Sunday 16 December 2018

Jimmy to keep on winning...

Donegal will shade a fascinating Kerry finale

THE All-Ireland that no one saw coming has come to pass. And it's no less exhilarating for that fact. The former high kings in search of their historic birthright versus the modern-day masters who had crashed back to earth, so precipitously last summer, that few expected an equally abrupt renaissance.

That's the final we have tomorrow, and not a sky blue jersey in sight. Proof that football titles are always won on the pitch, even on the training ground ... but never on paper.

As we count down the hours, it's instructive to rewind briefly to the middle of May.

In the Boylesports pecking order, Dublin were so far out in front - at evens - that it begged the question should we even bother with a championship. Mayo and Cork were joint-closest at 6/1. Then came Kerry - but at a distant 12/1. Tyrone (14/1) had more supporters than Donegal (20/1).

Here's the thing, though: at the outset of the 2012 race for Sam, Jim McGuinness's then-reigning Ulster champions were an even more distant 25/1.

For whatever reason, be it history or humdrum league form graphs, they don't incite the confidence of others in advance ... but then McGuinness has never made a secret of the fact that, for him, it's all about summer. Always.

Last year, hamstrung by injuries, disrupted preparation, club match wrangles with the county board and (critically) post-All-Ireland fatigue, Donegal suffered an implosion of form.


Given their relatively shallow bench, they were never the most likely champion to go back-to-back. But this year, driven by the pain of Monaghan/Mayo last summer, boosted by a smoother and more sustained training programme, and bolstered by the coming-of-age of Ryan McHugh (blooded last year) and Odhrán Mac Niallais, they are most assuredly back.

There were signs of the 'old' Donegal during their Ulster campaign. The quarter-final performance against Armagh raised myriad doubts about their capacity to live with Dublin's pace, athleticism and scoring prowess.

And then, after a jittery first 25 minutes, we witnessed a McGuinness masterclass.

Donegal have long been lauded for their defensive acumen - sometimes in a damned-with-faint-praise tone - but there is a lot more to this team.

For all Dublin's defensive naivety on the day, they were still hit for 3-14 - and it could have been 5-12.

Now, though, comes the caveat. Kerry have been forewarned. Éamonn Fitzmaurice has already proven his tactical savvy, time and again ... he will come armed with a plan to coax Donegal out of their comfort zone, and quite possibly a defensive set-up to stifle their weapon of choice, the counter-attacking blitzkrieg led by runners from deep and ending with shots from within the 'D'.

Tactics aside, Fitzmaurice's Goochless mix of old warriors and new recruits have coalesced impressively this summer and evolved, organically, into a serious outfit.

Demolishing the old Cork enemy - albeit an anaemic version of same - may have fostered confidence in the group, but it required a performance of substance against an elite challenger to copperfasten the notion of Kerry as serious contenders again.

That epic two-game joust with Mayo has transformed the landscape. David Moran, the erstwhile great white midfield hope laid low by successive injuries, has belatedly blossomed into an All Star-elect.

The consistency of James O'Donoghue's scoring returns has been little short of breathtaking and, over the last game-and-a-bit, he has also developed a partnership with the rejuvenated Kieran Donaghy that has evoked memories of the Star-Gooch double act.

Donaghy is retained at full-forward in a team notable for the recalls of Marc Ó Sé at corner-back and the fit-again Stephen O'Brien at wing-forward.

It's hard to argue with any of these calls, but it shouldn't be forgotten that Kerry aren't the only team with the armoury to go route-one - and Fitzmaurice's full-back line looks more vulnerable in the event that Michael Murphy starts inside in echoes of 2012.

The flip side is that Donaghy could be utilised in a deeper role, for at least some of the game, if only to mix up Kerry's attacking approach and keep Donegal's defence guessing.

That said, expect McGuinness to have planned for almost every eventuality - including the possibility of having to breach a rival defensive blanket.

Given the two managers involved, this final is laced with tactical intrigue - only added to by the bizarre sub-plot of that alleged spy falling from his Killarney perch last Tuesday.

Ultimately, though, it will boil down to players.

The Kerry 'vets' have more medals but far more Donegal starters have experienced the All-Ireland occasion.

In Murphy, they possess a versatile talent and an immense leader.

They know what's required ... expect them to get the job done.

ODDS: Donegal 8/11, Draw 15/2, Kerry 13/8

VERDICT: Donegal

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