Donegal are Ulster SFC champions for the fifth time this decade after a convincing 1-24 to 2-16 victory over Cavan on Sunday.
While five-points doesn’t seem like much, in truth, Conor Madden’s late goal put a bit of a gloss on the scoreline because Donegal never looked in trouble or like they were going to lose.
That is not meant as a dig at Cavan who have equipped themselves brilliantly in this Championship season to date and if next Monday’s draw goes well for them they should be a sure-fire bet to qualify for the Super 8s.
It’s just that Donegal are that good and have looked that good for the past three months. Their league campaign was transformed by the return of Michael Murphy, so much so, that they went on to collect a Division 2 crown having lost back-to-back games midway through the campaign.
They’ve carried that form into the Championship, comfortably dispatching off Fermanagh before swiping the Tyrone challenge to one side and rounding it off with yesterday’s final victory to underline the reason why most people currently view them as the second-best team in the country.
However, it would be remiss of me to put Donegal’s change in fortunes from March onwards down to Murphy’s influence (despite the fact he’s the nation’s best footballer). What is so beautiful to watch about this present Donegal team is that they have so many options all over the pitch that Michael Murphy doesn’t need to be the key player.
Whether it’s Jamie Brennan and Paddy McBrearty’s sharpshooting or Ryan McHugh and Eoghan Ban Gallagher’s marauding attacks from deep, Donegal can hurt you all over the field and they proved this with an opening 20 minute period that set the tone for how this game was going to go.
Paddy McBrearty kicks Donegal’s opening score from a free to get the ball rolling. Immediately following this, Cavan retreat into their defensive shell, something we haven’t seen from them as much this year but no doubt a planned tactic to try and curb Donegal’s running game.
However, this team are playing too good at the minute and have players in every position who can kick scores and kick them from distance.
Eoghan Ban Gallagher adds their second score of the day just after the five-minute mark following a lovely intricate move involving fellow wing-back, Ryan McHugh, and Paddy McBrearty.
McHugh gathers the ball and looks to exploit the one hole in the Cavan rearguard, McBrearty runs from deep to collect a pass and instinctively pops it to Gallagher who has tracked the play. Gallagher gathers and fires over from all of 35 yards.
The next score highlights not only their ability to turn defence into attack at the drop of a hat but also the fight in these players.
Donegal turn the ball over at the back before playing it out towards the sideline where Jamie Brennan and Conor Rehill contest the 50/50 ball. It ended up with Rehill on the floor and Brennan with the ball after a clean shoulder tackle.
Brennan gathers and immediately looks up to find Ryan McHugh who has bombed forward following the initial turnover. McHugh takes the pass, steadies himself and kicks Donegal’s third point at his leisure.
Three minutes later, midfielder, Hugh McFadden gets in on the act kicking another from distance before captain, Michael Murphy, also sends over from way out for Donegal’s third point in a row.
Cavan hit back to narrow the score before wing-forward, Ciaran Thompson, runs into the open field after some great work from McBrearty to kick Donegal’s sixth score.
Finally, they round off a superb opening 20 minutes with star-man, Jamie Brennan, getting the first of his 1-4 for the day.
Donegal work the ball up-field before Murphy plays a beautiful kick-pass down the touchline towards Brennan who creates enough space for himself to go for goal. Galligan does well to save with his feet but Niall O’Donnell is there to gather the rebound and pop it back to Brennan to fire over the bar.
Donegal scored seven points from seven different scorers in the opening 20 minutes of the game highlighting the rich array of talent they have all over the field.
There’s no point in teams wasting energy in trying to negate the influence of Murphy because Brennan and McBrearty do just as much damage the damage. At the same time, you can’t focus all your energy on their key forwards because in McHugh and Ban Gallagher they have two of the best-attacking wing-backs.
At the moment, we haven’t seen a game plan good enough to stop Donegal and considering the form of other top teams, it doesn’t look like we are going to… that is until they meet Dublin.
The two sides seem to be on a crash course towards meeting each other head-on and I, for one, can’t wait to see that!