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Sunday 11 December 2016

Ambition is key for Donegal

Gallagher under pressure to make his mark but he should have too many aces for Cork

Donegal's Ryan McHugh. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Donegal's Ryan McHugh. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Colm O'Neill, Cork. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Jim Gavin has more reason than most to tune into the first of our four big football showdowns in Croke Park this weekend … because, in all likelihood, his indomitable Dubs will be facing the winner.

By now we know the permutations and they're relatively straight-forward.

If Donegal win, they must replenish their oxygen reserves in a hurry and then attempt a daunting ascent in the hope of conquering their Sky Blue K2 a week later.

If Cork win, and Westmeath shock the world in the qualifier contest that follows, they will enjoy the same reward/poisoned chalice. But if Cork prevail and Mayo do likewise against Westmeath, a quarter-final draw will be required to discover which of our Saturday winners gets Dublin and which of them gets Tyrone.

Clearcut

Slightly less clearcut is deciding who will win the first of our two Round 4B qualifiers.

The consensus, of course, points to Donegal - and for reasons more plentiful and logical than the alternative.

The most compelling reason is form. Despite a dismal second half of the league, Donegal maintained their top-flight status whereas our roller-coaster Rebels didn't.

The chasm grows wider when you consider Donegal's route to the last-12 - a comfortable win over Fermanagh, a typical Ulster deadlock with Monaghan, an impressive replay win, and then that pipped-at-the-post defeat to Tyrone in the Ulster final.

Whereas Cork? Well, let's just say their reputation for flakiness has been copper-fastened by their shock-horror loss to Tipperary, and there have been flashes of the same inconsistency even while they saw off Limerick by eight and Longford by six.

That Pearse Park encounter was like Cork's season in microcosm: they didn't score for the last 25 minutes of a first half which ended with them trailing by four points.

Hallmark

Central to their revival was the introduction of Paddy Kelly and Colm O'Neill off the bench. O'Neill delivered the type of poacher's goal that has long been his hallmark; his county now led and never looked back. Kelly's cleverness in possession, his ability to probe and unlock a defence, was every bit as pivotal.

Surely, if Cork are to buck the odds here, they will need this pair or proven winners on the field for even longer?

It has been a fraught maiden campaign for Peadar Healy but he still retains a handful of All-Ireland winners in his ranks, coupled with a younger generation who have gone very close to deliverance at U21 level.

That explains an urge for caution before dismissing their chances outright, coupled with the fact you can never be quite sure how a team will react to narrow, painful defeat in its own province. Look no further than what happened Monaghan - at home - against Longford.

For all that, Donegal should have too many aces.

This championship has revealed less of a reliance on Jim McGuinness's All-Ireland winning old guard - the early rounds in Ulster showcased Odhrán Mac Niallais's elegance on the ball allied to his ability to ghost onto the end of goalscoring moves; Martin O'Reilly was their 'Man of the Match' in the replay win over Monaghan; Ryan McHugh's growing influence was written all over the first half of the Ulster final, when he highlighted one thrilling way to circumvent 'the blanket' - trust your boot to score from distance, something he did three times on the spin.

Ultimately, though, as that final underlined, what Donegal now require is more ambition.

When Paddy McBrearty capitalised on Michael Murphy's brilliant work from the second half throw-in to point within 12 seconds, they led Tyrone by 0-8 to 0-4.

They would only score three more points - not for the want of possession but penetration. They would run forward to the Tyrone '45', hit a white wall, turn back, recycle, handpass sideways or backwards … and on it went.

Freed from the claustrophobia of the Ulster championship, perhaps they'll show a willingness to push more men forward here.

Maybe they'll give Murphy more game-time at full-forward - especially with the prospect looming of a Dublin minus Rory O'Carroll (and possibly James McCarthy, his league semi-final shadow wherever Murphy roamed). We shouldn't forget, of course, that Donegal still led Tyrone into injury-time and were only outdone by a trio of late points - two of epic quality.

Pressure

But Rory Gallagher is a manager under pressure to emerge from the daunting shadow of his predecessor.

His team has lost back-to-back Ulster finals; it has lost heavily to Mayo last August, and to Dublin in that league semi-final.

If Gallagher and his players are to reveal themselves as viable contenders once more, losing to Cork is obviously not an option … but winning with something of a flourish might get the Dubs twitching and thinking back, nervously, to a certain watershed game in 2014.

ODDS: Donegal 4/7 Draw 15/2 Cork 2/1 VERDICT: Donegal

SFC Rd 4B qualifier: Donegal v Cork, Croke Park, Today 4.0, live Sky Sports 3

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