All-Ireland SFC Round 1
Clare v Donegal
Sunday, Ennis, 2pm
By Michael McMullan
DONEGAL’S season won’t be defined by Saturday, but their trip to Cusack Park presents danger and opportunity in equal measure.
A win would come disguised as a springboard of sorts in a county desperately searching for any shoot of light.
It’s nigh on impossible to make a case for a serious assault on Sam Maguire, but it opens up the final group games with a degree of optimism.
A defeat to Clare and, well the doubts of a turbulent season that has presented just one victory would linger on the return journey back to the North West.
That’s the level of make-or-break Donegal will be preparing for this week.
Four weeks ago, they brought enough to Newry to squeeze out a win, but their lack of composure was the start of the fall. Jason McGee’s goal gave them a starting point, but they didn’t deal with Down’s pace.
Since then, Clare saw off both Cork and Limerick in Munster before coming up short in the final against Kerry.
Speaking after the game, Banner boss Colm Collins revealed their 20-point scoring target they felt would ask serious questions of the Kingdom.
Clare have averaged 0-13 across the season, something very close to Saturday’s visitors who have hit 1-10 per game.
Collins has used a settled team across their three championship outings with an injury to Darragh Bohannon in their win over Limerick the only change. It was Darren O’Neill who came in, but there has been no place for Aaron Griffin, while Gavin Cooney has remained as an impact sub.
Cooney has amassed much of his 1-10 from play, but it’s the trio of Keelan Sexton, Eoin Cleary and Emmet McMahon who do most of the heavy lifting in the scoring stakes.
Donegal are not short of their injury problems, but their defensive zone has been their settled line in front of accomplished goalkeeper Shaun Patton.
Brendan McCole and Stephen McMenamin form their spine, while Mark Curran and Caolan McColgan have broken through into the side this season.
When Clare came to Owenbeg, it was Chrissy McKaigue who picked Sexton up as the Banner’s most regular inside forward so it’ll be a job for McCole this weekend.
Pádraic ‘Podge’ Collins – son of manager Colm – missed part of the league, but he is fully back in the fold. His play here, there and everywhere roaming role could be the responsibility of Caolan Ward.
Jamie Malone has played much of his football in attack, but has doubled back as the centre-back with the help of Pearse Lillis tucked in behind as cover.
This is where Donegal must pose tougher questions than anything they have offered in the season to date. Their 15 points in a defeat to Monaghan is the highest tally they’ve posted in a first year of the post-Michael Murphy era that has averaged 1-11 per game. It won’t frighten Clare.
Eoghan McGettigan didn’t remain with the panel after his attacking performances for Naomh Conaill had the Donegal management team calling him up.
Michael Langan’s troublesome hamstring injury flared up in the defeat to Down and it’s hard to see him back. Peadar Mogan has said goodbye to his crutches but the game looks to be coming too soon.
It’s more promising for Jason McGee who tweaked a hamstring late on the Donegal game when all the substitutes were made and Donegal will need a big game from him this weekend.
The two shining lights from the championship were Dáire Ó Baoill with three points and Oisin Gallen’s lively performance when coming in off the bench.
Aidan O’Rourke will need them on song this weekend and Jamie Brennan to rediscover his form. The three points the Bundoran man hit to win the game when the sides last met will be very welcome on Saturday.
With Ulster champions Derry coming to Donegal in the next round, followed by an Ulster derby with Monaghan, Saturday will have been marked this game as chance to inch themselves from a disappointing season.
The win against Kerry brought premature optimism, but it seems like a lifetime ago.
Everything about this game points to a slog and a battle for Donegal. If ever there is a day for hanging tough and getting shooters with cool heads. The Ulster men need to find a way to win. Any sort of win. But it’s far for an easy task.