Allianz National Football League – Division 1
Down v Donegal
There is bound to be a big crowd in Pairc Esler, Newry on Saturday evening when Ulster rivals, Down and Donegal meet. These two sides have come to national prominence over the last couple of seasons as they made progress in the All-Ireland series.
In 2010, Down won a lot of admirers with their swashbuckling style as they swept aside Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final before succumbing by a single point to Cork in the All-Ireland final. A year ago, Donegal won very few admirers but their uber-defensive style proved almost as effective as they went all the way to the All-Ireland semi-final before falling to eventual champions, Dublin.
On the way, Donegal picked up their first Ulster title since 1992 and I bet Down manager, James McCartan has been stealing envious glances across the province as silverware is something that Down really need if they are to reach the next stage of their development.
Several observers of football have ascertained that many managers will look at the success of the defensive game played by Donegal and Dublin last year and would copy it for 2012. However, one team that will definitely not be withdrawing 13 players behind the ball is the Mourne men. In Down, they are exceptionally proud of their football history and extremely proud of the fact that they always try to play an attacking, expansive style which is easy on the eye.
For most of the last 15 years, this has been at the cost of success as they have struggled to break down, the packed defences of their Ulster rivals. As the defensive style of play spread South, Down struggled to make headway in the All-Ireland series until 2010 when with Marty Clarke as playmaker, they were able to prise open the tightest of defences with pin-point passing and running at defenders. Clarke has now departed for the warmer climes of Australia to renew his career in the AFL and this leaves a big gaping hole in the Down defence.
Benny Coulter still looks as dangerous as ever while others such as Daniel Hughes, Mark Poland and Conor Laverty but who is going to be the one to pick out their clever runs. One option would appear to be Aidan Carr who wore the number 11 jersey during the McKenna Cup and acquitted himself well. Elsewhere the return of Ambrose Rogers is hugely important and gives them another option in the middle of the field.
After a stop-start 2011, this year is massively important to the careers of these Down players.
It could be argued that this season is equally as important to this Donegal team. They have been shrouded in controversy over the winter with the acrimonious departure of Kevin Cassidy from the squad and then they had the war of words between Jim McGuinness and DCU manager, Niall Moyna over Martin McElhinney’s availability for an O’Byrne Cup game.
McGuinness has also been very outspoken in his criticism of college teams competing in the McKenna Cup and has threatened that Donegal will withdraw if they are allowed to compete next year. It tends to be forgotten that McGuinness is still relatively new to this game and I feel that perhaps someone from the county board should take him to one side and tell him to bite his tongue on occasion. He says so much in public that some of it is bound to come back to bite him.
At this stage, we know what to expect of Donegal with as many as 13 men behind the ball on occasion, leaving Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden staying close to the opposition goal. Both of these players are out injured for this weekend as well as wing-forward Mark McHugh, leaving the forward line looking a bit lightweight. One of the few bright spots for Donegal during the recent McKenna Cup campaign when they lost all of their games was the form of corner-forward, Dermot Molloy and McGuinness will certainly hope that his young attacker can take some of the scoring burden off Murphy this year.
It was often said of Jack Charlton that he played the long-ball game because he didn’t trust the players and I often think the same thing about Donegal. In Murphy, McFadden, Neil McGee and Karl Lacey they do possess some of the best footballers in the country and have plenty of talent coming through since winning an Ulster Under 21 title in 2010.
Donegal will go into this game as favourites but this is where there may be a bit of value to be had. The losses of Murphy and McFadden are massive for Donegal and home advantage may tip the game in Down’s favour.