Donegal determined to wrestle back their crown

Champions Monaghan facing a stern test in Ulster decider

Monaghan’s Cormac McManus will pose a huge threat to Donegal in the Ulster final. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Monaghan’s Cormac McManus will pose a huge threat to Donegal in the Ulster final. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Fri, Jul 18, 2014, 23:00

They might be giants. In what seems like the blink of an eye, Malachy O’Rourke has transformed a Monaghan team with a great future behind it into a side on the threshold of back-to-back Ulster titles and a growing army of admirers whispering that they might just have All-Ireland stuff within them.

The only team who managed just a radical transformation of form and silverware are their opponents in this year’s Ulster final, a rerun of last year’s granite tough and emotional encounter.

Monaghan are an open book. This time last year, they presented Donegal with a mirror image of what they themselves had been like in embryo, reinforcing their defence with forwards and adapting a worker-bee approach as they worried the Donegal men into confusion.

They held the then All-Ireland champions scoreless for a full 32 minutes and exhibited some brave score-taking. The highlight of last year’s match, besides the wonderful surge of emotion it generated among Monaghan people, was the quality of the team’s points.

Displayed fearlessness

When Pádraig Donaghy, a surprise starter in that final, hit his first ever championship point and Monaghan’s fourth in the match, it was from the 50. When the teams met in Croke Park for the league final this spring, the Monaghan players again displayed fearlessness in their shooting.

They return to Clones battle-hardened by a famous win over Tyrone and a replay victory over Armagh. Once more, they have to line out without the services of midfielder Owen Lennon, with the evergreen Dick Clerkin partnering Darren Hughes at midfield.

They are resolutely solid and organised and brimming with confidence and have a frighteningly talented forward in Conor McManus.

Donegal return to their fourth consecutive Ulster final almost unnoticed. Questions abound. Karl Lacey and Neil Gallagher are both named on the substitutes’ bench in the team released for match programme publication. Rory Kavanagh is named at right half forward, with Christy Toye and Martin McElhinney the named midfield.

If the named team starts, it greatly deepens Donegal’s options from the bench. But Lacey was immense against Derry and if he fails to start, then he is clearly carrying injury.

It is easy to make the argument that Donegal have made it here without any strenuous test, particularly given Derry’s disintegration in the qualifiers. There are other unknowns too. Even Patrick McBrearty’s most ardent admirers are wondering when the Kilcar man will fully announce himself on the championship stage.

Colm McFadden has yet to ignite this season could do so here? What is indisputable is that Donegal are a different proposition for Monaghan than they were 12 months ago.

A casual glance at last year’s final supports the evidence that they just weren’t a well team then; the collective effort was laboured. Key men like Frank McGlynn, Anthony Thompson and Leo McLoone are moving with intent again.

The return of Christy Toye and the emergence of Odhrán MacNiallais offers a new dynamic. The record of that lone Ulster championship defeat in four seasons under McGuinness speaks for itself.

They will be wary of leaving Kieran Hughes with any one-on-one advantage and if Monaghan’s midfield turns the screw may well drop Michael Murphy into the middle. Stephen Gollogly’s ferocious hit on Mark McHugh set the tone for Monaghan last summer and Donegal will expect a similar level of intensity here.

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