GAA Football

Michael Murphy passed fit as Donegal zero in on Pairc Esler Ulster Championship opener against Down

Michael Murphy missed the League games against Armagh and Monaghan but is fit for Sunday's Ulster Championship opener. Picture: Philip Walsh
Andy Watters

DONEGAL’S talismanic skipper Michael Murphy and line-breaking forward Jamie Brennan are both expected to be fit for Sunday’s Ulster Championship opener against Down at Pairc Esler.

Manager Declan Bonner confirmed that the duo who missed the Division One games against Armagh and Dublin (Brennan also missed out against Monaghan) are back in training and in contention to start against Mournemen. Paddy McBrearty is also fit after he shook off the knock he picked up against Dublin but Odhran MacNiallais will miss out with injury.

“Michael is not far away at this stage,” said Bonner.

“We’re very hopeful that he’ll be available for Sunday, the majority of the guys are back on the pitch and the next two sessions (last night and tomorrow night) will decide the starting 15 for Sunday.

“Odhran won’t be part of the weekend, he picked up a soft muscle injury against Dublin so he’s not in contention.”

The season will be over for loser of Sunday’s opener and Bonner says the knockout format of the Championship has made it “sink or swim”. A one-point victory will suffice for him in Newry.

In last year’s Championship, Donegal were touted as possible contenders, if the main contenders, to Dublin and Bonner’s men saw off Tyrone before blitzing Armagh at the semi-final stage. The wheels came off the Tir Chonaill wagon dramatically against Cavan in the final however and Donegal were denied an Anglo-Celt three in-a-row.

“We never look too far ahead, we didn’t look past Cavan last year, we just didn’t get up to the levels we needed to get to and they deservedly went on to win,” said the Donegal manager, who hinted that “there could be a few surprises (in selection) this weekend”.

“The lads are very focussed, there’s a real hunger and a real desire to progress. We had a competitive National League campaign and once we got our Division One status secured for next season then it was full focus on the Championship.

“We haven’t looked past Down, it’s going to be difficult and I know from the past that Newry is a difficult place to get a result. We have to be ready for a battle and that’s exactly what we expect.

“We’ve seen Down’s games. They are always capable of putting up big scores, they have a real threat going forward in the likes of Caolan Mooney coming from deep, Barry O’Hagan, Liam Kerr and Corey Quinn…

“They have a lot of good players and it’s not going to be easy. In the semi-final last year (against Cavan) Down were winning by 10 points at one stage, they came unstuck in the second half but it showed the levels that they can get to. In Ulster Championship football it’s one game at a time and our focus over the last four weeks has been on Down.”

Down manager Paddy Tally argues that the possibility of an early exit and a single match in a knockout Championship doesn’t reward players adequately for their commitment to training and playing with their county. He feels that they need more games and that the GAA could have installed a Qualifier structure for this Championship.

Bonner agrees: “I felt that towards the end of the League they could have played a Division One final – it’s one extra Sunday.

“Could they have played a backdoor of the Championship? They could have, yes and I think most teams would have been happy with that. But it is what it is, it’s knockout football and you have to be ready for every game because. If you’re not, you’re going to come unstuck.”

To get to their ninth Ulster final in 10 years, Donegal have to come through the challenge of Down, then Derry and then the winners of the Tyrone versus Cavan quarter-final. It’s a gruelling journey that is unique to the Ulster theatre.

“It is a fair system at the minute? Probably not,” said Bonner.

“Ulster is the (italics) Championship, it’s the most competitive. You have four teams playing Division One football and, even at that, we had a team (Cavan) that came out of nowhere and won it last year.

“It is highly, highly competitive and it all starts for us on Sunday and we have to deliver a performance to get over the line. That’s all we’re looking for.”

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