Declan Bogue: Donegal must show mettle
So, where to now for Donegal? It's a legitimate question after what unfolded against Monaghan in the Ulster final. The baldest of statistics tell us that they were six points behind on the scoreboard; their heaviest defeat – Championship speaking – in the Jim McGuinness era.
The more nuanced stats tells us why.
Let's look at Donegal's greatest weapon; the turnover. In games last summer, heading into autumn, the Donegal support would greet turnovers like scores, cheering them wildly in the Croke Park games against Cork and Kerry. That in turn set a charge of electricity through their players while simultaneously deflating their opponents.
On Sunday, Monaghan forced 21 turnovers on their opponents, doubling the first half tally of seven to 14 in the second half. Donegal forced 11 altogether, four in the first half, seven in the second.
There were other factors.
Whenever Monaghan had a free, the player nearest to it sprinted to get hold of the ball and they instantly sent it on. They were unwilling to allow Donegal to move their defensive lines in place and they couldn't dictate their own shape.
From kickouts, Donegal went short for their first two. After Monaghan pushed up on them, Owen Lennon and Darren Hughes carved out the next four for themselves, prompting the introduction of Neil Gallagher.
Astonishingly, before Rory Kavanagh picked up a break ball on 54 minutes, Donegal had only gained possession of one Monaghan kickout; that was another break from Kavanagh in the 16th minute.
As the finishing tape came into view there were jitters that upset that record, but by then Monaghan had eroded the confidence of Donegal's main threats.
Colm McFadden missed a free and a '50' in the first half. He missed another free in the second half and one from play.
As an early gap appeared on the scoreboard, the All-Ireland champions were forced to come out of their shell and commit bodies forward, but Monaghan were comfortable with this. They were quite happy to allow Ryan Bradley – who is not a shooter – to have the ball around the fringes of their self-determined shooting zone.
Whenever a McFadden or a McBrearty came near it, he was instantly smothered by two, if not three, tacklers.
Without protection, the McGee brothers were tortured by Conor McManus and Kieran Hughes.
It was a defensive performance so remarkably similar to what Donegal inflicted on Tyrone here in 2011 that enormous credit has to go to the coaching job of Malachy O'Rourke.
A lot has been made in the past of how Donegal endlessly rehearse scenarios on the field, but this defeat comes down to the fundamentals.
Tony McEntee had been sounding a warning bell for the last few weeks in his excellent newspaper column. Among his concerns were the squad depth. Donegal like to talk about players coming in and stepping up to do a job, but it is clear that there are certain 'untouchables', automatic first-choices. Naturally, Karl Lacey is among that number, but his lack of fitness was exploited by Darren Hughes and Dessie Mone who steamed through the middle.
The replacements are underwhelming. Despite his goal in Ballybofey, Ross Wherity was turned over three times in the first ten minutes of the second half when they needed cool heads in possession.
David Walsh was sent on, booked, could have been sent off by Joe McQuillan, but instead was hooked at half-time for the more industrious Ryan McHugh. 'Brick' Molloy has become utterly marginalised and the loss of Christy Toye only becomes apparent on days like this.
Above all, the champions looked tired. Perhaps being the hardest-training team in the country can do that to you. All stick and no carrot makes for an agitated beast.
This game gives hope to most counties left in the competition. In the lead in to this final, O'Rourke expressed his thoughts that Donegal had the resources and support to take their team away to hotels for five-day residentials where they could work on their tactics and approach.
Monaghan could not do it. Instead, they had to work smartly.
The good thing for Donegal players is that they can put it right. Speak to any player knocked out of the backdoor in circumstances like these and the thing that kills them is the eight-month wait to get out again.
In the qualifiers era, All-Ireland champions from the year previous have lost their provincial final – such as Kerry in 2008 and Cork 2011 – but they have never faced the six-day turnaround.
Time for the champions to reveal their character.