Posted by Ciarán Whelan

Donegal proved on Sunday that they are now the best team in the country and go into the All-Ireland final in the unusual position as hot favourites

2012 Donegal

Donegal proved on Sunday that they are the best team in the country right now. I thought they would beat Kerry but a lot of people didn’t think they would have enough in the tank to get over Cork.

The myth that there are problems with modern-day football was blown out of the water at Croke Park. It was a fantastic game of football between the two best teams in the country. It was edge-of-the-seat stuff from start to finish.

There has been a lot of talk about Donegal changing the way the game is played in the negative sense which is something I’ve never bought into. They are playing a system within the rules of the game. They dictate the pace and the terms of the game and what Jim McGuinness has done with this group of players in the space of two years is nothing short of phenomenal.

The power and fitness that they have and their willingness to work for each other is extraordinary and they simply ran Cork into the ground. It was something that Cork hadn’t come up against this year. All their games had been over with 15 minutes to go and you could see as the game progressed that Cork were fading more and more and Donegal had plenty still left in the tank.

It was just an amazing performance and Donegal will probably now go into the All-Ireland final as favourites. In some ways, Cork’s bench was weakened because they started with Daniel Goulding and Ciarán Sheehan in the team. They are very good impact subs so their bench was diluted somewhat.

I was very impressed with Cork in the first half, though. They dominated possession, picked the right runs out and supported the man on the ball. They kicked some brilliant scores and it was surprising that they were a point behind at the break.

But that’s all credit to Donegal. They were able to move up the field quickly and pick off their scores. Their policy of kicking long balls into Michael Murphy wasn’t that effective and they only got one score off it but they were able to break from deep and they would have been very happy with their one-point half-time lead.

Cork came out in the second half and they wilted when Donegal started playing a higher line and put more pressure on them. The Munster champions became sloppy and snatched at shots as they tired. The ball was stripped easily from their possession and scores from Frank McGlynn and Martin McElhinney came from brilliant work in defence.

Cork reverted to panic football and brought in Nicholas Murphy at full-forward. I don’t think that’s his natural position and the one thing you don’t do against Donegal is pump long balls into the full-forward line. They did get that goal at the end but other than that it didn’t work.

I’m surprised Cork didn’t do in the second half what they had done on the first when they were able to get through the Donegal defence. A large part of the reason they couldn’t do it was because they got blitzed around the middle of the field where Neil Gallagher had a massive game. He kept his side on the front foot all the time and Cork never really got functioning in the second period.

As the game wore on you could see there was only going to be one winner but Donegal will still be disappointed that when they were five points up they chose some bad shot options when they should have finally put the game to bed. But McGuinness deserves great plaudits for what he’s done for this team and he has shown that he is an outstanding leader. 

I think they will be fine going into the final as favourites. They’re consistent in what they do, they have a gameplan that they stick to and they have massive reserves of energy and fitness. They’ve beaten Tyrone, Kerry and Cork so it hasn’t been an easy route. I think that the fact McGuinness was able to prepare his side mentally for Sunday’s game means he will be able to do the same before the final.

He’ll keep their feet on the ground but it will still be a strange time for them because no one would have said a year ago that Donegal would be going into this All-Ireland final as the hot favourites. And that makes the achievement all the more laudable.

It looks as if they are miles ahead of Dublin and Mayo at this stage but for this week those two teams will be thinking only about next Sunday. I expect Dublin to improve next week but Mayo have progressed well under James Horan. They are solid defensively and have a good midfield but I worry about their forward line.

The Dublin defence is the best they’ll have come up against and I’m not sure they have the ability to break it down.

Dublin have to improve and I’m not a fan of playing three midfielders in the side. Michael Dara Macauley often drops deep and they’ve lost their shape in the forward line as a result. When the semi-final draw was made I was sure Dublin would progress but I’m getting a bit more nervous as the game approaches.

I don’t think Alan Brogan will be 100 percent fit and Dublin are going to need a significant improvement because Mayo are a dangerous and hungry side.

But whoever gets through is going to face a daunting prospect in the final. If I was picking a footballer of the year now I’d be looking at this Donegal side. Mark McHugh and Karl Lacey are probably the front runners. They’re streets ahead of anybody else.

But I don’t think McGuinness will be talking about individual plaudits at the end of the year if they are to win the final. It won’t be about All Stars or footballers of the year. It will be about the collective effort on which they have built their game and that has driven them to a first All-Ireland decider in 20 years.