Preview: A different championship landscape

Ulster SFC quarter-final
Down v Donegal
Sunday, Páirc Esler, 2pm

By Michael McMullan

WHAT a difference two years can make. Donegal were facile winners, 2-25 to 1-12, over Down in Páirc Esler in the 2021 championship opener.

A lot has changed. Declan Bonner was Donegal’s manager. Paddy Tally was in charge of the Mourne County and has since helped Kerry get their hands on Sam.

Bonner stepped down last season. Michael Murphy called time on his playing days. Conor Laverty was appointed as Down manager on the back of u-20 success.

Paddy Carr was eventually unveiled as the Donegal manager before being ousted from the post by the players as they plummeted towards relegation.

Aidan O’Rourke, who was part of Down’s management ticket last season, stayed on board on Carr’s wishes with Paddy Bradley also remaining.

Down were on the wrong end of a similar defeat in 2018. Before that you have to go back to their 2010 All-Ireland final season for the last championship win over Donegal with Conor Laverty and selector Marty Clarke in action.

It was the last time Donegal failed to win a first round game and they go into Sunday without injured skipper Paddy McBrearty with Ryan McHugh – Man of the Match against Down in 2021 – no longer on the panel. The Kilcar man has been plagued by injury and had plans to go travelling.

Donegal’s only victory of the season came on the opening league weekend when they downed All-Ireland champions Kerry thanks to a fine performance from newcomers Caolan McColgan, Mark Curran and Johnny McGroddy before McBrearty’s late winner.

When beaten finalists Galway came to O’Donnell Park, Donegal had to settle for a share of the spoils on a day their efforts deserved more.

It’s their lack of scoring power that have left them struggling for action and prompted O’Rourke to call Eoghan McGettigan into the panel after fine performances in club duty after a spell on out with an ACL injury.

Shaun Patton will continue to be a key man with a midfield area containing Hugh McFadden, Jason McGee, Michael Langan and Caolan McGonagle to aim at. Add in Ciaran Thompson.

Brendan McCole and Stephen McMenamin will form the spine of Donegal defence, with Eoghan Bán Gallagher an important cog.

Down are Ulster’s highest goalscorers with 18 goals. Conor Francis and Liam Kerr both hit the net when Laverty’s side beat Donegal in the McKenna Cup, but Donegal have only conceded four other goals with clean sheets against Monaghan, Tyrone, Armagh and Roscommon.

This time last year, O’Rourke was part of James McCartan’s management team in the Mourne camp. From the team that lost to Monaghan in Ulster, 11 are still on the panel albeit Barry O’Hagan is injured with u-20 duo Ryan Magill and Odhran Murdock – both from Burren – possibly saved for Wednesday’s decider with Derry.

They didn’t feature in Down’s last two senior games with another Burren man Patrick McCarthy – who excelled in an u-20 marking role on Ruairi Canavan – not having played senior since the NFL win over Antrim.

Murdock has 3-6 to his name and would be a hugs loss if Laverty, who doubles up as u-20 manager, decides to prioritise Wednesday’s final with Derry ahead of the Ulster SFC opener.

The wording of rule 6.17 was changed at the GAA’s last Central Council meeting meaning that a player may not play senior and u-20 championship in the same seven-day window.

Beforehand, the rule – as originally worded on the back of Wexford’s motion on the matter being passed at GAA congress – allowed players to be accommodated in both squads.

Clare did take a case to the DRA on Tuesday night, hoping for the ruling to me changed back, but it failed.

It leaves counties like Down with a decision to make surrounding their u-20 players crossing over on the senior panel.

The loss of O’Hagan was a huge blow to Down, leaving Pat Havern as the main scorer. He has had support from Andrew Gilmore and Kerr, but Murdock’s absence would also be felt here.

Down set their stall out early in the season and were in superb nick for the McKenna Cup. They threw the kitchen sink at a strong Derry team before going under on penalties in the semi-final.

In the end, their promotion bid failed after keeping both hands on a late lead in their high-octane visit to Ederney when Sean Quigley’s bundled goal won the game for Fermanagh.

Sunday is a tough game to call. Donegal have a settled team with a season in Division One under their belt. Down were operating two levels below, but are coming into Sunday off the back of wins.

The u-20 run will give Down fans cause for optimism and they’ll be hungry for a senior team to get behind once again.

There won’t be a double scores victory this time. The landscape of 2021 is no longer. Donegal will be keen to make a statement and Páirc Esler is the arena to make it.

A tight game in prospect, with Jim McGuinness having ad input in Down and home advantage possibly giving Laverty’s men a slight advantage.



IT has been a nightmare season for Donegal who have only won once, albeit against All-Ireland champions Kerry. Paddy Carr was ousted by player power midway through the campaign with Aidan O’Rourke and Paddy Bradley agreeing to stay on until the season ends.

They played Galway off the pitch in every department only the scoreboard, but it’s their lack of scoring power that came back to bite and they’ll feel they should’ve taken something from the visit to Armagh.


McKenna Cup
Down 2-14 Donegal 1-10
Monaghan 0-15 Donegal 2-7

Donegal 0-13 Kerry 1-9
Donegal 0-8 Tyrone 0-16
Monaghan 1-20 Donegal 0-15
Donegal 1-9 Galway 1-9
Armagh 0-13 Donegal 0-10
Mayo 1-17 Donegal 0-9
Roscommon 0-21 Donegal 0-9

Conor O’Donnell 0-13
Oisin Gallen 1-10 (6f)
Jamie Brennan 0-11 (2f, 1m)
Michael Langan 0-9 (3f)
Patrick McBrearty 0-7 (4f, 1m)
Dáire Ó Baoill 1-4



UNDER Conor Laverty, Down started the season at 100 miles an hour and took Derry to a penalty shootout in the McKenna Cup semi-final. They lost out on promotion by virtue of head-to-head against Cavan who won the clash in Kingspan Breffni. If only they’d held on against Fermanagh in a blockbuster. The Erne County won with Sean Quigley’s late punched goal.


McKenna Cup
Down 2-10 Monaghan 0-12
Down 2-14 Donegal 1-10
Derry 1-15 Down 3-9 (Derry won 3-2 on penalties)

Down 2-11 Tipperary 1-11
Down 2-18 Antrim 2-17
Fermanagh 2-14 Down 3-10
Down 1-10 Westmeath 0-11
Cavan 2-14 Down 1-10
Down 1-19 Longford 1-14
Offaly 0-9 Down 1-18

Pat Havern 1-34 (22f, 1m)
Andrew Gilmore 2-17 (10f)
Liam Kerr 3-10 (4f)
Odhran Murdock 3-6
Barry O’Hagan 0-12 (7f)

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