The Ulster Championship provided the Championship the shot in the arm it so badly needed last weekend when Down and Monaghan gave us an engaging encounter in the first of the Ulster Semi-Finals. Trailing by 5 at half time and after being dominated in every sector of the field, Down somehow turned it around to snatch victory right at the death. For Monaghan it was a cruel blow to lose after being in such a commanding position but for Down it will provide them with the hope that they can climb back to the top of the Ulster mountain. This weekend we get to see the evolution of Jim McGuinness’ Donegal as they go into battle with Tyrone.
The first sign that McGuinness’ plan for this Donegal panel was taking shape came in their victory over Tyrone in last year’s Ulster Semi-Final when despite trailing at half time and being outplayed for long passages of the first half they held their composure to put Tyrone away with an assured second half display. Now, calm and assured are two words that one would never usually associate with Donegal football but under McGuinness it has become the order of the day. Gone are the mavericks who lit up football grounds, pubs and nightclubs like there was no next round of the Championship. At the end of last year there was a feeling that for all the progression that they had shown throughout the year, they had still managed to leave an All-Ireland final appearance behind them when they let their lead slip against Dublin. For me though it just continued the evolution of the plan that was being mapped out for Donegal. It simply brought about the realisation that if Donegal were going to challenge Cork, Kerry and Dublin, then they had to be able to put more scores on the board. Judging from their win against Derry, it’s a point they have taken on board. It is without doubt something they will have to bring with them to Clones on Saturday if they are to keep their status as Ulster Champions.
Twelve months ago there was an overwhelming feeling that there was one last sting in Brian Dooher and company but that feeling proved misguided as Dublin gave Tyrone a footballing lesson in the quarter-final. The cracks had split open and Mickey Harte went about rebuilding the side based upon a batch of promising youngsters and some of the older guard who remained part of the panel. Their league form was the best in the country as they blitzed their way through it, setting up a meeting with Kildare in the final. Since then though, not much has gone right for Tyrone. Hit by injuries to Sean Cavanagh and young star Kyle Coney, the progression shown in the league has stalled somewhat. The much talked about Coney was beginning to deliver on his vast potential when he was struck with an injury which will see him sidelined for the majority of the summer and he will be a huge loss. The Tyrone team, while sprinkled with some new faces is filled with too many familiar faces to keep Donegal at bay. They are still depending on Stephen O’Neill (pictured above) for the majority of their scores and for all that O’Neill is an excellent footballer he will need huge help from his other forwards as Donegal are unlikely to give many scorable frees away to Martin Penrose. Clones will be happy to see the older brigade return in the Tyrone colours to do battle once more on the grounds where they have had so many great days but this Donegal side have no room for sentiment or prisoners in their quest to bring more Ulster glory to their county. My advice would be to take the 10/11 which is widely available with most firms. You won’t have to worry about handicaps or anything else once Donegal get the job done, something they have mastered under the guidance of Jim McGuinness.
Elsewhere, Round One of the Qualifiers takes place this weekend with the expectation that many of the games will prove to be dead rubbers. That is a feeling which could prove to very accurate come Saturday night as some of the long odds-on shots progress to the second round while the losers start to plan their summer weekends away from the battlegrounds of county football. One handicap that really caught my eye is the one involving Laois and Carlow. Laois have been put in at a best priced 1/8. Boylesports even have them in as short as 1/12 and it’s with them that the handicap has caught my eye. They have set the bar at eight points and in my mind there is no way that this Laois side have the scoring power to beat any side by 8 points. They are set up to play a defensive style and when they get ahead they tend to fall back in numbers in an effort to contain the opposition. Despite questions being asked at a County Board meeting on the style employed by McNulty, there is feeling that there will be no great change to the system for the clash against Carlow. I’d imagine Carlow will get enough scores to keep the handicap within range but just in case, a small saver would be advised on the handicap draw (10/1) with Boyles as well.
Donegal 10/11 (General)
Carlow +8 5/6 (Boylesports)
Carlow +8 (Hanidcap Draw) 10/1 (Boylesports)