By Martin Carney
We are only a month into this year’s championship and already the destiny of Sam Maguire is a foregone conclusion, if popular opinion is to be believed.
“It’s Dublin’s to lose”, is the common refrain; superior skills, greater athleticism, belief and the depth of their panel are trotted out as reasons.
Mayo, Kerry, Tyrone and Cork are tentatively cited as the best of the rest.
Donegal rarely get a mention in this narrative of potential champions.
Is this a consequence of them being seen as possessing an ageing squad with little motivation or are they perceived as simply no longer being good enough to go the distance?
Before we explore some of the reasons why I think they should be given a higher billing, an examination of their record since that glorious triumph in their 2012 All-Ireland win is worthwhile.
Relegated from the top flight of the league in 2013, in the ensuing summer campaign, victories over Tyrone and Down were followed by an Ulster final defeat to Monaghan.
That apart, it was the 16-point mauling at the hands of Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final that prompted knowing nods among followers that the bell of quittance had tolled for this particular group.
Gone was the fight and the inclination to compete.
Containing 13 of the team that won Sam, they appeared jaded, listless, disorganised and devoid of the passion that propelled them to the top ten months earlier.
The ruthlessness so evident in the past in their pursuit of victory seemed now irretrievably lost. Body language suggested that players had become resigned to the conclusion that they had given all they could.
I certainly felt that the high tempo, authoritative, ultra-defensive structure had drained the enjoyment levels for the Donegal players and, like many others, I thought their time was done.
However, plying their trade in Division 2 of this year’s Allianz League afforded the team an opportunity to renew itself away from the glare of the top tier.
It allowed the new selectors to acquaint themselves with the players and the systems favoured by Jim McGuinness. Once the winning habit was rediscovered, promotion ensued.
The divisional final defeat to Monaghan was academic, yet understandable, given the proximity of their first-round clash with Derry.
The starting team in Celtic Park featured 12 All-Ireland medal winners and for good measure a further two were introduced from the bench. What we witnessed was a throwback to the ‘style’ that had proved so successful in their annus mirabilis.
They frustrated Derry with their defensive alignment by denying them space, tackling them relentlessly and deploying the old ‘rope-a-dope’ tactic beloved of Muhammed Ali in his heyday.
Derry expended energy trying to get behind Donegal but to no avail. The Tir Conaill men gave a disciplined performance and apart from taking the sting from all that Derry threw at them they also planted doubts in the minds of the Oak Leafers.
Here we saw the levels and intensity of performance that had been missing for some time and its reappearance suggests to me that the team is again on a mission.
More importantly the win rekindled the belief and confidence in the squad that had been dormant and the presence of these virtues makes them a formidable outfit.
Every team would love to have a forward like Michael Murphy. Big and talented, he is a man that is capable of adapting to the changing circumstances of any game.
He is a born leader and a player whose current form suggests to me that he and the team are in the mood to scale the heights again.
With Murphy leading the line, Donegal are more than capable of reaching the last four.
That opening period of the second half where they blew Derry away was a throwback to better days.
Once the prey was snared the life was squeezed out of them, and I see Donegal as capable of replicating this again on Sunday against Antrim.
In the modern game a vibrant subs bench is an imperative and the introduction of Neal Gallagher and Martin McElhinney, in particular, strengthened their hand considerably.
Young lads like Darach O’Connor and Ryan McHugh have added exciting options to the attack.
McHugh made his senior debut against Tyrone in last year’s league, but the progress made this year in establishing himself has been impressive to behold.
For one so slender and tender in years he brings a heady mix of guile, vision and pace to the team. His athleticism and bravery were evident in the recent win over Derry and his inclusion is another reason why I see possibilities for Donegal.
All told, Donegal supporters can feel more confident about the season. On the evidence so far:
- Belief and confidence has been restored.
- The defensive system is beginning to function.
- The inside forwards carry a major threat, one even greater than heretofore.
- There is quality on the bench - some of it experienced, some young and exciting.
- Karl Lacey, whose drive is critical to the team, is showing signs of a return to form after injury.
- No one will fancy meeting them once they are in a determined and contrary mood. Remember the nightmare game with Dublin in 2011.
- They will do what it takes to win. Substance will outweigh style if needed.
- There is one final kick left in the locker for this group. Write them off at your peril.