A fourth provincial final on the bounce awaits for Donegal and while the test they will face in four weeks time will require a further step up in performance, the team can be pleased with today’s workout.
Antrim were given little or no chance of causing an upset and thus came into the game with nothing to lose. Liam Bradley had his side setup well and they were intent on denying Donegal space and catching them on the break. Sadly they were forced to line out without the Johnston brothers, Ricky and Marty, following after the death of their father on Friday. Those changes meant that Sean McVeigh was given the onerous task of shadowing Michael Murphy and the full back immediately set about roughing up Donegal’s captain as best he could. Murphy is well used to close attention at this stage and despite being pulled and dragged all over the Clones pitch he was heavily involved in a lot of Donegal’s scores and finished up with three of his own.
Jim McGuinness also made changes prior to throw-in; despite reports during the week of a full deck to choose from, the manager felt the game had come a few days too soon for Karl Lacey following a recent leg muscle complaint while Rory Kavanagh suffered a strain at training during the week and didn't tog out today. Neil Gallagher’s ongoing injury troubles show no sign of abating, a tight hamstring forced him off just ten minutes into the game. Many of the big Glenswilly man’s contributions in recent times have been off the bench and he might well be kept in reserve in future games should his niggles persist.
While the loss of Lacey and Kavanagh was unfortunate, it was encouraging to see trust being placed in the young duo of Darach O’Connor and Odhran MacNiallais – and they certainly repaid the faith shown in them. They were both on the scoreboard early on from their respective spots at wing forward and midfield. MacNiallais has always looked confident on the ball and his languid kicking style makes his left foot a potent weapon. O’Connor on the other hand, even going back as far as the McKenna Cup, has sometimes looked unsure in possession but he was intent on running at defenders today having obviously been encouraged by Jim and his staff to be more dynamic with ball in hand. He took his first point off his left and then later in the half received a wonderful outside-of-the-foot pass from his captain before turning inside two players and slotting over; the master and the apprentice working in tandem.
To cap off a brilliant individual display he drove through the heart of the Antrim defence in the second half to fire home a goal that made sure of the win for his team and he deservedly got a standing ovation from the Donegal faithful as he left the field to be substituted later on.
MacNiallais also pushed on in the second half, he finished with 0-4 to his name and would have been many people’s choice as man of the match. One point in particular showed his confidence and skill when he dummy soloed near the end line, fooling a Saffron defender, before cutting inside and slotting over the bar. The competition for places around the middle sector for Donegal is fierce at present with MacNiallais battling with Gallagher, Kavanagh, Christy Toye and Martin McElhinney for the two spots – on this evidence the Gaoth Dobhair man is at the head of the queue.
McGuinness’ men were on top in the opening stages but Antrim fought their way back into the game and managed to gain parity as the end of the half approached. As is now customary for a team playing Donegal, they mirrored the game plan they faced and kept proceedings as tight as possible. Leo McLoone retreated to centre back in place of non-starter Lacey, leaving Kevin O’Boyle as Antrim's spare man which resulted in Donegal having a free player for all of their own kick outs. Paul Durcan went short to Paddy McGrath and Eamon McGee for most of the first half and therefore the departure of Gallagher didn’t hamper Donegal too much.
Antrim eventually pushed O’Boyle further up for the restarts, allowing Niall McKeever to compete in the air and his team mates were finding joy in attacking Donegal down the central channel vacated by Lacey. Generally there are two types of centre backs in the game - one who attacks like Leo and the more traditional version who holds the middle and keeps his defensive unit cohesive and disciplined. Lacey of course is worth his weight in gold because he is equally adept at both strands of centre back play and as we saw today, opposition attackers seem to find gaps that little bit easier when he’s not there.
Jim made a further switch in defence early in the game as Frank McGlynn was instructed to shadow Kevin Niblock, with McGrath given licence to get up the field. On numerous occasions the Ardara dynamo strode forward into swards of open St Tiernach’s Park terrain unopposed and he was the primary source of many of the early scores.
Antrim would have been delighted with their opening period display but as is generally the case with Donegal, the start of the second half is when the handbrake comes off. Derry felt the full force of the 3rd quarter blitz in Celtic Park last month and again today players surged forward in waves, annexing 2-4 from the Antrim rearguard inside thirteen minutes. As we’ve seen time and again, teams set up defensively at the beginning of games against Donegal and run out of steam but in truth they’d probably be better off going ultra-defensive at the start of the second half as that is undoubtedly when the damage is done.
In a sense Donegal can find it easier to play against the better teams because those opponents come with their own game plan that they want to implement rather than focusing solely on how to counteract the McGuinness system.
That system was moving through the gears nicely towards the end of the match but a much sterner examination of its effectiveness will be witnessed in the Ulster Final. The Championship capitulation of this Donegal team last year is still a sore point for many and is acting as a huge motivation for the players and management to make amends this year. What better way to make up for last year’s final defeat than a re-match with reigning Anglo Celt holders Monaghan?
The Farney Army have to first get past Armagh next weekend and while the Orchard men won’t have any fear going into that game, it would be a surprise if they were to succeed. So barring a reversal of form, the province’s blue ribbon event will see the sides who have shared the last three titles go head-to-head. That same pairing could also lock horns in the minor match, with Declan Bonner’s charges assured of a place following their win in today’s early game. 2006 was the last time Donegal had both minor and senior teams competing on finals day with the names of McElhinney, Murphy and McLoone amongst those on the minor team sheet eight years ago. Croke Park was the venue that day and the outcome for Donegal read ‘won one lost one’ – for Clones 2014 we’re all hoping for two from two and a clean sweep.