With two shock results at Omagh’s Healy Park having shaped this year’s Ulster SFC, tomorrow afternoon at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones, Donegal face Down for a place in a novel showpiece.
Rory Gallagher’s Fermanagh upset the form book last Sunday to oust favourites Monaghan with an injury-time goal from Eoin Donnelly to seal a famous 1-8 to 0-10 win. Monaghan had ousted three-in-a-row-chasing Tyrone in their own backyard last month.
For their part, and perhaps due to the almost blackout on the television screens of the other side of the draw, Donegal and Down have been tip-toeing their way, with Declan Bonner’s team now considered the shortest odds to seal a first provincial title in four years.
Donegal, transitional and more traditional, defeated Cavan 2-20 to 1-15 in the preliminary round and then overcame Derry at Celtic Park on a 2-16 to 0-16 scoreline.
The two-week turnarounds meant Donegal have had injury concerns, although three men who were withdrawn in Derry — Neil McGee, Michael Langan, and Jamie Brennan — are all back in contention.
Bonner isn’t looking past tomorrow, though, despite being questioned about a possible final meeting with Fermanagh, who are now managed by his predecessor in Donegal, Gallagher. Fermanagh’s defensive tactics were spotlighted last week.
“For us, it’s about Sunday,” he said. “We’re certainly going to have to improve on the Derry game if we want to get over the line on Sunday evening against Down. We have to treat every game as a championship final.
The thing about it is that the players from within our group, or any group, don’t pay attention to what’s said. It’s about getting over the line against Down.”
Bonner played his part as Donegal played in five successive Ulster finals between 1989 and 1993, including the 1991 final which catapulted the Mourne County to their fourth All-Ireland crown and first since 1968.
A win for Donegal this weekend will see them reach the provincial final for a seventh time in eight seasons.
When Down reclaimed the Anglo-Celt in 1994, Sam Maguire was their winter guest for a fifth time but there’s been no silverware in the championship since then.
Although a county renowned for their swagger will always have their moments, like the 2010 run to the All-Ireland final.
And while it was Fermanagh who caused the shock of the summer thus far last weekend, Down, 12 months ago, were the team who turned the formbook on its head when they toppled Monaghan.
This year, Down, are even further under the radar than Donegal; their home fixture against Antrim — a 1-18 to 0-14 victory in a rare home fixture at Newry’s Páirc Esler — clashed with the Champions League final.
“I’d give us a six- or a six-and-a-half,” Down’s Caolan Mooney said afterwards. “We knew we’d a job to do and we did that for about 60 minutes. We took the foot off the pedal a bit and let Antrim get a few scores. But if we do that the next day against Donegal we’ll be paying for it. So, we’ll go away and work on those things.”
Mooney, along with Connaire Harrison and Donal O’Hare, were taken off as precautionary measures and all will maintain their starting places, with Ryan Johnston expected to return. Darragh O’Hanlon will be a loss.
Barring the Donegal-Monaghan-Tyrone triopoly, Down are the only other county to have appeared in the Ulster final since 2011, losing heavily to Donegal, 2-18 to 0-13, in 2012 and then last year, against Tyrone, 2-17 to 0-15.
Down and Donegal, though, are expected to produce a more open contest than perhaps might be the norm in an Ulster SFC semi-final. Both can make and take chances going forward, while being far from watertight at the back.
Bonner, though, despite Down’s familiar traits, expects his team will have to be patient tomorrow.
“They have changed and have set up in the past defensively over the last 12 to 18 months,” he said.
Eamonn Burns, the Down manager, feels his team will have to push up their percentages to be in with a serious chance. “We have been taking one match at a time and Donegal are on our radar now,” he said.
“While I was happy with our shot selection against Antrim, I was not that happy with our accuracy. We have been working on it and hopefully we will get a greater return of scores on Sunday.”
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