GAA Football

Brendan Crossan: Derry can end Ulster famine against familiar foes Donegal

Derry manager Rory Gallagher congratulates Michael Murphy after last summer's Ulster clash Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room (brendancrossan@yahoo.com)

IF you were able to manufacture a Gaelic football team it would look something like the current Donegal side.

Big, imposing, smart, good kickers and mobile.

In the throes of the pandemic in 2020, Donegal looked every bit the next All-Ireland champions after they’d pummelled Armagh in an Ulster semi-final in an eerily quiet Breffni Park.

But nobody saw what was coming next as Cavan upset the odds in the decider and sent Donegal reeling.

Everyone has high expectations of Donegal. Maybe too high.

Since losing the 2014 All-Ireland final, they haven’t got beyond the All-Ireland quarter-final stages – or Super 8s as they were briefly known.

Tyrone, Dublin, Mayo, Cavan and Monaghan are among the counties that they have succumbed to in Championship football since 2015.

Still the expectations rage in the north west. You look at their team sheet and you’re still persuaded by the tools that they have.

Given the trajectory of both Donegal and Derry heading into Sunday’s Ulster final in Clones, there is more pressure on Donegal to deliver an Anglo-Celt Cup, probably because they have aspirations beyond Ulster.

They are much further down the road than this Derry team, but that guarantees nothing, especially with the momentum in the Oak Leaf County reminiscent of a tsunami following their epic back-to-back wins over Tyrone and Monaghan.

Indeed, the momentum Derry possess right now completely nullifies the idea that this is a game between a full-fledged Division One team against a team striving to get there, and therefore the team that's been around the top eight for a generation should win.

Moreover, Derry appear to have made peace with that home loss to Galway in the National League - minus Shane McGuigan - and can take more than a bit of encouragement from the various sub-plots that both inform and light up this year's Ulster final.

For starters, Derry should have beaten Donegal in last year’s provincial quarter-final in Ballybofey before Patrick McBrearty produced an astonishing stoppage-time winner.

But for some wayward shooting from Shane McGuigan and a gilt-edged miss from Benny Heron, Derry should have been home and hosed long before McBrearty’s divine intervention.

That one-point defeat last July still pains Rory Gallagher’s players.

Minutes after their brilliant semi-final win over Monaghan at The Athletic Grounds, while being mauled by well wishers, McGuigan and Heron’s thoughts had already turned to the final meeting with their neighbours.

“That’s the thing about football,” McGuigan said, “there’s always another day. Look, there’s no point in sugar-coating it: a lot of people are still hurting from that day but Donegal are playing in their 10th final in 12 years.

“They are the kingpins of Ulster and they’ll be going in as favourites against us, but we’ll take no backward step, we’ll give it all we have.”

A few metres away Heron, unprompted, brought up his palmed effort from close range that came off Donegal’s crossbar.

Had the Ballinascreen man converted his 39th minute goal chance, it would have put Derry four up.

“It was put on a plate for me and that’s been haunting me ever since,” he said.

While devastated by the result, Derry left Ballybofey with any last remnants of an inferiority complex well and truly shed.

There is also the 2015 Ulster MFC semi-final sub-plot between the north-west neighbours – where the roots can be found for Derry’s journey.

Heavily tipped to debate the All-Ireland minor title with Kerry that year, defending Ulster champions Donegal fell to Damian McErlain’s minors in a titanic struggle.

Brendan McCole, Stephen McMenamin, Jason McGee, Niall O’Donnell, Ethan O’Donnell, Michael Langan and Daire Ó Baoill were all involved for Donegal and now backbone the senior set-up, while the 2015 win gave the Derry minors a much-needed boost after a decade in the doldrums.

So there is an overwhelming feeling heading into this Ulster final that Derry have the measure of their neighbours.

Rory Gallagher’s presence on the sideline and intimate knowledge of Donegal merely adds to this notion.

But the gradient on Derry's road, however, has just got a good bit steeper.

Donegal won't leave the desperate holes that Tyrone or Monaghan did.

Tyrone were so out-of-sorts it was hard to know what their tactical approach actually was, whereas Monaghan thought they could get away with defending their own ’45 with 12 players rather than the 15 Derry defended theirs with.

Add in Derry’s ferocity of their counter-attack and Monaghan were badly exposed.

In many respects, though, Donegal are naturally calibrated for a team like Derry. Theirs is an incredibly patient, defensive system which feeds off mistakes of the opposition.

Both will mirror each other in Clones and we can expect an intriguing but probably low-scoring encounter where the value of placed ball conversions will be higher than they've ever been for a big game.

Donegal’s attacking build-up is methodical – too methodical at times – which will allow Derry to get set up at the back.

While there is a prevailing sense that Donegal need another dimension to their play to reach the next level, there are few teams better than them who are quite content to play in tight spaces and carve out goal chances.

In their semi-final, Cavan managed to nullify their architect – Patrick McBrearty – but once his short, looping runs were cut off, the Breffni men were undermanned on the other side which allowed Jamie Brennan to do the damage on the scoreboard.

For the last number of years, Donegal have been on the cusp of the best teams in the country, but they haven’t quite transferred there yet themselves.

Derry have more road to travel to get there – but they can certainly reach Donegal from where they’re at right now.

A first Ulster title in 24 years beckons Derry...

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