Oisín McConville sees Donegal as Dublin’s main challengers

Armagh All-Ireland winner full or praise for exciting and varied Ulster championship

Having been at all of the Ulster championship matches to date, Armagh All-Ireland winner and broadcast pundit Oisín McConville is enthusiastically awaiting next weekend's conclusion with the Donegal-Cavan final in Clones.

“This year the Ulster championship has been nothing short of phenomenal,” he said at Monday’s launch of the GAA broadcasting exhibition in the Croke Park museum. “I’ve really, really enjoyed it – different styles of games, different styles of football, a lot more tactical awareness, tactical nuance that we haven’t seen in Ulster.”

There has also been some welcome novelty with Cavan reaching a first provincial final since 2001 and champions Donegal, upsetting a hotly fancied Tyrone team in the semi-final.

Biggest threats

Acknowledging that he had “fancied Tyrone going into the game, fancied them strongly actually because I felt Donegal could be got at defensively,” McConville says that he believes Declan Bonner’s team have now overtaken Tyrone as the biggest threats to All-Ireland champions, Dublin.

“I think things have changed in that the one team you were looking to was Tyrone, to follow up and improve on last year. On the evidence of what we saw against Donegal, that didn’t happen. I think Donegal leap-frogged them and they look like the team who potentially would trouble Dublin.

“The thing I thought was really good about Donegal the last day, yes, they were getting players back into defence, but the transition was unbelievable, it was electric.”

As well as a cohort of good, young players coming through, Donegal have also strengthened in the back room. Bonner wasn't afraid to bring in a high-profile assistant in Stephen Rochford, who took Mayo to two All-Ireland finals.

“Yeah,” says McConville, “a lot of people have said that he has had a very positive influence. I am just interested in his role, because it was him that was laying out the cones; it was him that was doing the warm-up; he was on the pitch 15 minutes before Donegal came out.

“And that was probably a statement. When Donegal came out on the field, they looked bigger, they looked stronger; they looked more mobile and that’s the way it turned out in the game.”

He believes that Donegal should win at the weekend but not before being "put to the pin of their collar to get past Cavan," who he believes are thriving with a new approach under manager Mickey Graham who commanded headlines last winter when coaching Mullinalaghta to Longford's first senior Leinster club title.

“I think they have changed dramatically in the way that they play. I remember Mattie McGleenan (former Tyrone player and Cavan manager) when he came in, he said they were going to play open and attractive football and that lasted about 40 minutes in the first league game that they played and he reverted back to containing teams.

“Mickey Graham has a great way of tweaking what he is doing and if Mickey thinks he needs to tweak it again this weekend he will do so. I think they are more tactically aware than they have been.

“When they open up they have spectacular footballers and serious pace. Defensively, they gave up chances the last day but they might tighten things up at the back this weekend. They’ll have an opportunity, because they are playing Donegal, to play a sweeper, they might revert to that but I have been very impressed with them so far.”

Rejuvenating challenge

On the broader front, he thinks that the All-Ireland is "Dublin's to lose" and doesn't see Kerry's rejuvenating challenge under new manager Peter Keane upsetting the champions' drive for an historic five-in-a-row.

“Defensively, I don’t think they are good enough, don’t think they are physical enough. Just thinking about Kerry in an Ulster championship match, the Ulster matches I have seen, I don’t think they are physical enough.

“They have a problem in defence but they also have an issue in midfield as well – plus we haven’t seen anything of them yet, either and we won’t see anything of them until the Super 8s.

“By that stage, like last year, going in there, whenever they tore Cork apart last year and everyone thought this was a team to be reckoned with, they were untested. I think that is the same this year; they are going to be untested and going to have try and sort themselves out as they move through the Super 8s – and that’s not a place to sort out problems. The teams that they will face will already have sorted out problems.”

Of Armagh’s prospects in a key qualifier this weekend against last year’s All-Ireland semi-finalists Monaghan, he is cautious.

“It’s a dangerous one, almost more dangerous for Armagh because anyone that I have been chatting to, has been saying that Monaghan are a team who look as if they are really struggling. I’ve seen Monaghan before and they have bounced back.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times