Donegal making a fortress out of MacCumhaill Park

Relegated Donegal meet promoted Cavan in Ulster Championship preliminary round

Donegal manager Declan Bonner: “We were basically a point away from a very good league campaign in our eyes.” Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

With the possible exception of taking on Dublin in Croke Park, there is no more daunting football terrain in the country right now than MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey.

Donegal haven’t lost a championship game there since the 2010 Ulster quarter-final when Down took them to extra time and eventually won by two points 1-15 to 2-10 – Benny Coulter striking 1-4, and a young forward named Marty Clarke hitting 0-3.

Suitably demoralised, Donegal then lost their first-round qualifier and by the end of the year had a new manager in Jim McGuinness – and the rest is championship history.

They have had some close battles since in defending that unbeaten run at home, most recently in the last round of the Allianz Football League, when Kevin McLoughlin coolly thumped the equalising point to preserve Mayo’s division one status that dates back to 1997, while simultaneously completing Donegal’s luckless drop to division two.

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Still, it clearly remains a hard place to win a game – and that’s the challenge facing Cavan when they visit MacCumhaill Park for Sunday’s preliminary round of the Ulster Football Championship.

It’s the first meeting between the teams since the similar fixture in 2012, played in Kingspan Breffni Park, when Donegal made that rare success of winning the preliminary round game and going all the way to win the All-Ireland, for only the second time, after 1992.

Five meetings

Time isn’t on Cavan’s side either as they haven’t beaten Donegal since the 2005 qualifiers, played in Kingspan Breffni Park, their only win in their last five meetings.

Form, however, is possibly more even – Donegal being relegated from division one while Cavan were promoted from division two (five wins, one draw, one defeat), before losing the final to Roscommon in a game that produced four goals each.

“We were basically a point away from a very good league campaign in our eyes,” said Donegal manager Declan Bonner, now entering his first championship campaign. “But it wasn’t to be, and we have to focus now on the championship.”

Donegal’s league run did raise the form of younger players such as Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Jamie Brennan.

Cavan travel as 11/4 underdogs, partly based on that daunting home run of Donegal.

Donegal v Cavan: Last Five Championship Clashes

2012: Donegal 1-16 Cavan 1-10 (Ulster preliminary round)

2011: Donegal 2-14 Cavan 1-8 (Ulster quarter-final)

2005: Cavan 1-11 Donegal 1-10 (All-Ireland qualifiers)

2002: Donegal 1-17 Cavan 0-15 (Ulster preliminary round)

1998: Donegal 0-15 Cavan 0-13 (Ulster semi-final)

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics