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Donegal stars must take lead

By Peter Canavan

After the draw for the Ulster Championship was made, ex-Donegal ace Martin McHugh said that if his former side were going to win the All-Ireland this year, then it would be easier for them to do it through the back door.

I felt at the time he was brave in saying it, but he was absolutely correct.

Six weeks ago, nobody was referring to or caring about Tyrone. Kildare weren't taken seriously either and they had time to prepare with no baggage and out of the limelight. Mickey Harte and Jason Ryan kept their heads down and worked with their squads.

Compare that to Donegal. Because of their own excellence up to the Ulster final, most pundits had grouped them in the top three teams in the country.

Now, everything is scrutinised since the defeat to Monaghan. They weren't an angry team, or a team with an edge.

As a player, I found nothing re-energises and focuses you more than criticism and people suggesting that you are not good enough.

That's fuel. It's not manufactured by a manager, that's for real.

When you have been at the top like Donegal have, you don't need pats on the back.

The football they played towards the end of the National League was good, the football at the start of the Championship was excellent, but it meant them having to peak at different stages.

They were up there for the Tyrone and Armagh games, but on the slide after that.

It's hard to replicate it week-in, week-out in the Ulster Championship and then expect to be in peak condition for an All-Ireland semi-final, which they are going to have to be.

Donegal had a tougher route in this year's Ulster Championship than they had in the provincial titles of 2011, 2012 and 2014.

But it's not the games that take it out of teams, it's the preparation, both mental and physical, coming up to matches that takes it out of both players and management.

Rory Gallagher was a very brave man coming into an unenviable position as Donegal manager, given their previous success. Some of the players have reached their personal peak in that they are not going to get much better considering their age.

I disagree with the theory that he was out-thought in the Ulster final by Malachy O'Rourke and the Monaghan management team.

Both teams read each other extremely well. A lot of the match-ups were expected, bar one - putting Ryan McHugh on Darren Hughes.

Nobody saw that coming and it worked for Donegal because Hughes wasn't a factor while McHugh was very prominent in the second half.

On the day, their shot efficiency malfunctioned.

Against Armagh and Tyrone, their average shot to score percentage was 58%. Against Monaghan, it was just 36%.

And yet, if Paddy McBrearty had kicked that final attack over the bar, you would be looking at Donegal in a different light, having wrestled back a five-point margin in the last 20 minutes.

The move at the very end of the game had everything. It had pace and bravery when Michael Murphy went for a 40-60 ball that he had no errand going for and put his head in to flick it out.

Neil Gallagher and Paddy McGrath worked it into position. It was a great example of thinking clearly under pressure.

The only thing that went wrong was the kick, so I wouldn't be overly critical of Donegal.

But there are unknowns. And what we don't know is whether Donegal have the hunger and drive to perform at the top level, given the last few years of their journey.

In Tyrone when we had a big year, it was hard to maintain that level in the following season. There was the same commitment, but there wasn't the same deep-rooted hunger and drive.

I think that's where Donegal find themselves at the minute and it could go either way for them. Once a team is put out of a provincial Championship, it is the leaders within that group that will determine the extent of the run in the back door.

If you lose a big game in the provincial Championship, be it a final or a semi-final, you can do two things.

The leaders in the group can feel sorry for themselves and they might also go out and have a few drinks and talk about what could have been. A softness can creep in and you are on the road to nowhere.

There is no use in the manager standing up after a defeat like that saying, 'boys, we have to do this, do that', it has to come from the players.

For example, in 2005 Tyrone lost an Ulster final replay to Armagh.

We had reason to feel sorry for ourselves, but the players were very much hurt. We had to sit and watch thousands of Armagh supporters running onto the pitch celebrating an Ulster Championship triumph.

That drives a group of players on and it did for us.

There will be a lot of doubt in the Donegal camp and it's a case now of seeing if they can re-focus their targets and if everybody can buy into it.

If they can do that, then even with their injuries they should be able to scrape past Galway. That's all they want to do, just get over the line and set themselves up for what would be a mouth-watering clash with Mayo.

I don't believe that Fermanagh will get caught up in the occasion of playing Dublin tomorrow.

They have played in Croke Park before in Division Three and Four league finals. The surroundings will not be new to them.

Peter McGrath will not change his system or set-up just because it is the Dubs he is playing. If you go back to the Monaghan game for example, they were able to get back in numbers and able to frustrate the Farney going forward, before hitting them on the counter-attack.

In terms of their attacking style, there are teams that have gone out to play against Dublin and it was pure damage limitation, they were accepting defeat, in particular Derry in the National League and Westmeath in the Leinster final, where they had 15 men behind the ball.

Fermanagh will learn from that, and should not be disgraced here.

As for Tyrone, mention of Sligo in Croke Park can still cause shudders.

Sean Cavanagh was a young man on our panel then and he will let the boys in the current squad know that we were ahead by eight or nine points after 20 minutes when we played them in the 2002 quarter-final.

We were cruising and playing great football but all of a sudden the tide turned and once it did so, it was one-way traffic.

I can't see the Red Hands being complacent. A lot of the younger players will relish the prospect of playing in Croke Park and it will suit this Tyrone team, who will nail a place in the quarter-finals.

Belfast Telegraph


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