oak Leaf badge on the door of one of the changing rooms.

Donegal have impressed in January. Mightily so at times yesterday.

The caveats must be applied early. Monaghan were a shadow force on paper and all over the shop in the first 20 minutes.

Every time the green and gold shirts got the ball, they looked like they were going to score a goal. They finished the first half with three, another disallowed and at least three more left behind them.

Are we over-reaching or are we really seeing the basic principles of what McGuinness wants to bring to Donegal 2.0?

When they had the wind, all 15 players pressed Monaghan’s kickouts, right up as far as their own 65′. Nobody staying home and nobody even thinking of it.

The little Venus Flytraps of four men that most teams set around their own ‘D’, Donegal were setting thirty and forty yards higher up the pitch.

Monaghan were turned over everywhere. They struggled with the height and ferocity of Donegal’s pressing combined with Mark Loughran, an impressive new referee to the circuit whose approach favoured the defender.

Vinny Corey’s team that had few enough regulars on it weren’t helped by losing both Sean Jones and Conor McCarthy to injury inside the first 18 minutes.

They made plenty of mistakes of their own volition. The first goal came off a loose pass from Darren McDonnell 100 yards from his own goal that Odhran Doherty picked off and had the vision and ability to launch a brilliant 60-yard ball over the top to Oisin Gallen, who rolled it into an empty net.

Gallen already had 2-4 to his name when he was taken off for a rest at half-time with the game already won. The visitors led by 3-9 to 0-3.

Man-of-the-match Doherty had rifled home the second goal himself, a brilliant finish to cap one of his side’s lightning transitions in a spell where Monaghan were just completely overwhelmed by lines of endless runners from deep.

The winners’ foul count was high but that didn’t seem like an issue. When Monaghan had possession, they got hit. By everyone. All the time.

Donegal’s defensive raison d’être on this Sunday was less about discipline and more about aggression and contact.

Maybe McGuinness is looking to make an early statement that he’s evolved himself, even just to allay his own people of the fear of the 2011 gameplan returning.

It is with intrigue they will be watched on Saturday and beyond.

“I would like to think you are not imagining it anyway,” said the Donegal boss when asked if the early talk around high pressing was really what was happening.

“I think these are all things that we have to look at and delve deep into to find answers.

“We have enjoyed doing that, and the challenges, and the next opponent. All those things are great concepts until somebody bangs four goals in against you and you have to re-evaluate things.”

The caveat, in case you missed it, must be applied. This was not the real Monaghan.

Gary Mohan was, aerially, their one saving grace while Stephen Mooney’s shooting kept it some way respectable, the second minute replacement finishing with eight points, two of them from play.

But Donegal added a fourth goal through young sub Ronan Frain and still managed to draw the second half 0-8 to 1-5 despite playing against the wind.

In terms of controlling what they could control, Donegal were really impressive.

Derry will offer them a lot less control.

We’ll know a bit more this time next week.

Monaghan: D McDonnell; R O’Toole, K Lavelle, K Loughran; K Sheridan, C Lennon, C McCarthy; M McCarville, G Mohan (0-1); B McBennett (0-1), S O’Hanlon, J Wilson; D Garland, S Jones, J Irwin
Subs: S Mooney (0-8, 0-6 frees) for Jones (2), D McAlearney for McCarthy (14), D Treanor for Lennon (HT), M Hamill for Wilson (HT), A Woods for Garland (HT), T McPhillips for O’Toole (HT), B Walker for Lavelle (46), C McNulty (0-1) for McCarville (52), F Hughes for McBennett (52), J McCarron for O’Hanlon (56)
Donegal: S Patton; M Curran, D McBride, S McMenamin; R McHugh (0-1), C McGonagle, J McKelvey; O Caulfield (0-1), C Moore; O Doherty (1-0), C Thompson, S O’Donnell (0-1); P McBrearty (0-1), O Gallen (2-4, 1-0pen, 0-1 mark, 0-1 free), J Brennan (0-3)
Subs: L McGlynn (0-1) for Gallen (HT), JR Molloy for McMenamin (44), R Frain (1-0) for S O’Donnell (47), R O’Donnell for O Doherty (54), A Doherty for McBrearty (57), KJ Molloy for Thompson (57), D Croarkin for Patton (62)
Referee: M Loughran (Tyrone)