Donegal dangerous and primed

WHEN asked his opinion of the Giant’s Causeway the 18th century English poet and critic Samuel Johnson said that it was worth seeing but not worth going to see.

Given the heated debate generated by the timing of the match perhaps those in the football heartlands around Gaoth Dobhair, Glenswilly and Fál Carrach might feel the same as Dr Johnson about this evening’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final.

The 6pm start means that many of Donegal’s supporters have to make certain sacrifices to see their team in action as Ulster champions in Croke Park for the first time since 1992. Their tribal passions will probably get the better of the Tír Chonaill folk before the day is out and they’ll most likely arrive in force at headquarters.

But for the neutral supporters, this could be a game they might want to view from the armchair.

On the face of it there are very few compelling reasons why Donegal should beat Kildare this evening and the bookmakers appear to concur. Their last championship appearance in Croke Park, the 1-27 to 2-10 loss to Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final of two seasons ago, reminded Donegal just how far behind the leading contenders they had fallen. Many of the stars of their recent success (McGee, Lacey, Cassidy, Kavanagh, Murphy and McFadden) were central characters that day and most likely haven’t forgotten. Their most recent visit to Jones’ Road for this year’s league final yielded a Division Two title but it also produced some of the most mind-numbing football imaginable. Donegal have come a long way since that day in late spring but their opponents have travelled the road from tentative gate-crashers to regular Croke Park performers. Kildare will hope their Croke Park experience counts for something at this time of year.

Despite having delivered two trophies so far in 2011, it wouldn’t be in Jim McGuinness’ nature to believe his team is in bonus territory. Having brought his squad back down to earth after their Ulster final, McGuinness will be reminding his players of his own experience as a young buck 19 years ago, winning an All-Ireland medal on his first real outing and waiting an entire career for the next big day to arrive. It may then be easier for McGuinness to impress upon his troops that this day may never come again: That the time is now and the place is here and that there are no second chances in this new championship beyond the provinces. Donegal are dangerous and primed.

Kildare on the other hand, are facing into their fourth All-Ireland quarter-final in four seasons of remarkable consistency under Kieran McGeeney. The problem with this is that despite fellas knowing exactly what’s expected of them and playing accordingly, Kildare now appear to be a team who’ve run a great big course and met themselves again at the starting line! Because of injuries to key players (Earley, Lynch, and All Star Peter Kelly) and loss of form by others (Smith and White) they don’t appear to be any further down the road as All-Ireland challengers. This might sound harsh on a team who’ve been desperately unlucky on occasion and whose physical conditioning and willingness to fight for each other is unrivalled but to really challenge the big guns, Kildare need to show us something extraordinary- something other than John Doyle’s contributions from midfield up to now.

Tomás Ó Connor certainly offers something different in terms of speed, mobility and strength on the inside line but it’s hard to imagine Neil McGee not relishing the physical exchanges with him this evening. Eoghan O Flaherty’s honest workrate is likely to be negated by Karl Lacey’s hustling and even Eamonn Callaghan’s relentless running from deep could become a liability if Anthony Thompson’s two Ulster final points from wing back are a sign of things to come. The minute Thompson rides out into frontier country, Mark McHugh and Michael Hegarty go the opposite direction and all the while, Ryan Bradley is this constant implacable presence in the half forward line.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the team that beats Donegal will have to play them at their own game. Kieran McGeeney’s mate Justin McNulty realised this around the time of the league final but Laois had neither the players nor the will to execute the game-plan so they blinked first and lost by a point. Since then, the Donegal game-plan has become more refined and the players believe in it more too because of the success it has brought them. Tyrone in 2003 found that you can live with austere and programmed football for a season in the certainty that the leadership have a plan and as your game evolves, players of undoubted ability come out of their shells and produce elements of the beautiful game thereafter.

Of course, if you’re depending on one particular way of playing the game then people will read that very quickly. Ever since they took over the reins, McGuinness and his management team have been encouraging versatility in their players as individuals and they seem to encourage versatility in team plans as well. They expect their players to be able to adapt to different situations and opponents.

Like that Tyrone 2003 model, Donegal don’t concede big scores and it is really hard to see how Kildare are going to match the average 20 points a game they’ve had against Laois, Meath and Derry.

This evening’s chess match will be about the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, the elimination of chance on both sides and the acceptance that one doesn’t have to play well, -just that it’s enough to play better than your opponent. It might, unfortunately, also be about what Dr Johnson would describe as a practice where imagination is not required in any high degree. In such a game where each reward is hard earned, I’d expect the Ulstermen to prevail.

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