Clones and Thurles are now the only iconic grounds left that provide the ultimate in provincial championship final atmosphere. It’s as much about the town, the hill and the patrons as it is about the ground.
However, when we rock up to Clones this weekend there is more than a football match at play. We are now faced with several moral dilemmas. Modern day football has worn us down, it has made us question everything we were taught as kids and, ironically, it is in direct contrast to what we are teaching our own kids now.
The evolution of football means that we are unsure what makes us keep coming back to watch, what is the lifespan of the provincial championships.
Donegal played Cavan in the first round of the championship and they scored 2-20, a refreshing change from the former masters of mass defence.
So why then, when I had been looking for them to open up and play football for the previous four years, did I drive home that day bemoaning both teams’ lack of intensity, the lack of any bite and the ease with which defences were broken down?
Fast forward to Fermanagh v Armagh and subsequently Monaghan, plenty of blood and thunder, plenty of bite and no little measure of the dark arts. Hard to watch and unless you’re from Fermanagh it was hard to leave either of those games feeling in any way fulfilled. So as spectator, what exactly are we looking for?
I feel the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps the more pertinent question for us all is, what is acceptable? Can we change how we think about Gaelic football? Listening to the Second Captains World Service podcast, there was an interview with Jonathan Liew, an English journalist with The Independent.
When he was asked to discuss Iceland, he said they had dramatically increased their chances of success as the “best chance to overachieve is through the art of defensive football”.
Donegal came from obscurity in 2009 to win the All-Ireland three years later through defensive football. In Ulster, Fermanagh would be well known as a nice team down through the years but lacking two major components: first, a cutting edge, and second, a free-taker.
For years, the analysis centred around Fermanagh’s nice brand of football, epitomised when they celebrated like champions having lost the All-Ireland quarter-final to Dublin by eight points in 2015. The role of glorious losers fitted them like a glove and predictably they fell into a giant hole in 2016 and ’17.
So, it’s probably not that hard to believe that first thing Rory Gallagher did was insert some venom in them, make them horrible to play against. To be honest, I didn’t think they would be able to pull it off but they have adapted to it and my old sparring partner Ryan McMenamin has added his own little splash of cynicism to the mix.
Having said that, it would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge that he has also improved their defensive cohesion, their discipline in the tackle and their shape defensively.
It was interesting, in the aftermath of Fermanagh’s win over Monaghan, to listen to Gallagher when he was asked why Donnelly was at full-forward when the ball was kicked in for him to punch the winning goal.
He said Donnelly was in there because it was something they had worked on in training, so it’s a good job there is a lot more joined-up thinking on the field.
The sum of the Fermanagh parts is certainly more than the individuals of last season. They have the ability to defend in numbers while still targeting the opposition’s top players - look how Che Cullen manhandled Conor McManus the last day and kept Andrew Murnin quiet in the Armagh game.
Fermanagh’s Achilles heel, however, remains their inability to get scores and create chances. They rely too heavily on long-distance scores and, as even Dublin will tell you, it’s not a long-term solution when playing against 14 men behind the ball.
Donegal will pose them too many problems offensively, they have too many players playing well. Household names aside, Jamie Brennan, Paul Brennan, Eoghan Bán Gallagher and Shaun Patton have all prospered under the freedom to express that Declan Bonner has afforded this rejuvenated Donegal team.
Their running angles, their pace, their variation and their efficiency in front of goal should be loads to beat Fermanagh. Donegal have scored 2-20. 2-16 and 2-22 so far in the Championship. Be under no illusions, they won’t score half that against Fermanagh but they will win the game.
Declan Bonner has called for more protection for Ryan McHugh from referees. Expect Fermanagh to target him, Michael Murphy too and in particular Patrick McBrearty. That’s the key to Fermanagh’s puncher’s chance this weekend.
Whatever chance they have with the two Kilcar men, the chances of rattling big Murphy are slim. This guy is on a different stratosphere to anyone else in Ulster right now, unmarkable and impenetrable.
Hard to believe but if Donegal are to be outdone on Sunday it will be by the style they invented, that’s Rory Gallagher’s only form of kryptonite.
But back to my moral dilemma; I don’t really expect to be royally entertained in Clones but this Ulster final will offer intrigue, it will be feisty, it will have an edge to it. I’ll try to forget the past and enjoy it for what it is, the new way.
Harry Kane summed it up as well as anyone in response to England’s penalty concession, Derek McGrath to the goal awarded against them wrongfully v Tipperary: “IT IS WHAT IT IS”.
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