Kevin McStay: Donegal shaping up as the biggest danger to Dublin
Ulster champions are the only team that look like a serious threat so far
Cavan’s goalkeeper Raymond Galligan and Pádraig Faulkner look dejected as Donegal’s Patrick McBrearty, Jamie Brennan and Ryan McHugh celebrate their Ulster final triumph. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
This is the week when the pulse of the All-Ireland championship begins to quicken and one question burns more brightly. Who is thinking about September 1st? Which team has their eye on the main prize? Dublin, obviously. But who else? Well, let’s look at that.
The provincial finals are over and I’ll be the first to concede that they have slightly mocked my column here at the outset of the championship and, indeed, the general mood to do away with them. They have stolen the show.
They are a funny entity because, even though they aren’t the end of the line anymore, all competing teams have no choice but to invest everything in trying to win those finals. They still have a one-off feel about them. And the performance can affect a team’s future as much as the result.
I found myself in Cork for Saturday night’s game against Kerry. On the way down, I began mentally check-listing if I had visited every county ground in Ireland. Between playing for Mayo, working for RTÉ and managing Roscommon, I had done.
But then Páirc Uí Chaoimh was revamped and so this was a first visit for me. And it’s a gorgeous place. I parked at Shandon Boat Club and had that lovely walk along the banks. It was great to see the same old faces there again. The visit made me realise that each provincial final is a completely distinct occasion in terms of atmosphere, accent, and even the feel of it.
When I grew up in Ballina, we had no tradition of ever going to see Munster or Ulster finals. But I was sometimes brought to the Leinster final– it was probably a better road! And it is a completely different atmosphere. It could be an All-Ireland semi-final because Croke Park, obviously, doesn’t have that local feel.
Connacht, of course, felt intensely local and familiar to me but I do have a very strong recollection of my first ever final in my constituency. It was in 1975 and my primary school teacher, Mr Maughan, also my first football coach, brought us up in a silver Ford Escort to Markievicz Park.
In theory, we were going to see Mayo at long last win a final – and to see this fella called Mickey Kearins star for Sligo. There was a great sense that Mayo were on the verge of taking over the world that year – a theme I would become familiar with. They had been minor champions in 1971, and U-21 All-Ireland winners in 1974. This was to be their year. And I was struck that there was nobody from Ballina on the minor team. So that became my ambition. I will have to have a go at this – the crowd and the walk-in to the ground was very exciting to me.
And then Mayo drew the senior game. And the whole talk in the car was about missed chances. Forty-five years later nothing has changed.
We went to the replay too. Sligo, of course, won it. By 1977 that Mayo team was largely gone. The team never recovered – or was never allowed to recover – from that disappointment. It was just a savage cull, the provincial championship back then. It killed teams: full stop. At least now those beaten teams have a chance at redemption. Wouldn’t it be shocking, after the build-up and fun of last week, if Cavan were just out of the championship this week? So in a general sense, the GAA got that one right.
It wasn’t until I was finished playing and began working as a pundit that I got to experience the Ulster big day, which is entirely different again. Everyone knows that Ulster is very officious in its stewarding.
Working for RTÉ, we’d often joke about how we’d get into Clones. We might have our passes and papers but you’d still be worried. I remember a few years ago presenting a car park pass to a steward outside of the stadium. He looked at it, then looked at the car park and turned and said flatly: “It’s full up”.
I presented the pass again and he said: “What do you want me to do?”
“Well, what do you want me to do,” I replied. And he said, “I want you to turn that effin’ car around and get out of the road”.
Another day, I showed up at the wrong entrance and rather than go the whole way around I asked the steward if I could just nip across the field. He looked at me as if I were mad. Even though you are there to work on a television show promoting the occasion, it’s as if they don’t want you there! But that feel gives Ulster something different, an edge. It’s its own place.
On Monday morning, Cork, Cavan, Meath and Galway are the four teams left nursing their wounds after their respective provincial final defeats. It’s a horribly uncertain moment for a manager and his players. You are just hoping that you have something in the tank. It is not a physical issue. It is the mental pain and crashing disappointment that a defeat brings about. Being suddenly and thoroughly demoralised is not easy to deal with.
When you know you gave it everything and you still came up a good few points short, then you wonder how to recover. However, if you were competitive and organised and can look back and point to ifs and maybes – a few misses, a couple of shots off the post, maybe an early black card, then you can rationalise a scenario that might have been different.
So that leaves Meath and Galway as the teams with the biggest questions left to answer. They are in this strange waiting room where they are still alive but they don’t know what is coming. They don’t know who they are going to play and what kind of shape their eventual opposition will be in – and, more importantly, what kind of shape they themselves will be in.
Cavan have the feel-good factor of having experienced an Ulster final, a tangible sense of achievement and the consolation of knowing that they didn’t fold tent against Donegal. Their chance to lift the Anglo-Celt may have ended by half time but they went out and hit 2-11 and could hold their heads up.
The big, big surprise was that Cork brought the Munster final to life. Watching Kerry in full flow in the first quarter was a pleasure. Their brand of football is so exciting and natural. But I said on radio that there was never a sense that the game was put to bed. It was chaotic and goal chances abound for both teams.
It was a dark night, too, and the lights came on early and that seemed to give Cork some kind of spark and they suddenly tore into the match. They took off and gave it everything. And believe me, when they got it level and had a chance to take the lead, that game was up for grabs. But Kerry steadied and do what they do so brilliantly and won the Munster championship – as expected.
But the peculiar thing is that, on Monday, Cork might have felt better about life than Kerry. They set out to compete against a top-tier team and they did so. Kerry probably have more questions to answer after the game than they did before it.
So much as we can feel that the provincial championships seemed to mock us, we can’t escape the fact Leinster was a non-event and Dublin’s domination in that province looks set to continue for a long time.
And in the qualifiers on Monday morning, four of the strongest teams were matched up. Tyrone have a task to complete just to get out of Newbridge against Kildare. Mayo host Armagh in what promises to be a brilliant occasion. Both Tyrone and Mayo were tipped as All-Ireland contenders. But they have their heads full with next weekend now. The All-Ireland and the Super 8s is not their concern – yet. They don’t have the luxury of thinking of the bigger picture.
It brings us back to the original question as we move towards July. Who is serious about the All-Ireland? Clearly, Dublin have dispensed with Leinster and their focus will now sharpen. The time to close in on that five-in-a-row is approaching.
I think Donegal are the one team out there who have truly stood to their full height and announced themselves as a serious contender. They won Ulster without anyone really laying a glove on them. And every single game seems to further underline what it is that they have. You can’t really hide it anymore.
What really launches you into the All-Ireland series proper is how you perform in winning your province. Winning it with 10 or 11 guys in top form means, you go forward with a deep conviction. That is the difference in how Kerry and Donegal have come out of Munster and Ulster. Kerry have more questions now than they had on Saturday morning.
The one question Donegal should have about themselves is a positive one. How much better can we get? How much higher can we go? These are the thoughts they need to address and think about now if they are to realise their potential as the most dangerous obstacle standing between Dublin and their Holy Grail.