Donegal experience can keep Derry power play at bay
Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Derry v Donegal (tomorrow, Ballybofey, 4pm - live on BBC2 NI/RTE 2)
TEN years ago, there was a bit of a buzz building about a certain Ulster county threatening to awaken from its slumber. A county that always had the raw materials, but was too often mired in ambivalence and off the field shenanigans to truly challenge the Armagh-Tyrone duopoly any time the chips were down.
The same night Jim McGuinness was named as John Joe Doherty’s successor, he told his mother Maureen that Donegal would be Ulster champions in his first year. He was determined that now, under his watch, the Tir Chonaill would be taken seriously.
Alongside right hand man Rory Gallagher, McGuinness oversaw the transformation of bodies, minds and attitudes. Those who weren’t completely in were out. No more half measures.
Through the winter months word spread of the work being done. The players were taken to places they had never been, a journey based on trust and a cast-iron belief in where they were headed.
Promotion to Division One was achieved as a system based on defensive solidity and supreme fitness levels evolved. Yet when Donegal met reigning provincial kingpins Red Hands at Ulster’s semi-final stage, they soon found themselves 0-6 to 0-1 behind as the step up proved steep.
It looked like getting worse when a loose pass from Anthony Thompson set Tyrone on another attack. Previous incarnations of the Tir Chonaill might have folded. Instead, Thompson chased back 80 yards to dive at Stephen O’Neill’s feet as he went for the goal that would surely have put the game beyond doubt.
Donegal dragged themselves back into it and sealed a win that would serve as a springboard for the years ahead. The promise McGuinness made his mother was kept, and then some.
A decade on, a similar sort of noise has followed Gallagher’s Derry as these north west neighbours prepare for Ulster Championship combat in Ballybofey tomorrow.
After a first year pock-marked by teething problems and the small matter of a global pandemic blowing the season in two, the Oak Leafs are back to being talked about for the right reasons.
First of all, everybody who should be there is. This is unchartered territory for Derry in recent times. The physical development of the panel has also been clear to see since they ran out for the warm-up at Pearse Park on May 15.
Talk of Longford impressing in hastily-arranged challenges soon tailed off as they were cut to ribbons. Fermanagh followed suit the following weekend before Ulster champions Cavan were seen off to seal a promotion play-off.
The messaging on the field is relentless, Gallagher barely taking time to breathe as he barks instructions between moistening his palms. Off it, there has been no let up either. The mistakes, the missed opportunities, any sloppiness at all – and there wasn’t much – have been seized upon and highlighted by the manager and his captain, Chrissy McKaigue.
Knowing Donegal were coming down the tracks, even if Declan Bonner’s men still had to negotiate a preliminary round tie with Down, those margins for error had to be narrowed. Accelerating that process in an already truncated season is one of the major challenges faced, especially when coming up against such an established force. Just as Tyrone guarded the gate in 2011, so Donegal represent the truest possible test of Derry’s lofty ambitions.
Assuming this game will come too soon for Michael Murphy’s hamstring, can McKaigue prevent Paddy McBrearty wreaking the kind of havoc that so decisively undid Down? If Murphy does recover he will have McKaigue for company, with Rogers moved onto McBrearty.
The forward bursts of sweeper Gareth McKinless illuminated Derry’s Division Three campaign from start to finish. Bonner will surely have plans in place to put a stop to that today.
In Peadar Mogan and Ryan McHugh, the pace and power of Glen’s Doherty brothers, Ethan and Jack, will find more than a match. And can Shane McGuigan add to his burgeoning reputation in the face of the non-stop attention likely to come his way from the super-sticky Stephen McMenamin?
For all their attacking zeal through the League, Gallagher will surely deploy a more cautious approach tomorrow, one based on maximising their opportunities when they come and keeping the Donegal counter at bay.
Tyrone and Armagh both exposed Donegal’s defensive difficulties at times, though nothing like the speed and directness with which Monaghan’s Conor McCarthy cut through them en route to a first half hat-trick. It is hard to shift the feeling that goals will be the key to deciding whether Derry are ready to make the breakthrough in Ballybofey.
This is not Donegal’s first rodeo, however, and the wide open space afforded McCarthy back in May might just have been the timely reminder needed of their own limitations in that sector.
With lessons learned, Donegal’s greater experience and know-how can still tip the balance and keep the Derry project on ice for another year.