WELL, well, well. Who would have thought that a team who beat the reigning All-Ireland champions and also last year’s Ulster finalists would be sitting in a provincial final this year and still not be favourites for that decider?
That’s exactly the position Derry find themselves in. There is no doubt that the Oakleaf County have been the form team in this year’s championship but as they enter into only their third final in 24 years against a Donegal team going for their tenth final in 12 years, their credentials will be tested to the max on Sunday week.
I have to say I never saw the Tyrone performance coming, I don’t think anyone predicted an 11-point victory, however the Monaghan game was slightly different.
Having watched what Derry did to Tyrone there was enormous belief amongst the Derry faithful and they travelled more in expectation as opposed to travelling in hope. We all knew Monaghan would be a difficult hurdle to overcome but Derry did it and with some to spare.
Like all good contests, Monaghan were always going to have their purple patch and Derry’s response to this was key.
The Oakleafers showed great resilience to stick in there and never let the game get to within two points. Whether it was the last-ditch hand in by Conor Glass or the attempted blocks by Gareth McKinless, these were enough to show they were literally putting their bodies on the line.
By forcing Monaghan to shoot under pressure, there was never a clean shot at the target. Monaghan were forced to snatch at a few efforts that they would otherwise usually have put away.
Scoring 3-12 and being labelled as a somewhat defensive or conservative team is not a bad tag to have.
The Donegal game will be completely different. Having had the chance to watch Derry twice now, the old saying, ‘fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me’ springs to mind. There are a number of different uncomplimentary endings to ‘fool me thrice’ in reference to being fooled a third time.
As noted above, this being their tenth final in 12 years, I don’t think Donegal will fall into any of the uncomplimentary categories and they will be able to study Derry to the Nth degree. Unfortunately for the neutral, this may lead to the arm-wrestle of all arm-wrestles.
Having watched the Monaghan game on television when I returned home, the BBC commentary studio were predicting that it would be an arm-wrestle but it was anything but. I think we can predict with a degree of certainty that Donegal will set up in such a way that they’ll be extremely difficult to break down. .
It won’t be a case of Gareth McKinless or Ethan Doherty coming at the Donegal defence like a steam train and punching holes or laying off to the shooters. Those guys will get smothered up and Donegal will try to set all sorts of traps and blind alleys for them to run down.
Derry will have to be a lot more patient in their build up as the two teams will most likely play a similar way.
Will it be a case of the more experienced Donegal frustrating Derry and causing them to do things they have not been doing up until now or will it be Derry, with their peak energy levels, who will be able to take the game to Donegal and keep their relentless pressure on top of them until they crack? It can be difficult to predict over a week out but it’s hard for a Derry man to look past my own at the minute.
This will be my first Ulster final as a Derry supporter in 24 years. I was there in 2019 when Cavan played Donegal and then the one before that in 2011 I was playing versus Donegal. My last one before that was 2009, when my own club ran a bus to the Antrim and Tyrone final.
That was my one and only day at an Ulster final when I was at an age of being able to enjoy the day out from a supporter’s point of view and I have to say I got the whole buzz of what Clones was about on Ulster final day. The sun was out, the streets were packed and as much as our club was maybe there to support Liam Bradley, we were basically there just for the day out.
Sunday week will be different in that respect. While I will be there as a supporter and enjoying the day out, I will have my red and white tinted glasses on. My wee lad is heading for the day out too. The innocence of them jumping over the wire at the final whistle in Armagh and streaming onto the pitch just for the fun of it was a sight to behold.
His own interest in Gaelic is very much take it or leave it but that doesn’t mean he is not able to go to Derry games with his cousins and mates and enjoy the day for what it is. He won’t get too highly wound up about it but win, lose or draw, he will enjoy it and sure isn’t that half the battle of getting them interested.
Hopefully by 6pm on Sunday week he will have new found heroes because he is starting to roll his eyes and tut when he has to give the answer of ‘Daddy’ as to who his favourite footballer is – that innocence only lasts for so long!