Donegal won’t go toe-to-toe with Derry - so can McGuinness still pull a rabbit from the hat and upset Ulster kingpins?

Ulster SFC quarter-final: Derry v Donegal (Saturday, Celtic Park, 6.15pm – live on BBC2 & RTE2)

Niall O'Donnell and Lachlan Murray
Donegal's Niall O’Donnell gets to grips with Donegal's Lachlan Murray during a Dr McKenna Cup meeting between the counties back in January. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin (MARGARET McLAUGHLIN PICTURES / C)

THIS is it, folks – the one we’ve all been waiting for since the day and hour Derry and Donegal were pulled from the hat.

There’s always added spice when these north-west neighbours are set on a Championship collision course, but this just has that little bit more.

How many times in the 182 days since the draw was made back on October 21 have the stories of Jim McGuinness and Mickey Harte been told? How many times have their intentions for this game been chewed over?

For all the enduring arguments about the merits of the provincial system, and whereabouts in the year these Championships belong, no game comes close to capturing the imagination in the way this one has.

It’s the kind of occasion that will make chests heave and stomachs churn on the drive to Celtic Park, never mind the walk along Lone Moor Road. Anticipation might fill the air as 6.15pm nears, but so too will trepidation and fear – primarily among those wearing red and white.

That might sound bizarre, given Derry are back-to-back Ulster champions and strong favourites to complete the treble. In some ways, though, this is what validates the thought. Donegal are at the beginning of another project under McGuinness, whereas Harte is working off the solid foundations already laid.

It’s not that Donegal have nothing to lose, or a shot to nothing. Not even close. But the burden of expectation rests heavily on Derry shoulders because of how far they have come. Everything has gone better than could have been imagined under Harte too, but still there remains that niggle about the man in the opposite corner.

Because, while there are few remaining secrets about a tried and tested Oak Leaf side that came so close to reaching an All-Ireland final last year before edging out he Dubs in last month’s Division One decider, McGuinness’s Tir Chonaill remain something of a mystery.

The early months of the year saw them successfully navigate Division Two, sealing promotion back to the top flight with the minimum of fuss. Yet they did so without leaving any clues as to what great masterplan – with the assumption that there is one - could lie in store.

They went all heavy metal press on the opening weekend, hemming Cork in and bullying them into submission. The relentless running, the harrying, the aggression – this was what Jim ‘Mark two’ look like.

That was until, from the start against Cavan, then Fermanagh, they dropped back and invited their opponents on, before reverting to the front-footed approach turned the tide. It has been mix and match ever since, with a glut of injuries to key men such as Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Jason McGee and Patrick McBrearty taking a toll.

Still, though, they kept on going, and kept on winning.

Even after their League final defeat of Armagh three weeks ago, however, there was little tangible to take into Saturday night’s game; nothing truly definitive about style or structure. Maybe it is overanalysing to suggest this was a smokescreen for Derry’s benefit but, while the Oak Leafs have had bigger fish to fry in the top flight, there is little doubt that Saturday night’s date has been ringed since the day and hour McGuinness first got his players together.

And just as Harte’s Tyrone were Ulster’s standard-bearers when he first took up the Donegal reins in 2011, so it is Harte’s Derry threatening to dominate the landscape. The Tir Chonaill machine came along and upset the applecart then, but doing so once more requires bridging a considerably larger gap.

After all, by 2011/2012, the great Tyrone players of the Noughties were coming towards an end while a new group spearheaded by the likes of Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly was just coming to the fore. This is a Derry side at its peak, and on a trajectory that is only headed one way.

That’s why it will be so interesting to see what approach McGuinness adopts on Saturday night as he bids to maintain the upper hand over Harte. It is hard to imagine the Glenties man sending his side out to have a go against an Oak Leaf side so potent before the posts, and so deadly when goal chances are conjured.

After all, Derry found the net 16 times across eight League games, including the Division One final - and that was when going toe-to-toe with the best sides in the country. Donegal managed five in Division Two.

Therefore they are more likely to sit in, at least in the first half, and try to make life difficult for Derry; make it physical, get in their faces. Frustrate them.

Curtailing Ethan Doherty’s influence is absolutely key, such is the Glen man’s ability to change the face of a game inside a split second. Ciaran Moore, so impressive already this year, could be handed that job.

Although Jason McGee isn’t in the team named, it is hard to imagine he won’t start at midfield, allowing Ciaran Thompson to push further forward. Having starred in the recent victory over Armagh, McGuinness knows his fellow Naomh Chonaill clubman can have a huge bearing on this game.

Brendan McCole – like McGee, named on the bench but expected to start - would surely renew his battle with Shane McGuigan. The Slaughtneil man got just one point from play in the 2022 Ulster final and in the 2023 All-Ireland series.

Gareth McKinless was involved in Derry’s recent training trip to Portugal, and is expected to come in on Saturday, with Diarmuid Baker most likely dropping out if Harte reshuffles his defence.

Having seen the damage Oisin Gallen inflicted on Chrissy McKaigue, then Padraig McGrogan, in Ballybofey last summer, the Oak Leaf boss might opt to put Conor McCluskey on the Donegal danger man, in the hope that the Magherafelt speedster can take Gallen in the other direction.

These are just some of the ponderables that will continue to swirl around and dominate bar stool debate until the ball is thrown-in on Saturday evening.

There remains an expectation that McGuinness will have something clever up his sleeve, a rabbit ready to pull from the hat. And maybe he will. But Derry have so few areas of weakness to target that it is hard to see how the Tir Chonaill can close the existing gap at this point.