Donegal ‘definitely the form team in the country’ says Cork boss Cleary

Rebels manager wary of Tir Chonaill firepower after suffering a ‘pasting’ in league encounter

Donegal v Cork
Donegal have already enjoyed a comprehensive win over Cork in the first round of their Allianz Football League Division Two campaign

In John Cleary’s two full seasons in charge, Cork have only once taken a bad beating. His team will need few reminders of that day when Donegal come to Leeside on Saturday.

Jim McGuinness’s new dawn began last January by sending the Rebels back down south with a 1-20 to 2-6 hiding to remember them by.

It was the first glimpse of Donegal’s elite shot conversion levels, which have since carried them to Division 2 and Ulster titles. That day in Ballybofey, they nailed 78% of their shots compared to Cork’s hit-and-miss 47 per cent ratio.

“We got the first pasting from them really,” says Cleary.

“They had 12 shots in the first half and got 11 scores.

“In some scenarios, we were letting them shoot because maybe we didn’t believe they would put them over from 50 yards.

“That’s the big thing that we will take into the next day, we will have to push out on them.”

He refers to Donegal as “the form team in the country”, with their seven-point dismissal of Tyrone the most eye-catching performance he’s witnessed this year.

“They’ve been doing that all year,” Cleary continues.

“They’ve very few wides. Their conversion rate is outstanding and their fitness levels are outstanding.

“We’d be hoping maybe that game did take a bit out of them. They’ve to travel down the length of the country probably five days later but having said that, on the performance they put on the last day, they’ll be very hard beaten on any day not to mind on Saturday.

“It was probably the best performance of any team this year. We’re well warned but hopefully we’re ready for it and we’ve prepared accordingly.”

Planning for Donegal presents Cleary with a conundrum. Give up the kick-outs and they can hurt you with incredible ball retention and shooting efficiency. Press up and they can launch over the top and take you for goals.

“So far this season, they’ve played it in two or three different ways,” he muses.

“They have taken down all the big guns and taken down Tyrone twice. Derry were everyone’s favourite to upset Dublin or Kerry and they conceded four goals against Donegal.

“They really took them apart. At this moment in time, they are definitely the form team in the country.

“We’ll have our gameplan and we’ll do the things we think we’re good at. That’s all we can do. We can’t worry an awful lot about what they’ll do.

“The first thing is we’ll have to do the things that we’re good at and then when we haven’t the ball, obviously we’ll have to try and limit their effectiveness.

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness with Cork manager John Cleary before the National Football League Div 2 match played at Ballybofey on Sunday 28th January 2024. On the subs bench to the right seasoned players including Oisin Gallen and Michael Langan. Picture Margaret McLaughlin
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness with Cork manager John Cleary before the National Football League Division Two match played at Ballybofey in January Picture: Margaret McLaughlin (Margaret McLaughlin Photography / 07711 932889)

“It won’t be easy but we have a plan as well and hopefully that’ll be effective on Saturday.”

The real pressure game for Cork in this All-Ireland series came a fortnight ago away to Clare. They owed the Banner a slice of revenge and earned it in a tight, tense contest.

With those two points in the back pocket, Cleary reckons his side can now play with greater freedom.

“In our last seven games, we’ve only been beaten in one and that was by Kerry. But we do realise that Donegal are back in Division 1 now and Tyrone are a Division 1 team as well.

“We were delighted to get the two points against Clare because if we were facing into the next two weeks trying to scramble for points, it brings on its own bit of pressure.

“The very fact that we have the two points in the bag gives us a small bit of freedom to play without that pressure. We have two cuts at it now over the next couple of weeks.

“Where we’re standing at the moment, we want to top the group. Secondly, the other prize on offer is to have a home preliminary quarter-final.

“That would be much, much harder if we were here now with no points. We have to be pleased about that going into the weekend.”

The Group Three game will take place at Páirc Uí Rinn due to ongoing works to restore the Páirc Uí Chaoimh pitch following Bruce Springsteen’s visit.

Cleary hopes a strong Cork turnout could swing the situation to their favour.

“I don’t think it makes an awful lot of difference. We played all our League games in Páirc Uí Chaoimh but the lads are used to playing club games in Páirc Uí Rinn.

“Previously, a lot of them played inter-county level there and we do a lot of our training there.

“I don’t think it’ll make any difference except it’s a more compact venue.

“If we can get a good Cork crowd out on Saturday, hopefully there’ll be a very good atmosphere. Then they can get behind us and we’ll give them something to shout about.”