It’s nearly 10 years since Charlie Mulgrew’s young whippets from Fermanagh took down Armagh in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
I can recall clearly to this day the ripples of genuine exhilaration and surprise the result caused at the time. Here you had a bunch of skinny kids dancing their way through one of the most impenetrable defensive units in Ireland and they appeared to be having great craic while they were at it.
“Youth is a great thing. Two points up at half-time and I just said ‘have a go’,” said Mulgrew at the time. In a year where Limerick were the other outlier, it felt innocent, almost anarchic.
Although we’ve had a few innovations and jolts in the intervening decade, I wonder if we have lost the capacity to be surprised by the game? That is why Donegal’s recent retreat to Inishowen to work on tactics and new innovations has got me a bit excited.
There is something darkly compelling about a team and management responsible for showing us some of Gaelic football’s hidden dimensions in recent years going on a think-in to dream it all up again. The view abroad is that if anybody can reveal the possibilities of next generation football, then that man is Jim McGuinness.
On the evidence presented to us all spring, it might be that McGuinness and his team have simply run out of ideas, but there remains a sense the Donegal that bombed so spectacularly a few weeks back against Monaghan are bound to be better than that tomorrow.
From the outside, it doesn’t look great. Apparently racked by doubt, dissent and defections, Donegal’s last two trips to Croke Park, an arena that seemed to fit their all-action style like a glove just a short time ago, have resulted in leg-weary performances with a bit of indiscipline thrown in.
We are in year four of the McGuinness project and perhaps things have slipped. It is as if the Donegal experience has compressed the wisdom of the old Irish proverb: fiche bliain ag fás, fiche bliain faoi bhláth, fiche bliain ag meath agus fiche bliain gur cuma ann nó as (20 years a growing, 20 years in bloom, 20 years in decline and 20 more of irrelevance).
Year one, the infamous year one, was about traction for Donegal, year two was gloriously successful, year three was most certainly a year of decline, but to suggest that in year four Donegal, champions just two seasons ago, have become an irrelevance is to take the thing too far.
Much has been made of the fact that Donegal have to take the field tomorrow without their two first-choice midfielders but Fergal Doherty and Patsy Bradley were such a disappointment at midfield for Derry a few weeks back that the Donegal duo will hardly fear the two veterans. Michael Darragh McAuley had eight different midfield partners ahead of the league final and an unsettled partnership didn’t make much of a difference that day.
Unless Karl Lacey has hit a wall, I expect him to be more than capable of picking up Mark Lynch, Derry’s most influential player, and while Chrissy McKaigue might match up to one of Murphy, McFadden, or maybe even McBrearty, Derry don’t have tailor made players to go toe to toe with all three. At least Donegal have Eamon McGee as back up if Lacey fails to restrict Lynch’s influence on the game.
What Derry can and will bring to the table, though, is a hunger and an aggression and a genuine hurt from having under-performed so badly a month ago. A further advantage is the vocal support they could count on in Celtic Park all through the league. Expect the din to get louder by throw-in tomorrow.
In Seán Leo McGoldrick and Enda Lynn, Derry have the type of all-action intelligent footballer Donegal used to have in Mark McHugh, while Ciarán McFaul should have the speed and stamina to track any runs from the back by Frank McGlynn or Anthony Thompson.
It all comes back to how much we can read into Donegal’s recent form.
Even though they’ve been playing off a severely limited playing panel and despite the fact they looked so lethargic last month against Monaghan, we have to assume there’s more in the tank.
A sure tell-tale sign of being in the middle of heavy training was the amount of kicks Donegal players dropped into Monaghan keeper Rory Beggan’s hands in the league final. When things were going well in Donegal, they had a great sense of when to go for it and when to hold back. That’s not something that deserts you overnight, so perhaps the lessons learned over the last difficult 12 months will stand for something tomorrow.
Perhaps out of the ruins of the Mayo game, and the two Monaghan games, they will have learned that it might be no harm to get Paddy McBrearty playing further out the field to get him on the ball more often. In the rush to point out Donegal’s unfavourable age profile and because he’s been around for so long, people forget how young McBrearty actually is. There are those in Donegal who would contend that the best football they saw him play was in the half-forward line with the U21s this year, so why not give him more responsibility? If he takes it on, Murphy and McFadden will flourish.
Perhaps Paul Durcan has refined his kickout once more to conceal the fact that their ball-winning ability at midfield is diminished. He changed his game more than once before, and there is no reason why he couldn’t do it again.
Perhaps too, the Laceys, McGlynns, Thompsons, and McLoones were holding back all along and maybe they have many more of those long lung-bursting runs in them. If they do, it will feel like the old days and we might start wondering what the talk was all about.
And yet you’d have doubts. Doubts about Donegal’s ability to protect their full-back line the way they used to. Doubts about trying to replace Mark McHugh, the one player who made sense of their sweeper system because he understood the role so well and had the legs to execute the plan.
You’d have doubts too, about a panel so small that only Ryan McHugh, Odhrán Mac Niallais and Darach O’Connor have appeared capable of breaking through these past two seasons.
Worryingly, Conor Classon’s introduction in the league final precipitated the departure of two or three more panel members who read the writing on the wall. Not really the type of preparation a team would hope for this time of year.
Both teams know the season hinges on this game.
Win, and you get to play either Fermanagh or Antrim to get back to an Ulster final. Lose, and back-to-back disappointing results within a month of each other means momentum is lost before the summer even begins.
Derry are slight favourites with the bookmakers, and rightly so, but Jim McGuinness and Donegal are capable of surprising us once again. If they don’t, then an already overstretched Donegal panel could be facing a battle to stay relevant.