Posted by Ewan MacKenna

 

2012 Donegal 520x280

As we close in on the first of this year’s football semi-finals, Ewan MacKenna runs the rule over Donegal, takes a look at their revolution and evolution and wonders how far they can go.

 

Strengths…

Their work rate and their endurance. Eleven of this team started when embarrassed in the 2010 qualifiers and they looked as lazy as they did disorganised that day.

But while they have hugely talented players at the back like Neil McGee and Karl Lacey and a quality scorer in Colm McFadden, they are so much more than the sum of their parts. Spend five minutes watching the work of Frank McGlynn and you’ll understand why and get a feel for what this side is about under Jimmy McGuinness.

He’s intense out of possession, a solid ball carrier that knows his limitations in possession, does all the basics really well and covers miles in the course of a game without ever looking tired. 

Unlike a year ago, they aren’t just a side that will slow you down, clog the channels in their own half and bottle up the opposition forward in possession. They still do all that but now they tend to move the ball far more quickly and more directly which has allowed McFadden the option of going toe-to-toe and he’s going to be an All Star this year.

If he can get the side ahead early on, it suits them perfectly and chasing against Donegal is almost an impossible task. On top of all that, we’ve seen time and again they’ve the engine to go right until the end and it’s that which saw that pull away from Tyrone, Down and Kerry after the restart.

If they sense victory down the stretch they’ll come at you with all the ferocity of the opening minutes, and crucially their midfield and half-forward players don’t cut back when faced with defenders, instead they charge at full power and more often than not draw the free.

 

Weaknesses…

We cannot stress how far McGuinness has brought them as the delegating manager. He has a back-room team of 16 who have tailored individual programmes that led Ryan Bradley to lose three stone, had Karl Lacey in a gym in Letterkenny at 7am before work each day, had Rory Kavanagh changing his diet to six meals a day including lunch at 10.30 in the morning when it was decided he’d be an engine in the middle, and had others eating potatoes for breakfast.

But against the very best, there are still flaws. For much of the first half against Kerry, they reverted to their 2011 type and were ponderous and lateral after turning over the ball and that allowed their opponents to get back and swarm McFadden.

If that happens again they’ll struggle because for all the unseen and crucial work Mark McHugh and Patrick McBrearty do, and for the class we know Michael Murphy can bring, they lack scoring options.

If their defence doesn’t contain, they won’t get the scores because Murphy has been out of sorts all year and you’ve to go all the way back to the Cavan game to find the last time anyone bar McFadden kicked three points from play.

Marc Ó Sé couldn’t hold him but Cork have quantity as well as quality at the back and others will need to step up in the scoring stakes or they simply won’t get enough on the board.

 

Where they’ll win it…

By getting a good start, getting out in front and having Cork chase the game. If that happens it’ll play into their hands. Conor Counihan has talked about his best team finishing games but against these opponents his best team need to start the game or they’ll concede early and that will allow Donegal to do what they do best.

They’ll sit back in numbers, force Cork to alter their shape and then they’ll break at pace. Also, McFadden has been the key man but there needs to be a twin threat when faced with this Cork defence and while it would help if McBrearty, McHugh and Kavanagh pitched in with six points between them and Michael Murphy will be crucial as if he plays well, he’ll draw men to him.

 

Where they’ll lose it…

They’ve contained everyone else’s running game, but Cork are a different breed and they won’t have faced anyone as big, as strong or as enduring. Unlike Kerry, Cork won’t cut back in the tackle and if Aidan Walsh gets a grip on midfield, he’ll create space for other forwards.

They don’t have the depth of Cork either and if they are trailing when Cork empty the bench and replace like with like it’s hard to see how they’ll get over the line this time.

 

Key Men…

The half-forward line and Michael Murphy. We know what their defence can and will do, and while that is enough most of the time, it won’t be this time. But if they can get the scores, it will start to turn the screw and put Cork under pressure.

If Rory Kavanagh and Ryan Bradley can get Alan O’Connor and Aidan Walsh thinking defensively, it would be a huge bonus and help the defence greatly.

 

Watch out for…

How they handle a team on a mission that will try to bully them from the off. It won’t be pretty but Mikey Conway and Tomás O’Connor couldn’t handle the ferocity of Cork and the opposition will use every trick in the book to get the better of Donegal.

They’ll be meeting a team just as creative in the dark arts as they are and they won't have experienced that too often.