Fine margins will divide neighbours again - but this could be Derry's year
Ulster SFC final: Derry v Donegal (tomorrow, Clones, 4pm – live on RTE2 & BBC2)
AS it happened, time almost seemed to stall. There was just over 73 minutes on the clock when Shaun Patton’s arrowed kick-out - after a Shane McGuigan free made it 0-15 piece - found late sub Odhran MacNiallais around the Donegal 45.
Moving forward, his fresh legs offering the kind of purpose few others had left, MacNiallais offloaded to Paddy McBrearty before the ball went around Hugh McFadden, Michael Langan, Caolan McGonigle, off to Oisin Gallen, then straight back into Langan’s arms.
Confronted by red and white jerseys, the St Michael’s man wearily punted 30 metres back down the field to Ryan McHugh. A glance at the clock tells you the four minutes added are almost up. Extra-time incoming lads.
But the ball goes back across, left to right this time, in front of the stand where the 500 golden ticket holders watch, barely taking a breath. MacNiallais has the ball again, the Gaoth Dobhair man’s languid style lulling Derry into a false sense of security as he advances, betraying the urgency of what is about to occur.
“Gareth, get out… get out! Get out Gareth, GET OUUUUUT!”
Rory Gallagher has set up Donegal teams to capitalise on moments just like this. He knows the play, he can see McBrearty amble backwards, holding his position on the wing, and is painstakingly aware the three-step dart out and around is coming. But he can do nothing. In that moment, nobody can.
Chrissy McKaigue dives, his arms flying up into the air, but the ball is already gone, and so are Derry’s hopes of a first Ulster Championship win since ousting Down six years earlier.
What a difference (almost) a year makes - and therein lies the crux of the matter as, 10 months on from Ballybofey, Derry and Donegal prepare to do it all again. Only this time it’s in an Ulster final, before a full house in Clones instead of 500 people scattered across a stand.
Derry have clearly improved – have Donegal?
Then, it was only a swing of McBrearty’s left boot that separated them, and for the most part Derry were the better side.
Early on Gallagher’s men could, should, have been awarded a penalty when Shane McGuigan was hauled to the ground by Stephen McMenamin. Benny Heron saw a second half fisted effort bounce back off the bar – had that gone in…
But it didn’t. As they got back to the grind through the winter months, it was those moments that ate at them more than McBrearty’s winner. From now on, there could be no more what-might-have-beens.
Derry’s efficiency so far is testament to the legacy of Ballybofey – typified by the performance that shot down Monaghan a fortnight ago.
The Farneymen had 62 attacks and 36 shots compared to Derry’s 28 attacks and 20 shots, yet the Oak Leafs scored three goals and 12 points to emerge convincing winners, Seamus McEnaney’s men managing a return of 0-17.
How clinical they have been at the other end draws inevitable comparisons, due to Gallagher’s involvement, with the Donegal side of a decade ago. And, just as the knack of bagging goals at critical moments propelled Jim McGuinness’s Tir Chonaill machine to the ultimate prize, so Derry’s determination to go for the jugular makes them a different proposition this time around.
While Conor Glass offers calm assurance, Gareth McKinless is the driving force from the middle, and possesses the engine and the ability to pick holes where space permits.
Operating in a deeper position last year, he found Ryan McHugh for company and came off the better. Although Hugh McFadden will drop back into the hole in front of his full-back line when required, he looks the most likely be tasked with containing McKinless.
The kind of openings that presented themselves against Monaghan simply won’t happen tomorrow. Not as readily anyway. It is in a game of such small margins that the Oak Leafs could really miss the drive and scoring ability of Ciaran McFaul, who carried the Derry threat in Ballybofey long after the legs around him began to wilt.
With a staring match likely to unfold, patience is more important than ever.
Donegal are pass masters when it comes to this. The cool heads displayed to summon the score that settled last year’s encounter was indicative of what they can do at their best.
With big men across the middle often allowing them to gain the lion’s share of primary possession, allied to confident ball carriers throughout, Declan Bonner’s side are more comfortable hogging the ball than most.
