Arguably Derry have been the story of the championship so far this year. Already, they have taken two considerable scalps including that of the All- Ireland champions and now arrive in an Ulster Final with the Big Mo.
Rory Gallagher, his management team, and the players deserve massive credit for the progress that they have made from Division 3 in three short seasons, two of them compromised by the Covid pandemic. They have been an enjoyable watch and have revelled in their underdog status. This has been epitomised by Gallagher’s theatrics on the sideline as he drives his side on. It is clear how much they are all relishing and enjoying the adventure. As well as they have done the real tests lie ahead, starting tomorrow in Clones.
Their gameplan has been exemplary so far. There is more than a passing resemblance to Donegal in 2012. Of course Gallagher was Jim McGuinness’ right-hand man at that stage and in many ways he has gone back to the future to help this Derry side realise their potential.
They are extremely fit, defensively solid, hard to play against and play on the counter to great effect. Both Tyrone and more surprisingly Monaghan, having already seen them, played straight into their barrow. I don’t expect Donegal to fall into that trap tomorrow and as a result we could have a real tactical slugfest, that may be a hard watch for some.
Donegal have the tools, personnel and experience to derail Derry’s Ulster championship ambitions. It may not be as entertaining as some of the games involving Derry so far this summer, but it should be no less intriguing. To me at least.
While there are a hundred little things that make up Derry’s so far highly effective gameplan I will outline three key aspects and how Donegal can go after them tomorrow. If Derry can come through this test they will truly have arrived. They will need to ask further questions if Donegal have an answer to their tactics so far. This is the mark of a serious team. If not they will probably come up short but will be the opposition no one will want to see coming in the next round of the qualifiers.
They mix their approach on the opposition kickout but tend to press more often than not. They haven’t got huge rewards on the scoreboard off this just yet, only scoring twice off Tyrone’s kickout, for example. But this approach also carries with it a psychological message. We are coming after you with our high octane approach and we are going to try to pin you in.
When they lose the kickout, be that long or short, they retreat en masse to pre-designated spots inside their own 45. They work from there as a unit as they protect their goals and try to force turnovers. They keep their shape with their first line of defence being their full-forward line. They are then in position to sprint forward to regain forward shape once they win the ball back.
With the quality of Shaun Patton’s kickout and with the variety of targets that Donegal possess in Hugh McFadden, Jason McGee, Caolan McGonagle, Ciarán Thompson and Michael Langan, they have the ability to win kickouts long and move quickly from there before Derry get a chance to retreat into shape. This is the best chance to catch Derry with their pants down and go for goals.
Donegal won almost 90% of their own long kickouts against Cavan the last day out, losing only one. Patton also possesses a boomer which enables him to go over any press. As they have done in the past Michael Murphy is a further target. His trademark flick-on to runners like Ryan McHugh and Peadar Moggan will lead to goal chances.
Surprisingly, they don’t use this restart as often as one might expect. They scored 1-9 from their own kickout against Cavan underlining its importance. Gallagher may elect to drop off Patton and give up the kickout, but this will almost certainly result in defeat, a death by a thousand cuts.
Gallagher is quite happy for Odhrán Lynch to go long with his kickout, usually with at least 75% of them going to the 45 or further. It is easy to understand this. If they win it long it gives them a great chance to get up the field and get a score. It is much easier than trying to work the ball from back to front through the entire opposition, which is slow and energy-sapping. The problem with losing long kickouts against the best teams is they can really go to town on you on the scoreboard in a short time.
Derry’s only major blip in the league this year was when Galway went after their kickout in the first half of that game in Owenbeg. Derry had elected to play against the wind and Lynch struggled with an effective and aggressive Galway press. Dessie Conneely’s goal came directly from a long kickout lost. The game was over by half-time with Galway 12 points up and the inability of the home side to secure primary possession was a central part of the story.
Donegal possess the bodies to put a real aggressive press in place as they did against Armagh in the preliminary round. That day they won 40% of the Armagh kickout and but for the profligacy of their shooting they would have killed them. They still won by seven points.
They like to line four big bodies across the middle of the pitch and if they can’t win it in the air they aim to hoover up the breaks. Will Lynch have an answer to this? Derry have been excellent on breaks so far and the battle for this carpet ball will be critical.
If Donegal really get on top of Derry's kickout as Monaghan did for a spell in the second half, have they a plan B? The conservative one is to chip short but does Lynch have a boomer in the locker, that has been held back for the big day in an effort to surprise Donegal? I always liked to keep something back for later in the season and I will be interested to see if Gallagher has a similar thought process.
This is a key element of the Gallagher playbook. He gets plenty of bodies back to protect the scoring zone and has excellent man-markers in Chrissy McKaigue and Brendan Rogers. They force turnovers and break at pace.
As I mentioned in a previous column after the Tyrone game, at times they allow things to settle before they take off at pace, similar to Pep Guardiola’s concept of ‘la pausa’. They like to pause to allow the space to open up, underlining the importance of understanding that sometimes it’s more effective to slow down than to speed up.
It allows their front three of Shane McGuigan, Benny Heron and Niall Toner get up the pitch and be a forward option. Critically it also opens up space in the middle third of the field, space for their strong running ball carriers to attack. Rogers, McKaigue, Conor Doherty and Gareth McKinless are all excellent at this. It is a key plank of their gameplan. They scored 11 points against Tyrone from turnovers and counter-attacks.
Donegal will try to counter this by minimising turnovers in the offensive third, particularly of the unforced variety. This may require periods of patient play where they will hold onto possession as they probe for holes. It may be an excruciating watch but Donegal won’t care and are quite comfortable in this space. In the semi-final Monaghan did create openings but their conversion rate was shocking, scoring 17 points from 33 shots. Donegal won’t be as wasteful.
Accuracy, shot selection and shooting efficiency will have been mentioned more than once this week. They also have plenty of long range shooters to take on shots from outside such as Michael Langan, Ciarán Thompson, Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty.
When Donegal do turn it over they will go hard after the ball carriers, to stop them creating the initial opening that generates a chain reaction effect up the pitch. Again in that league game Galway did this very well. For their first goal scored by Matthew Tierney Damien Comer went after Rogers twice in the same move and turned him over. I expect Murphy to lead this charge of counter tackling. Their motto will be “work hard to avoid hard work”. Stop the initial counter-attack to avoid having to chase back the length of the pitch.
Finally, I also expect them to station Hugh McFadden as a high sweeper of that space in the middle third, playing further out than he normally would. He will operate like a safety in American Football and when Derry manage a counter-attack he will be there to make contact, to slow them down and to try to turn them over. I was surprised with Monaghan’s positioning of Darren Hughes last day out. He was too deep to stop the runners and was easily rounded by McKinless for his goal. Donegal will or at least should learn from this.
As good as Derry have been so far in the Ulster Championship they have been considerably assisted by the opposition set-ups and performances. I don’t expect Donegal to be as generous tomorrow.