Joe Kernan: Donegal prove Ulster title isn’t that hard to win
Up until the start of this year’s Ulster championship we were being assailed on all sides by the conviction that this provincial competition is perhaps the most difficult of all to win.
Many people were going much further and suggesting that this would prove the most open title race for some time.
In the event, Donegal underlined just how wrong these theories were. Not only did they stride purposefully to retain the title by overcoming Cavan, Derry, Tyrone and Down but in doing so they laid down a marker that they will be difficult to remove from their throne as kings of Ulster football.
Without doubt, Jim McGuinness has elevated his county into the top three teams in the country. They were there last year of course – but some would say by default.
That’s when Donegal’s rigid defensive set-up and uncompromising strategy had threatened to strangle gaelic football as we know it.
It’s a much different story today. Donegal have shaken off their defensive shackles and showed themselves to be one of the most attack-conscious sides in the country as the rich harvest of scores they have landed to date will testify.
In the last half-hour of Sunday’s decider at Clones, Donegal scored 1-15 and that’s a score every two minutes which highlights the success of their new-found attacking formula that left Down reeling against the ropes long before the finish.
To emphasise just far down the line Donegal have come as an attacking force, skipper Michael Murphy, who normally posts a generous ration of their scores, landed just one point.
The fact that eleven players in all were on target illustrates how Donegal have moved from being stoically intransigent to becoming an exciting, adventurous, creative outfit who combine blistering pace and remarkable sure-handedness.
Rarely have I witnessed a team move better as a unit. The pace at which they can turn defence into attack is mind-boggling as we must always remember that we are watching amateur sportsmen in action.
But there is nothing amateurish in Donegal’s preparations and planning for games. The team is set out in a manner which renders it extremely difficult for opponents to play against them and then when they have crushed their spirit, Donegal pounce for the kill just as they did against Down.
And if Donegal are thriving collectively, then in Mark McHugh, Ryan Bradley and Frank McGlynn they have three outstanding performers who play vital roles in the game plan.
It is extremely difficult given the manner in which a number of Ulster sides have slipped back to see anyone challenging Donegal strongly for their crown in the foreseeable future.
McGuinness’s men are playing with a smile on their faces and who can blame them. The majority of the side are all too familiar with bad days and will feel they have worked hard and exercised patience in their bid to challenge the authority of Tyrone and Armagh.
Now that they have reached the provincial pinnacle they will have no desire to begin a descent. Knowing Jim McGuinness, he will want his side to take up a residency there and this is entirely possible.
But while Donegal have moved on, other Ulster sides have lost ground. The heavy defeat Tyrone suffered at Kerry’s hands could see a further overhaul of the team though the management is hoping there will not be any retirements.
Rather, the expectation is that the return of a fully-fit Sean Cavanagh, Kyle Coney, Justin McMahon, Ronan McNabb, Ronan O’Neill and P J Quinn will provide the selection options that were not available during the course of this championship campaign.
Manager Mickey Harte has been gracious and realistic in defeat but I don’t expect either he or his team to languish in the shadows for too long.
Armagh, Monaghan, Fermanagh and Derry have all lost ground while Antrim can consider themselves unfortunate not to have made it into the last twelve of the All-Ireland series.
Cavan proved a big disappointment and while the notion that the Ulster series can prove difficult to win, Donegal have to some extent shredded that theory by the emphatic manner in which they have pinned together back-to-back titles.
I recall Donegal slinking out of Crossmaglen two years ago after suffering a humiliating defeat to Armagh. How things have changed. It will take a team playing at their peak to beat them in the race to ‘Sam’.
Should such a team achieve this feat, then expect them to take delivery of football’s greatest prize.