THIS is the weekend Donegal – and Derry fans even more so – have been looking forward to since the start of the Championship campaign.
Before I get into the hysteria that surrounds this Derry team at the moment, let me start here at home and congratulate Declan Bonner and his team for reaching the decider when many had them written off earlier on in the season.
Donegal are the perfect example of how not to panic during the league campaign because, as we know, this is a gradual process and summertime is where it’s at, and ultimately it#s when you will be judged as a team. If we cast our minds back to the League campaign, at times Donegal, and Declan Bonner in particular, were ridiculed for their style of play and lack of energy, but now fast forward a few months and they’re sitting pretty once again.
Here in Donegal, as far back as I can remember, it’s always been about Championship football and indeed I think our players are just built that way and that come summer time they are always ready for battle.
Donegal performances of late against Armagh and Cavan admittedly haven’t set the world a light, but, for me, I can see a gradual increase in tempo and intensity. I do feel that there is a massive performance in the tank and the hope for Donegal fans is that it comes out this weekend on the biggest stage of all.
From a Derry point of view, what more can be said at this stage about Rory Gallagher and the transformation within this Derry set up. As mentioned here a few weeks back, when Rory took the job he cleared his whole backroom staff and started from the bottom up, surrounding himself with people that he can trust and who care about Derry football as much as he does.
They went to work on bringing Derry back to the top table and it has been incredible to watch. For years we have all known that Derry had the individual talent within the county to compete.
All you had to do was look at the club scene in Derry and the schools football to realise that this was a county stacked with ability. Having ability and putting together a team who can deliver are two completely different things.
When Rory Gallagher took the job he went about creating an environment where people actually wanted to play for Derry and those who didn’t were simply cut loose.
When we sit down to look at the tactical battle this weekend, it really is a case of where do you start and where do you stop.
Like I told you last week, Rory will have a playbook on his kitchen table with a breakdown of every single player within that Donegal panel. For me, from a Derry point of view it’s important that it’s not paralysis by analysis in that they don’t forget what they’re good at themselves as they take to the pitch. Derry are exciting on the counter attack and when you have the likes of Shane McGuigan up front, it’s key that you get the ball into the danger zone as quickly as possible. Another massive area is how Donegal will handle the midfield sector. Derry have one of the strongest midfield sectors going at the minute, so it’s key for Donegal that they get a handle on this area or perhaps bypass it completely.
As I toyed with how both teams may set up, the one factor in my mind – and we won’t know that until throw in because Rory Gallagher is capable of doing absolutely anything – is how Derry will approach Donegal’s kick-outs. Rory will be fully aware that Donegal struggle when a full press is carried out with extreme pressure being applied to the ball carrier.
On the flip side, he will also be aware of the threat Donegal pose when Patton bypasses the press and launches ball to the Derry 45 metre line.
So, the question for Rory is does he press or stand-off and give Patton the kick-out? We know how influential Gareth McKinless has been this season, so you would think that Declan Bonner will have a plan to counteract that. Perhaps he may station Michael Murphy in that area or indeed Patrick McBrearty, someone McKinless will have to keep a close eye on at all times.
Rory will have Brendan Rogers and Chrissy McKaigue earmarked to pick up McBrearty and Murphy, but I don’t see Donegal allowing them to do this easily so you may find them in positions unfamiliar to those watching on.
This one really is hard to call. Obviously Donegal should be favourites given their experience at this level. But this Derry team are on a mission. When I cast my mind back to when I took my son Fionn to watch the McKenna Cup game between these two teams, I saw that night that Rory was planning for Donegal further down the line.
Rory didn’t have his big-name players on the pitch but you could see from watching on that Derry had been coached in this area of how to play against Donegal’s system and at times they punched holes quite easily in the Donegal rearguard.
I’m not going to sit on the fence and I’m going to call it so I reckon Donegal by two but only just as this Derry team are definitely on the rise!