I find it hard to get into the Ulster mindset. I love it as a championship: I think it feels like an independent competition locked within the All-Ireland. But when I visit I know that I'm a stranger in a strange land. The big thing is that teams really value it. The people value it. The idea of winning the Anglo Celt obscures the All-Ireland while it is on. In fact, the All-Ireland doesn't really exist until that cup has been lifted.
The rivalries are so deep rooted and internecine that I admit, I don’t fully get them. I understand that Donegal-Derry is very edgy. But I have no real sense of what Donegal-Down means. Maybe geography dilutes it. And also, of course, the border.
I stayed in Newry on Saturday night. It's a gorgeous town. And on Sunday morning I headed around Patrick Street and Monaghan Street and walked by the Albert Basin, a cobbled street near the canal. I noticed a solitary Union Jack flying. Then I saw the Newry Lawn Bowls club opposite Pairc Esler, which is different to most grounds. Everything is in miles and sterling. This was 11am, two hours to throw-in and I had no sense of a championship match about to take place. There were no Down shirts to be seen and no flags flying.
I was trying to get a feel for the day. Is this a GAA town? Is it a soccer town? How does it identify? Next Sunday, for instance, there will be a predictable atmosphere in Roscommon irrespective of the Covid restrictions. You will just know that there is a big game on. So I found the sedateness of Newry puzzling.
Still, with my usual impeccable timing, I managed to arrive just as the Donegal team did. It is never a great idea for pundits and players to be mingling about the entrance to a ground. You may not want to see them and they certainly won't want to see you. Players might say hello and you are wondering what you said about them the last time. Were you fair? Were you a bit harsh on a wide or a foul? I lined up behind the Donegal lads and got to the gate where the official laughed and said: Kevin this is the way to the dressing room. You'll not be wanting to go in there. I made my apologies and headed off. Then I bumped into the only other Mayo man in Down, Stephen Rochford.
Stephen was in championship mode: the gear on, his mind tuned to the warm-up and his day was probably not immediately improved by the sight of me walking up to say hello. How are you feeling? The reply: It’s Ulster. You know yourself. I am thinking: Donegal are going to win by 10 points plus here. What’s the issue?
But - this is knock out. There is no safety net. And Donegal have the searing memory of getting turned over by Cavan last winter, who trailed Down by eight points in their semi-final. It is in that context that the ongoing Michael Murphy debate becomes more complex. You begin to understand why the Donegal management were tempted to play him here. What if you somehow lose and you have left Murphy on the bench until it is too late? How do you explain that away?
As it turned out, it would be the only real talking point from the day.
Myself and Ger Canning walked the pitch - usually a shooting at dawn offence at Ulster championship games. And I was struck by the power and pace of the Donegal lads. You could see an immediate chasm in size and conditioning between them and the Down players. This is a team setting out to reach their tenth Ulster final in 11 years. That is an amazing statistic.
Contrast it to Down. The forward line had two debutants, two players who made debuts in 2020, another in 2019 - plus Barry O'Hagan. So they are kids in terms of development. This is why there are maulings in the modern game. In my day, if you beat Sligo or Leitrim well that meant you won by six or seven because everyone was gassed after 50 minutes and the subs coming in weren't going to bust a gut. Now subs come in with the instruction to meet five targets regardless of the scoreboard. Players are conditioned to perform at a different level.
So we saw in Newry a pattern that was repeated all weekend when the top teams played. If you can’t compete for the full 70 minutes you will be smashed by the second water break. Indeed, a lot of the underdogs were gone by the end of the first quarter.
And week on week will confirm the new law that this championship is all about restarts. Newry was a perfect illustration of this. Donegal scored 2-25, with 2-20 coming from play. They won 25 out of 27 of their own kickouts. They destroyed the Down long kickout, winning 11 out of 17. And here is what happens when you do that. They scored 1-15 from their own kickout. And they scored 1-5 from the Down restarts. That is the story of the match in a nutshell.
If you don’t have a goalkeeper able to pin the kickout long or short and if you don’t have ball winners in the middle third, it is game over. You won’t get enough possession to attain any real momentum. So the challenge is for the goalkeeper, with tee in head, to get out to the 20 metres line asap, survey his options and then deliver the ball to his target before the opposition gets set. That is the standard.
Michael Murphy is central to this template. You could see in the first 10 minutes why they wanted him out there. He runs the show. He has the ball winning, the scoring, the calmness, the organisational presence, he sets the tone and once the pattern of the game was established, Donegal just had to keep pushing the train down the tracks. It was a typical opening day performance from Donegal: sleek and impressive and high scoring. But it was tempered by that early injury to Murphy and the sense of uncertainty now as they move into the white water of the Ulster championship.
Hamstrings are desperately tricky. You think you have shaken it off and then it just bites you again. The fact that Murphy left the field suggested Donegal took a risk with him here. He wasn't fully right. My former team doctor with Roscommon, Martin Daly, would not ever touch anyone with a hamstring issue. He would tell you early and without equivocation: this guy is out. He won't be available until such a date. So don't come around talking about solutions or injections. That's it! Hamstrings can become chronic repetitive injuries. Donegal have lost two weeks now with Michael. So I am sure there is a bit of regret that they didn't hang tight.
And they have to rule him out of the Derry game now in order to give his leg a chance to repair properly. Sunday marked his 50th championship game in a row, a testament to his durability. But extending that streak wasn’t worth the cost and the match offered the ideal opportunity for Donegal to win an Ulster championship game without relying on Murphy. They need to be respectful of this injury for the remainder of the summer.
They should be able to beat Derry without him - if they are true contenders. They are an experienced team with formidable talent. Derry are emerging team in ebullient form and they have a very crafty able manager in Rory Gallagher, a man who knows these Donegal lads - and the Donegal psyche -inside out.
So: Donegal for Sam? Well, Murphy's injury is obviously a dark cloud for them. But the big thing is their championship schedule. Look at what awaits them if they do beat Derry. They are then likely to play Tyrone. And then perhaps Armagh or Monaghan in an Ulster final. And if they successfully navigate all that, at the penultimate stage, they will almost certainly face a ravenous Kerry team.
Even if they somehow pull off what would be a fabulous victory there, what is left in the tank if and when they come up against the six-time All-Ireland champions? It is, in other words, a desperately tough route they have been set. And in comparison to other big contenders it is deeply unfair. But there’s no point in griping: Donegal have to get through it.
This is the one year that the GAA could have devised any system they wanted. And it would have been welcomed. An open draw or top 16 with four groups of four: the world was their oyster. It showed a grievous lack of imagination and understanding for the reality of the inter-county football player. It is as though they just want to get back to the old normality. So right now, winning Ulster would be an amazing feat for this Donegal team in a summer when the games come thick and fast with no breathing space. Only then can they begin to think about accomplishment on an All-Ireland level.