HomeFootballDonegal on Ulster trail after Celtic Park ambush

Donegal on Ulster trail after Celtic Park ambush


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The football championship sparked to life in glorious sunshine last weekend, even if it wasn’t always obvious from the press box in the Hyde.

Mayo’s victory wouldn’t have got any neutrals roused up and it felt fairly routine in the finish – even though it was nice revenge for last year. From our perspective anyway, you can never win that game by enough.

It was a different story in Ulster again. Jim McGuinness is back and the difference from this year to last is startling. It’s night and day.

Donegal were clearly primed to exploit the gaps in Derry’s make-up – specifically the gaps left on the goal-line – and when they did counter-attack, it was done at extreme speed.

Ryan McHugh is emblematic of their transformation, in that he didn’t play last year for whatever reason. On Saturday evening, he was in sensational form and he and Daire Ó Baoill were pivotal figures in their whole gameplan coming up trumps.

They linked up for the first goal and were heavily involved in the brilliant counter which led to the penalty in the second half.

As was noted during the weekend, their kickout stats were nothing special. If you’re going long, you have to accept that to some degree. But the rewards that arrived when they did gain possession were enormous.

When the kickout lands, their runners are flooding in. They’ve already committed. All it takes is one flick from a midfielder and their runners are onto the break, tearing into the space left behind.

Daire Ó Baoill scoring Donegal’s second goal

It’s far from a new tactic from them. I remember when we played them in the 2012 All-Ireland final. We were still a new-ish team – though there were still a handful of veterans from ’04 and ’06 – and we’d beaten Dublin in a tense semi-final.

Even then, that flick on in midfield into the path of a running half-back was part of their arsenal. We weren’t attuned to that tactic and got schooled. We were still naïve and though we didn’t play badly after a horrible start, they were too smart and held us at arm’s length.

We wondered aloud in the column last week whether Derry needed another gruelling Ulster campaign and whether they’d benefit from the five weeks off.

They’re going to get that now anyway, whether they wanted it or not. And who knows? In a few months time, we might be saying it did them no harm in the end.

The manner of the loss, however, is a fair rebuke on its own and the video review session will not be pretty.

Some observers have proclaimed the end of the fly-keeper – born 2017-18 (roughly), died not peacefully in the late spring of 2024. It’s probably a bit more nuanced than that, however.

Supporters are baffled by the sight of a goalkeeper loitering in the middle third for opposition kickouts. It’s based on the numbers game. They’re instituting a high press and Lynch is pushing up to facilitate the press by giving them an extra body in midfield. Obviously, it can be a risky strategy and it backfired spectacularly on Saturday.

A couple of observations. Lynch should have been quicker getting back for the first goal. McHugh had arrived onto the broken ball and already shipped it off to Ó Baoill and replays showed that Lynch was still jogging. He wasn’t alert enough to the danger.

There could also be questions asked about the defenders.

If Lynch is milling about in midfield – and they’ve accepted that’s the plan – then there is an onus on Chrissy McKaigue and whoever is back there to be mindful of that and be prepared to retreat to the goal-line at the first sign of danger.

We saw it when Colm Reape was stripped of possession in the first half in Roscommon. (The Mayo keeper was sprinting from the get-go, by the way – he had panicked visions of Lynch in his eyes.) Enda Smith lamped an early pass into Ben O’Carroll.

The key was that Jack Coyne drifted back far enough towards the goal-line to discourage the shot. There is a slight caveat in that O’Carroll was forced slightly wide to collect the ball so there was a bit more time for the defence than Donegal allowed.

Still, Derry weren’t sharp enough. I noticed Conor McCluskey letting fly at McKaigue for not getting back at one stage. Chrissy is a brilliant defender but was perhaps too focused on his man at those situations.

Odhrán Lynch watching in despair as Donegal’s first goal beats him to the net

The fourth goal in Celtic Park was surreal in that Lynch was actually competing for the ball. You’re watching it, thinking ‘why are you doing that?’

Jamie Brennan was onto that ball and when he lashed it home, it was party time. It’s all opening up now.

I’m not sure I’d class them as bona fide All-Ireland contenders yet. We might need more evidence. But an Ulster title looks well within their range. Knowing Armagh’s luck, McGuinness will engineer another one point win in a provincial final…

They’re facing a potentially jaded Tyrone team at the weekend, whose game went to extra-time (largely through their own carelessness) and who’ll have a day less to recover.

Sunday’s win didn’t answer any of the doubts surrounding Tyrone from the league. There isn’t too much wrong with their attack. Again, going forward, especially in the first half, they looked excellent.

It’s at the other end where there are doubts. They conceded 3-16 against Cavan – admittedly in a 90-minute game. Now, you’re coming up against a team that has just put four goals past the Division 1 champions. That’s a red flag coming into this weekend’s semi-final.

They had nine debutants on the field at the end of the game. Losing Peter Harte to injury before the game was a blow. What’s the status on him heading into the weekend? We’ll have to wait and see.

At this point, form and logic suggests a Donegal win on Sunday.

Tyrone escaped a dogfight in Kingspan Breffni

Mickey Harte’s other former team have a big chance to make another provincial final at the weekend. Plenty hinges on the Louth-Kildare game.

Glenn Ryan’s side has a last-ditch chance to get into the Sam Maguire and salvage their season. Westmeath and Dessie Dolan will probably be watching on nervously, hoping for a Louth win.

I’d fancy Louth to do them that favour. They’ve been hugely impressive so far this year, when you consider the circumstances in which Harte and Gavin Devlin departed last autumn. There was a sense that morale had been destroyed and their year was shot.

They put in some terrific performances in the league and were unlucky not to finish higher up the table, in truth. They buried both Fermanagh and a dangerous Wexford team under a hail of goals.

All in all, Ger Brennan has come in and done a savage job. He probably hasn’t got the credit yet.

Watch a hurling double-header, Galway v Kilkenny in the Leinster Championship (2pm) and Limerick v Tipperary in the Munster Championship (4pm), on Sunday on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player, follow a live blog on rte.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app and listen to live commentary on Sunday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1

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