The time is now ticking down rapidly ahead of Saturday evening’s pivotal Super 8s clash between ourselves and Donegal. This All-Ireland quarter-final Group 1 Phase 3 meeting between the counties throws in at 6pm that evening in MacHale Park. Meath’s David Gough is the ref for it.
Thinking about how to frame this background piece on Donegal, the logical point of departure on which I alighted was, unsurprisingly, our most recent competitive meeting. That encounter took place at MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey in late March last year, on a day when Kevin McLoughlin’s late, late leveller saved our Division One bacon while propelling the home team through the relegation trapdoor.
I recall running into Stephen Rochford that day on the way out of the ground well after the final whistle had sounded and having a light-hearted, jokey exchange with him. We’d come through a rocky League campaign with our top tier status preserved and summer – when we always performed much better – now lay ahead of us. Stephen looked relieved and sounded upbeat. All was well with the world.
How times have changed since then. Rochy’s now in Donegal’s corner and comes to Castlebar as a vital part of the Tir Conaill brains trust whose job it is to figure out the best playing approach to take us down and end our interest in this year’s Championship.
Back on that day in Ballybofey it looked as if we were still riding high and that Donegal’s relegation would wound them badly heading into summer. The gloss had come off their youth policy and now they faced into a bruising Ulster campaign and, most likely, a backdoor battle if they were to make the inaugural Super 8s.
But it didn’t work out like that. Ulster fell their way perfectly last summer, with first Tyrone slipping up against Monaghan and then the Farneymen face-planting against Fermanagh. Donegal, in the other half of the draw, had a tricky preliminary round opener against Cavan but once they’d negotiated that one they made short work of Derry, Down and, in the final, Fermanagh to land a rather facile Anglo-Celt Cup success.
And with it a ticket to the Super 8s dance. But it was there that their good fortune ended. Bracketed with Dublin, Tyrone and Roscommon, last year’s format saw the so-called Croke Park round played first, so pairing Donegal in Phase 1 – at 7pm on a Saturday evening for good measure – against Dublin. It’s little wonder they had a motion before Congress on this issue afterwards.
Donegal gave a good account of themselves in that game but they lost by five. This meant they were already on the back foot as they prepared themselves for Phase 2.
That was against Roscommon in Hyde Park and the seven-point win they recorded in that game put them right back in the hunt for a semi-final spot. Tyrone were their opponents in a winner-takes-all final round meeting but Donegal enjoyed home advantage for it, with the match fixed for Ballybofey.
MacCumhaill Park, so long a Donegal fortress, was stormed by the Red Hand invaders in that Phase 3 showdown. Tyrone came away with a decisive 2-17 to 1-13 win to seal second place in Group 2 and, with it, the coveted semi-final slot on offer.
Still, the year had been a good one for Donegal, whose Championship run had seen them claim an Ulster title and make a decent fist of the Super 8s. That left them with plenty of positives to build on this year.
Which, you’d have to say, they’ve done rather impressively. So much so that they’re once more being spoken about as genuine contenders for the main prize.
The year started for them in Division Two. The second tier is a tricky place and Donegal got a taste of this during the campaign but they eventually got the wins they needed to regain their place at the League’s top table.
In Round 1 they beat Clare by 0-16 to 0-13 in Ennis, in Round 2 they edged out Meath in Ballybofey by 1-13 to 0-14, before, in Round 3, they unexpectedly slipped up again Tipperary, losing in Thurles by 3-9 to 0-13. Round 4 saw them lose again, this time at home in Letterkenny, with Fermanagh coming out on top by 0-13 to 0-10.
They righted the ship in Round 5, but only just, as they squeezed by Armagh in Ballybofey by 1-9 to 0-11. Their Round 6 trip to Cork could have been a tricky one but it wasn’t. The Rebels were in freefall this spring and Donegal pushed them closer to the brink by thumping them 1-19 to 1-12.
Another big win, this time in Ballyshannon, where they coasted to a 1-20 to 0-10 success over Kildare confirmed their promotion back to Division One and, with it, advancement to the Division Two decider. Meath had topped the table but Donegal took the divisional spoils, winning that final 1-17 to 1-15.
The day after we lost to Roscommon, Donegal opened the defence of their Ulster title. Fermanagh proved sticky opponents in that quarter-final meeting in Brewster Park but a strong second half display from the visitors saw them home on a 0-15 to 0-9 scoreline.
That set up a semi-final joust against Tyrone and the young buck and I headed up to Breffni Park to catch that one for ourselves. I was well impressed with Donegal that day, in a match where Tyrone reverted to their horrible, negative worst and got exactly what they deserved, i.e. nothing, from the contest.
Whereas Tyrone opted for tippy-tappy short restarts all day, followed by laboured, slow handpass-laden saunters upfield, Donegal attacked at pace, with plenty of angled kick-passing and loads of intelligent movement in their forward line.
Their kickouts were far better too, Patton fizzing his restarts with venom out 50 metres and beyond, where young McGee as well as McFadden and Thompson feasted at will. Donegal were well worth their 1-16 to 0-15 win on a day when the country really began to wake up to their potential this summer.
Cavan were no match for them in the final either, Donegal banking back-to-back Ulster titles at Clones on a scoreline of 1-24 to 2-16. So, for the second year in a row, Donegal made it to the Super 8s this summer via the direct route.
With the tweak given to the Super 8s match scheduling, this meant a home Phase 1 match against Meath and the chance to get some momentum straight away. It wasn’t an invitation they passed up on either, beating the Royals by 2-19 to 1-13 at Ballybofey.
That was followed by the mad-cap 1-20 apiece stalemate against Kerry last time out. Cooed over as the match of the summer, the result further bolstered Donegal’s credentials as real contenders, even if the high concession rate by both teams was largely ignored in this analysis. It also sends them heading towards Castlebar on Saturday evening as strong favourites to get the better of us.
We don’t know how that game will end. You do, though, know by now how these background pieces on opponents conclude so let’s stick with that approach once more. Right, then, over to you: how will we do on Saturday evening?
How will we do against Donegal?
- Win (63%, 680 Votes)
- Lose (30%, 329 Votes)
- Draw (7%, 78 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,087
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