Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Championship: Can anyone break Donegal’s spell?

Champions will have to show same desire to see off their rivals

All Ireland Final - Donegal v Mayo Fans Pictures - 23rd September 2012Round - Copyright Presseye.comMandatory Credit Declan Roughan / Presseye(L-R) Tracey Donaghy from Aughabrack, Co Tyrone, Bronagh Conwell from Donemanna and Orlaith Kerlin from Aughabrack, Co Tyrone get ready to watch the All Ireland final from the Hatfield Bar, Ormeau Road Belfast

Every All-Ireland-winning manager can bask in a ‘Halo effect' where he and his team can do no wrong. In the case of Donegal coach Jim McGuinness, however, this spell has continued throughout the winter and spring, with the added fascination that his side — by their own admission — were not taking the league seriously.

It caused a re-evaluation on how much worth is attached to playing well and winning in the league. Sure, we had heard the chat before, but not as blatantly by an actual manager.

When all considerations were made, we realised that there have been few figures to have been second-guessed and pondered quite as much as McGuinness.

One of the theories concerning his approach to retaining the Sam Maguire deserves teasing out. After giving so much of their time and efforts over the last two years to reach the pinnacle, a natural slump was inevitable.

They had built up their own aura in victory, aided by a couple of documentaries and the well-worn tale of the first team meeting in a hotel in which they addressed their lowly ranking in the eyes of a newspaper.

Knowing the value of that psychological tool was crucial. Players needed a rest and while they took it easy during the league — with only 12 flat-out collective sessions conducted in the early spring — there was a chance that the aura could be punctured.

Recognising that, Donegal came up with a new theme. The league, they said, they “don't like”. It was all about May 26, in Ballybofey, against Tyrone.

Their casual attitude to the league would act as a forcefield, leaving criticism unable to penetrate the camp. If that was the thinking behind the path they went down, and this is all guesswork, then it was a masterstroke.

They control the controllables, but still, human nature can intervene.

Concerns? Donegal have a few. Or at least it appears to us looking on from the outside. A certain casualness throughout the last few months could continue to echo later in the summer. The departure of Karl Lacey for a family commitment in Malta for a spell last month did not seem in keeping with the manic commitment that Donegal were engaged in throughout 2011 and 2012.

Looking at it as a sign of McGuinness losing grip on a panel would be wide of the mark however. He permitted Kevin Cassidy to go on a family holiday for Easter week during the 2011 league season, and was prepared to wait for Cassidy to return from a similar break last season before he made up his mind on a possible return to the panel.

What is more worrying is the human element. Some players clearly have not been at their best, the panel is a little threadbare, and the feeling remains that they are only one or two minor injuries away from being in real trouble.

Can Lacey return from an operation and a long layoff on May 26, to be the same Karl Lacey that stood head and shoulders above any other footballer in the country last August and September?

The build-up to May 26 has a number of fascinating angles. Having played 14 competitive games since January, Mickey Harte has had ample opportunity to knit the old with the new, but there is suspicion that even at this stage he may not truly know his starting 15.

What will provide succour is the flow of the last two games they have played against Donegal in Championship football, as well as that four-point victory in this years' league. In 2011, Tyrone were on their way to a trademark, accomplished and controlled win when a ball caught by Martin Swift squirted from his grasp, under pressure from a thumping Michael Murphy tackle.

It was worked from there to Dermot ‘Brick' Molloy, who applied an outstanding finish to give Donegal the lead and the belief to go to close out the game.

A year later, the mindsets of the teams had changed to the extent that it was Tyrone that had to prove themselves and it showed. Yet still, had Paul Durcan not flung his leg and kept Martin Penrose's late shot out with the tips of his studs, had Mark Donnelly swung his boot at a ball one yard off the line rather than gather it, the Championship and the fortunes of these neighbours could have had a very different complexion.

It's hard to avoid it, but May 26 is the main attraction. To have such a big game on this early in the summer will set pulses racing early and while it will be billed as the Ulster final only played early, that does not capture the majesty of this Championship.

Can Paul Grimley revive an Armagh side that struggled to remain in division two? Is it too early for the under-21s of Cavan to knit together as a cohesive senior unit? Will Championship specialist Malachy O'Rourke get Monaghan back to an Ulster final? Are Antrim's problems too much to overcome, and can that great competitive animal, Peter Canavan, deliver his first win as Fermanagh manager?

More questions than answers. That's what makes the summer compelling up north.