THE WAITING is almost over. The talking done. Tomorrow evening in Ballybofey, Derry attempt to dethrone champions Donegal in the Ulster Championship’s very own ‘D-Day’.
Michael Wilson reports
The ‘D’ in question is, however, neither Derry nor Donegal but ‘defence’. That’s the key word for John Brennan and Jim McGuinness, the same word which has been dominating debate throughout this season’s Ulster Championship and beyond.
Often copied, rarely bettered, McGuinness’ defensive system which brought victory in last year’s Ulster Final against Derry has become a thing of morbid fascination for GAA commentators and provides the single biggest obstacle to Derry’s hopes of a quarter-final upset.
Injury doubts over Rory Kavanagh and captain Michael Murphy - who looks sets for a place on the Donegal bench at best - will boost Derry hopes but how efficient the respective forward lines are with possession is likely to be key and Derry captain Paddy Bradley says Derry must heed the lessons from last year.
“I have watched last year’s Final and even looking at the stats, Derry had every bit as much of the ball as Donegal and a similar amount of scoring chances,” explained Bradley.
“Derry’s shot selections were pretty poor on the day and that includes experienced players, boys you would expect to make the right decision like Conleith (Gilligan), Joe (Diver) or Mark (Lynch). All those lads will be dying to rectify that because making good decisions is exactly why these boys are county players. Whether or not it was the fact it was an Ulster final that got to some players, I don’t know, but everyone is dying to get out and rectify it this time.”
Bradley captains a team that includes two Championship debutants, Glen’s John McCamley and Bellaghy’s Eugene Scullion, but there is no place in the starting line-up for Eoin Bradley who may be named among the substitutes as he works his way back to full fitness. McCamley’s return in particular will be vital for Brennan, the Maghera man likely to be deployed in a shielding role for Chrissy McKaigue and Scullion in the full-back line with Dungiven’s Mark Craig at centre-half.
With spaces likely to be at a premium, Bradley expects to come in for some close attention from the Donegal defence although whether McGuinness will sacrifice Karl Lacey’s attacking breaks to deal with the Glenullin forward remains to be seen.
“I would be lying if I said we didn’t talk about Donegal and the way they play,” added Bradley, “It has been well enough documented last year. They made more headlines than any other team concerning the way they played and everyone knows well in advance how Donegal are going to play.
“We do have to take into account how they are going to line-out but it is also about us imposing our game on them. I felt watching last year’s Ulster final, Derry had plenty of the ball. Donegal played very similar to how I expect they will play this year, they got men behind the ball but Derry still had plenty of possession and maybe just took the wrong options at times.
“I think if the game develops as it did last year, if Derry have as much of the ball as we did last year, maybe this time we will make the right decisions and that could make the difference for us.”
Bradley will spearhead the Oak Leaf forward line with Emmett McGuckian and he is expecting to come in for some rough treatment inside what will be a congested 45m line. Composure according to the Derry captain will be crucial.
“Defenders are cute and don’t get me wrong, our defenders are the same but sometimes it can be frustrating. Whenever you have so many players in such a tight area, I suppose you are more than certain to get hit a bit more. Some of these accidental hits might not just be as accidental as they seem but it’s part and parcel of the game.
“I have to deal with it but so does every other forward in Ireland. I’m going to have to deal with it on Sunday so it’s important I keep my cool and don’t get frustrated because there is no doubt it can, and probably will be, frustrating. That makes it all the more vital that when chances come my way, or the way of the other forwards, that we make the right decisions.”
One of the most interesting changes since last year’s meeting has been to the square ball rule. So does this offer Derry an alternative route to victory in Ballybofey?
“We have plenty of boys in the six foot range. Joe Diver, Mark Lynch, Emmett McGuckin, none of these boys are bad in the air and I think I’m not too bad in the air myself but, yes, it can give us another option. The one thing it does is whenever a team is under pressure and they need to push in the last few minutes, there is less protection for a keeper. You can throw it in and get in around it.
“In the past, the referee had the easy option to always give the free out because he knew it was going to happen. He doesn’t have that option now but the hope is we are the team ahead and not the team, searching for a goal with a couple of minutes to go,” he added.