Donegal’s frontline isn’t as inexperienced as they might have you believe, but Armagh have the edge in their subs

Donegal’s named starting line-up have played 350 championship games between them, whereas Armagh’s have played 362. But there’s a huge disparity in terms of the experience of their back-up cast.

Donegal’s Ciaran Thompson and Patrick McBrearty during todays Allianz GAA Football league Div 2 final at Croke Park, Dublin.  Picture Mark Marlow
Donegal’s Ciaran Thompson and Patrick McBrearty during todays Allianz GAA Football league Div 2 final at Croke Park, Dublin. Picture Mark Marlow
Ulster SFC final: Armagh v Donegal (Sunday, 4pm, Clones, live on BBC2 NI & RTÉ2)

DOING his best to play Donegal down, Michael Murphy said after their semi-final win over Tyrone that a team ten months into their journey would be going in against a team ten years into theirs.

The biggest concern around how last year would have affected the team long-term was in a conditioning sense, that they’d effectively lost a season that they couldn’t afford.

Jim McGuinness has had to try and do what he did in the winter of 2010 only in a different and busier timeframe.

Mind you, for all the talk about a condensed calendar, Donegal played ten games in 91 days up to and including this year’s Ulster semi-final win over Tyrone.

In 2011, they played nine games in 99 days before stretching a six-game championship out over almost four months.

Yet there has been a sense of them playing catch-up over the winter. All the post-match focus fell on the two goalkeepers in Celtic Park against Derry but the most eye-catching part of Donegal’s performance was the sheer volume of runners busting themselves to get ahead of the play.

It’s understood, from what little we’ve learned from behind Convoy’s big fence, that McGuinness still likes to run a drill that he would employ frequently in his first spell.

The ball carrier starts at one cone 20 yards ahead of two other players. They all sprint flat out, the man on the ball soloing. The simple objective is for the two at the back to get past the ball-carrier before they reach the end.

Against Derry, they looked like a side that had caught up fairly quickly.

But what of actual experience?

Donegal are not as inexperienced on the frontline as they might have you believe. Their squad is stacked with Ulster medallists from 2019, lads that played in the 2022 final against Derry.

Patrick McBrearty has a Celtic Cross in his pocket from 2011. Ryan McHugh played in the 2014 All-Ireland final.

Between them, they’ve played 118 championship games. 66 for McBrearty, 52 for McHugh.

Ciaran Thompson (36), Michael Langan (30), Shaun Patton (29), subs Jamie Brennan (35) and Stephen McMenamin (25) are all above the quarter-century.

Donegal’s starting line-up have played 350 championship games between them.

Armagh’s named team have played 362.

There is a negligible difference in that regard.

Aidan Forker (50), Stefan Campbell (46), Rory Grugan (44), Andrew Murnin (32), Aaron McKay (28) and Greg McCabe (25) have all breached that threshold for Armagh.

But the difference is on the benches.

Remove Brennan and McMenamin from Donegal’s tally and the rest of their subs combined have played a combined total of 27 games. Two of them, Domhnall Mac Giolla Bhride and Charles McGuinness, have yet to play while Kevin McGettigan has one substitute appearance and John Ross Molloy has two games.

Armagh have Ethan Rafferty (34), Jemar Hall (23), Jarly Óg Burns (22), Aidan Nugent (17), Jason Duffy (16), Conor O’Neill (14) and Oisin O’Neill (12) all to call upon.

That might be where the difference is.