Defeat to Derry in Sunday's Ulster football final could mark the end of the road for for this Donegal team and management as a competitive force, according to Kevin McStay.
Declan Bonner is looking to lead his county to a third Anglo Celt Cup since taking over for a second time in 2017 after succeeding his opposite number on Sunday Rory Gallagher. Indeed the Tir Chonaill men are set to take part in their 10th provincial decider in 12 years, but it is the All-Ireland series where they have flattered to deceive in recent seasons.
The 2012 All-Ireland success and final appearance two years later feels like a lifetime ago as Bonner’s men have often promised more than they have delivered.
With captain and talisman Michael Murphy, sharpshooter Paddy McBrearty and the ever-dynamic Ryan McHugh still to the fore, and Sam Maguire winner Neil McGee still involved, former Mayo player McStay says defeat to the surprise package of the season in Derry could spell the end of the road for some.
"This is a bigger match for Donegal than it is for Derry," he told the RTÉ GAA podcast.
"Derry will have life after the Ulster final, as in Rory Gallagher will stay on and will fight to get out of Division 2 next year. It’s a slow burner of a project, but moving at a nice pace.
"This is the line in the sand for Declan Bonner and the management team. And for quite a few of the older players. It’s time to produce or leave the table I think. They will find it very difficult to continue into the qualifiers if they don’t have the confidence of an Ulster final behind them.
"Derry absolutely can move into the last 12 and still be in good fettle."
Also speaking on the podcast was former Kerry manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice, whose All-Ireland title in 2014 came at the expense of Donegal.
Looking ahead to the decider, he sees contrasting styles to kick-outs. Derry tend to go long, happy in the knowledge if they lose it, they have sufficient time to regroup.
"Monaghan didn’t punish them (Derry), even though they had a huge amount of shots, they just didn’t make it count. I think Donegal will make that count if they (Derry) are losing their own kickout."
Fitzmaurice expects the Oak Leafers to continue with their policy of a high press on opposition kickout before quickly retreating, but expects Donegal keeper Shaun Patton and to pose more problems with the number of viable options around the pitch from restarts.
He also expects Donegal to be tactically more aware of Derry’s main attacking weapon.
"When Derry have counter-attacked, they have managed to create space in the middle portion of the pitch while also having shape up front, allowing Gareth McKinless and others to sprint through that area.
"I imagine Donegal will have that well rumbled, with the likes Hugh McFadden (pictured above) parked there to deal with all oncoming runners and slow down that counter-attack that has been so effective so far."
Ultimately, both men expect Donegal to prevail in Clones.
"I think overall Donegal are a better team," says McStay. "They have better footballers and are hugely experienced. It’s brand new for the Derry boys.
Fitzmaurice too is tipping Bonner’s men to claim an 11th Ulster title.
"Donegal will be more patient and have the long-range shooters that Monaghan didn’t have the last day. They are more experienced than Derry and I think their experience and nous will come into it."
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