Determined Down braced for battle as Donegal visit Newry for Ulster Championship opener

Michael Murphy looked in terrific form against Tyrone in the NFL opener and has recovered from injury according to manager Declan Bonner. Pic Philip Walsh.
Michael Murphy looked in terrific form against Tyrone in the NFL opener and has recovered from injury according to manager Declan Bonner. Pic Philip Walsh. Michael Murphy looked in terrific form against Tyrone in the NFL opener and has recovered from injury according to manager Declan Bonner. Pic Philip Walsh.

Ulster Senior Football Championship preliminary round: Down v Donegal (tomorrow, Pairc Esler, 1pm, live on BBC1 and RTE2)

THIS season’s Ulster Championship opener could have been last season’s final but both of tomorrow’s combatants were stunned by a Cavan side that briefly remembered how to win.

Down had the Breffnimen beaten for all money in the semi-final but collapsed in the second half and when Donegal went into the final as overwhelming favourites, Mickey Graham’s men found the spirit and skill to cause an upset and claim an Anglo-Celt Cup triumph that no-one outside the Breffni borders saw coming.

Are we going to get the same drama again?

A Down win tomorrow would turn the Championship on its head but the Mournemen have it all to do.

Donegal have the pedigree (nine Ulster finals out the last 10 including five titles) and the players (Michael Murphy and Jamie Brennan are both fit again) to win this with a bit to spare and Down can’t even bank on a full house to cheer them on because Stormont failed to address the issue of increasing attendances at sporting events.

500 lucky souls will watch the game and among them will be a sprinkling from the north-west who’ll cheer on Declan Bonner’s men. Bonner’s side had excellent Championship preparation in Division One North and they came through a series of bruising derby battles unbeaten with a win against Tyrone and draws against Armagh and Monaghan.

The Tyrone victory was their most impressive display of that campaign but the hamstring injury that talismanic skipper Michael Murphy picked up early in the second round game against Monaghan drained the side of fluency and confidence.

The absence of Murphy’s on-field leadership was a factor as Donegal floundered and Monaghan ran in goal after goal but Donegal battled back to claim a draw and they did the same in the final quarter against Armagh, topped the group and advanced to a ‘semi-final’ against Dublin that was played at challenge-match pace.

In total, Bonner used 30 players in the League and he’ll have been pleased with the spirit his side showed. Now, with Murphy fit again, he’ll be confident his men can start moving through the gears but they have a long way to go before they can begin thinking about silverware.

“All that’s in my head is the red and black of Down,” said Bonner.

“This year you cannot take your eye off the ball, you have to be ready for every game and we have to be 100 per cent ready, physically and mentally, to get over that line and that’s all we’re looking for. A one-point win will do us.”

Down also had reasons to be cheerful in the League albeit at a more sedate level. The Mournemen were in Division Two North and found the going too tough against Mayo and Meath (both relegated from Division One last year) in the opening games before they found their feet against Westmeath and Laois.

The seven-point win over the O’Mooremen was comfortably Down’s best performance of the year and Tally’s counterattacking system which utilises the searing pace in the side, worked a treat in that game against an ageing, under-confident and ultimately relegated Laois. Tally has belief and confidence in his players but the experienced Tyrone native doesn’t need anyone to tell him that his men face steps up in quality and intensity tomorrow.

“The beauty of the Ulster Championship is that it throws up surprises,” he said.

“We want to be as competitive against Donegal as possible and if we can be that we have a chance but we have to make sure we perform well. There has to be an intensity and a high level of workrate among the Down players on Sunday.

“Donegal are vastly experienced and we know that, we are no fools. Cavan pulled off a result against Donegal last year but it seemed to me that Cavan’s name was written all over the Ulster Championship. We should have had them beaten, Monaghan should have them beaten in the first round and then they really hit form against Donegal and whether Donegal got caught on the hop that day remains to be seen.

“Donegal will be a lot wiser because of that result so we expect a fired-up Donegal going into this game.”

Tally will be minus injured midfield ball-winner Jonny Flynn, his most consistent forward Donal O’Hare and several others including the talented Johnston brothers from Kilcoo.

But what he does have in his team is pace and lots of it.

Speedsters like Caolan Mooney, Liam Kerr and Daniel Guinness are capable of causing problems for any defence and forwards Barry O’Hagan and Corey Quinn have both grown in stature this year.

Tally has sacrificed physicality for speed but his side needs the ball to win the game and Donegal, who combine pace with power, will dominate midfield and starve Down of possession.

Attacking marks from Murphy could be a feature of the game and the Down defence, which includes in-form goalkeeper Rory Burns and a solid full-back line of Collins, McGovern and Murdock behind skipper Darren O’Hagan, will struggle to cope with the pressure and keep a handle on Paddy McBrearty, Brennan, Michael Langan, Oisin Gallen (who is an injury doubt), Niall O’Donnell and the rest.

Before the Laois game Tally joked that his Child of Prague statue would “never leave the window” but unfortunately for Down, it rained heavily in the Newry area this week and the ground won’t be as quick as he’d like tomorrow.

Even if the sun comes out and bakes the Pairc Esler pitch, Donegal will be too hot for Down. The hosts will battle to the finish but a five-point win for the visitors looks on the cards.

Probable teams

   R Burns

G Collins     G McGovern  P Murdock

J Brennan  P McBrearty   M Murphy 

      D O’Hagan

P Laverty       P Fegan    D Guinness

C Thompson M Langan  N O’Donnell

       R McEvoy        C Mooney

   C McGonagle  H McFadden

P Devlin       B O’Hagan     C Doherty

R McHugh  EB Gallagher    P Mogan

                  P Brennan    

          C Quinn             L Kerr

  S McMenamin      N McGee

                     S Patton

Key battle

Gerard McGovern v Patrick McBrearty

THE Burren defender is a big addition to Down’s defence but hasn’t quite been able to settle properly, with two dismissals in four league games eating into his game time. He has a pre-Australia reputation as their best man-marker and that will be tested to the max by Patrick McBrearty. The Kilcar forward is in his best form for a few seasons and has carried Donegal’s attack in the absence of Michael Murphy. Unless Down can keep him some way quiet, it could be a long day.

Tactical take

A TEAM that tends to dominate possession in games against a side that tends to struggle to win it. Where do you start from other than there? Donegal’s crushing 2018 Ulster semi-final win over Down was built on exactly that premise. They squeezed the life out of the Mournemen in the first half, annihilating their kickout and crushing their spirit. Down’s struggles on their restarts keep on keeping on, although goalkeeper Rory Burns is doing the old-style elements of goalkeeping brilliantly at present. Down will play with extra defenders and if they aren’t getting quick ball out, they’ll be swallowed up again. Where Paddy Tally will see potential joy is in using their pace to run at a Donegal defence that’s been uncomfortable with that this season.

The build-up in quotes

“It does annoy you because Joe Brolly has never done it. He has never gone in himself and managed a team so he probably doesn't understand the work that managers have to put into it. Paddy does.”

- Down captain Darren O’Hagan bites back at Joe Brolly over his Paddy Tally criticism

“We lost in 1987 and 88 in first round matches, both against Armagh, and it was a long summer afterwards. It's sink or swim at this stage.”

- Donegal boss Declan Bonner on the straight knockout format

“Pairc Esler in Newry could take 18,000 and I feel there is no reason why there can't be 5,000 at the game rather than 500.”

- Former Donegal boss Brian McEniff

Referee: Maurice Deegan (Laois/Stradbally)

Where to watch

BBC2 NI, coverage from 12.30pm

RTÉ One, coverage from 12.55pm