Coman Goggins: Donegal have the right balance to seek out Sam
IMAGINE the good folk of Donegal had a wry smile across their faces as the pundits last weekend waxed lyrical about their performance against Armagh in their Ulster championship quarter-final.
As the whipping boys over the past number of seasons for all that was wrong with the game's current infatuation with en masse defending and an over-indulgence of hand-passing, the ruthless efficiency in how they managed the game against Kieran McGeeney's charges represented what has long been the corner stone of winning matches, a solid defensive structure aligned with a potent attack.
It's not that they haven't had a potent attack before, of course they have. You don't win an All-Ireland without it. But the development of Paddy McBrearty as a target man in the full-forward line offers an additional score-getter to the equation outside of the Miachel Murphy and Colm McFadden show.
In 2011 during the now infamous All-Ireland semi-final with Dublin, Donegal worked the defensive aspect of their game magnificently. The difficulty they had was their over-reliance on McFadden for scores, where despite leading the line superbly and almost netting what most likely would have been a killer goal, McGuinness' men just couldn't offer him the support to get them over the line.
Twelve months later and with a two-man inside line, Donegal reached the Promised Land, the difference being that the defensive solidity was backed up with an extra outlet at the other end of the field, where the go-to ball stuck as Murphy left his mark on the All-Ireland final.
In last year's decider, despite halving Kerry's lead to close the gap to two as the game ticked down, their habitual retreat into their defensive system ultimately restricted their chances of reeling in Eamonn Fitzmaurice's troops, as akin to Armagh last Sunday, the focus was on protecting their own goal, rather than undoing the shackles and trying to chase down the margin.
Fast forward to the present and to Rory Gallagher's model, and the mix appears to be just right as they hone in on another Ulster title.
The defensive structure so ingrained under McGuinness is still on show, where the motto once the ball is lost is head down and get behind the ball as fast as you can.
However, it is the attacking element that ultimately separates the nearly teams from the winning teams, and right now Donegal, along with the other key pretenders to Kerry's throne have that critical element of a forward who can secure that all important out-ball when a score is badly needed.
Dublin have the Brogan-Connolly-Flynn axis that exudes ability. Kerry's prowess up front ,while not short last year, is further boosted by the return of Colm Cooper. Mayo's Aidan O'Shea and Cillian O'Connor could be a devastating combo if left inside as two man full-forward line.
With a fit again McFadden alongside McBrearty, there is no doubt Gallagher's men have the increased fire-power to land a fourth Ulster crown in five years, but this commitment to attack as well as defence, could well pave the way for an opportunity to collect further silverware later in the year.
Divide between haves and have nots clearer than ever
Following Armagh's crushing defeat at the hands of Donegal and Tipperary's meek exit from the Munster championship to Kerry, the recurring theme last weekend was that the lack of intensity experienced by the teams in the bottom two divisions of the league, left them badly exposed when they came up against superior Division 1 opponents.
As we hit mid-Summer a quick glance around the provinces identifies that only two representatives remain from the bottom two tiers, Fermanagh and Sligo, both of whom are in action this weekend. Pete McGrath's side face Monaghan in an Ulster semi-final while Sligo, courtesy of a bye, square up to Division 1 new boys Roscommon in their last-four encounter in Markievicz Park.
With results to date showing that not a single team from a lower division has managed to claim the scalp of a team a league above them, the odds appear to be stacked against the Division 3 representatives and offers further proof, were it needed, of the lopsided nature of the provincial system.
While the safety net of the All-Ireland qualifiers provides a chance at redemption, from a marketing point of view trying to sell practically a re-run of the Division 4 fixture list this weekend as high octane champions matches is, to put it mildly, a difficult sell for the GAA.
As with most years, a surprise package will almost inevitably emerge from the ashes of the early rounds of the provincial series. Despite operating in the third tier of the national football league Cavan reached an All-Ireland SFC quarter-final with Kerry in 2013.
But as players put more and more time and effort into representing their counties, the exception to the rule as a means of justifying four teams folding up their tents for another year at this early stage of the summer, is daft in the extreme with respect to promoting the game to the next generation in arguably the counties that need the greatest exposure.