The flip side is the catalogue of wides kicked in a dominant first half against Armagh when their possession and control wasn’t adequately reflected by the three-point lead held. Unlike the panic a creeping wide count inspired in Monaghan, however, Donegal always appear content that other opportunities are never too far away.
It is worth remembering too that Michael Murphy only played the final 20 minutes against Derry last year. Even a couple of months out from his 34th birthday, his very presence on the field – the impact on their opponents, as well as Donegal - cannot be understated.
Murphy is likely to drop out around the middle third rather than provide a kicking option inside, with his another body added to the scrum.
Derry have already swatted Tyrone and Monaghan aside – that won’t be the case tomorrow. Just like last July, this will be an arm wrestle from start to finish. Donegal, with the greater pedigree at this level, will fancy getting their noses in front early and asking questions of an Oak Leaf outfit yet to find themselves behind in this year’s Championship.
But, buoyed by those two momentous wins so far, it is hard to shake the sense there is something serious brewing in Derry. They have gone to another level since these counties last clashed – have Donegal?
A feeling in the gut says maybe this is Derry’s year after all.
Conor Glass (Derry) v Michael Murphy (Donegal)
OKAY, so trying to second guess Declan Bonner and Rory Gallagher is an exercise in futility, but here goes.
Even with his 34th birthday a matter of months away, Michael Murphy remains as critical to Donegal’s ambitions as ever. This was evidenced by the manner in which he helped turn the tide in the Tir Chonaill’s favour against Cavan.
Most people would be of the opinion that Brendan Rogers will pick up Murphy, given that he went straight to the Glenswilly man when he was sprung from the bench in the second half during last year’s Championship encounter. And that could happen, of course, depending on where Murphy lines out.
However, it is extremely unlikely Murphy will spend too much time inside, and Gallagher is generally reluctant to take Rogers out from full-back. Physically, Rogers also struggled at times during that 20 minute spell in Ballybofey 10 months ago, though he did find space running off Murphy.
It looks more likely he will contest around the middle with the likes of Conor Glass, whose influence on this Derry side continues to grow.
RORY Gallagher knows all too well Derry won’t get nearly the oceans of space that was so generously afforded them by Monaghan a fortnight ago.
Then, and particularly in a first half when their foothold was established, the Oak Leafs brilliantly protected the middle of their goal as Monaghan, who didn’t register a point until 13 minutes, were forced to shoot from awkward angles out on the wings.
With the door successfully shut, the pace of men like Gareth McKinless, Conor McCluskey and Ethan Donnelly punched holes in a wide open Farney rearguard, their brilliance on the counter-attack reminiscent of another outfit from the north-west around a decade ago.
Patience and efficiency will be the order of the day in Clones tomorrow.
Shea Downey could drop out for Emmett Bradley if Derry opt for more size and physicality around the critical middle sector, where they will compete with a line of man mountains in Michael Murphy, Jason McGee, Hugh McFadden, Ciaran Thompson and Michael Langan.
Thus, the two goalkeepers could have a huge part to play. Donegal pushed up on Odhran Lynch last year and, forced to go long into a field full of yellow and green giants, Derry struggled to get their hands on the ball at time.
At the other end, Rory Gallagher will be acutely aware of the threat posed by Shaun Patton’s booming kick-outs – a harsh lesson learned in those opening 35 10 months ago, after which Derry stood off.
If last year’s encounter is anything to go on, Donegal will mirror what Derry do to a large extent, wary of falling into the same traps that befell Monaghan.
B Rogers C McKaigue
J Brennan P McBrearty
P McGrogan C McCluskey C Doherty
M Langan P Mogan C Thompson
C Glass E Bradley G McKinless
M Murphy J McGee H McFadden
P Cassidy B Heron E Doherty
R McHugh E Ban Gallagher O McFadden-Ferry
N Toner S McGuigan N Loughlin
S McMenamin B McCole C Ward
Sean Hurson (Tyrone)
WHERE TO WATCH IT
RTE2, coverage of Galway v Roscommon/Derry v Donegal begins at 1pm
BBC2, coverage from 3.30pm