Posted by Mickey Harte

Having reached the semi-final last year Donegal need to go one step further to continue on the rebuilding plan Jim McGuinness set out for them

2012 Donegal

In the week before an All-Ireland semi-final it’s all about managing the players’ focus on the game as supporters in the county indulge themselves in all that goes with the build-up to the day.

Donegal are similar to ourselves when we reached the last four to play Kerry in 2003. We wouldn’t have been at that stage too often so there’s the excitement of getting there that the fans have to enjoy and indulge themselves in a little bit.

That seems to be the case for Donegal at the moment where there appears to be even more anticipation and excitement than there was last year. Maybe last August they travelled to Croke Park more in hope than in expectation whereas this weekend there is the serious belief that they can reach the final.

Those new levels of expectation are something the players will have to deal with and Jim McGuinness is well capable of keeping them grounded and has done that very well to date. It’s a balancing act of allowing the enthusiasm to swirl around the county while keeping focused on the task of beating Cork.

I’ve asked the question before of my players and I’m sure McGuinness has of his: What are you going to be reading about on Monday? What will those flags mean to you after the weekend if you haven’t performed?

So the players must ensure that they are doing everything in their power to be able to perform. You can never be sure of the result but you can always control how you perform if your mind is in the right place. That’s the biggest challenge for them and I believe they are well capable of giving the performance they know they need to produce.

They have made tremendous progress over the past 18 months, pushed Dublin to the brink last year and now are back with another chance to go a step further. I feel it’s something they need to achieve because if they lose, while it won’t be a failure, it certainly won’t be a continuation of that progress.

They need a final appearance to show for all the rebuilding work McGuinness has done. Of course there are always setbacks along the way and you never know the impact they’re going to have. I do believe they are coming up against the best team in the country and I think this Cork team is a good as the Kerry and Tyrone teams of the 2000s.

They have that strong mix of experience and quality players all over the field. You can’t underestimate what winning all those league titles and the All-Ireland title in 2010 does for players. They are a formidable outfit and it’s a tall order for Donegal.

If the Ulster champions don’t win they will themselves see it as an enormous setback, though not necessarily something they won’t be able to recover from.

I think there has been an overemphasis on Donegal’s system because most teams nowadays have two or three systems that they work on. They still do rely on a defensive strategy in which Mark McHugh will drop back and they will also withdraw Paddy McBrearty and Michael Murphy to deeper positions where they will become playmakers rather than finishers.

They only have one recognised full-forward in Colm McFadden and Conor Counihan knows that that’s the way they will set up their team. He’ll be looking this week at how to break Donegal down. You can’t carry the ball into the tackle on a regular basis but, having said that, you can’t avoid the tackle altogether so there must be a balance between carrying the ball into contact and offloading it just before you get there.

Cork must play an expansive game and use the width of the pitch because most of the defensive bodies will be down the middle. However, Donegal have not been as defensive this year and have been exposed on occasions. Down had goal opportunities against them -- as did we -- and Kerry got a goal late in the game and were in again only for Gooch to opt for the fisted point.

The fact that those goal chances weren’t nailed is an issue for those teams but Cork will feel they can take those chances. And if they do get a goal or two it may change the whole complexion of the game and force Donegal to commit more players forward which is something they haven’t done to date.

I also believe that Cork will put a man-marker on McFadden because he is Donegal’s chief scorer. If the Munster champions can negate his threat it is difficult to see enough scores coming from elsewhere on the field to see Donegal through.

There has been some talk that Cork haven’t been tested in a while but that’s out of context because, as we know, Kildare can test anyone. I think it does a disservice to Kieran McGeeney’s side. They had a bad patch in that quarter-final when they went eight points down but they certainly tested Cork when they draggeded themselves back into the game with that scoring burst before half-time.

So to say Cork haven’t been challenged is not entirely accurate and I think it’s overplayed a bit. They also had enough challenges in Division 1 of the league this year when they went on to win it. They know what they’re up against and in many ways they’re a bit like Donegal in that they will not want to be left with the feeling they’ve underachieved.

Given that they have won four league titles in a row, they probably would expect to have a better return in terms of All-Ireland wins. If they don’t win they will see a record of just one Sam Maguire in the period when they won four leagues as being not quite good enough.

Ultimately, for both teams on Sunday, after all the training sessions and team meetings, they will need a calm voice to deliver the finals words to them before they take to the pitch. You can’t play on hype. You need clear thinking and to work with the information you’ve been given. You need to be calm, know what’s expected from you and know what to expect from the opposition.

It’s vital to be ready but relaxed and if both teams play to their capabilities it’s going to be an intriguing encounter.