If it was as easy to pick the six numbers in the Lotto as it was to choose the four teams for the Donegal Senior Football Championship then we would all be millionaires.
Sean MacCumhaill’s came close to busting the docket in last Sunday’s quarter-final when they ran Gaoth Dobhair, the 2018 champions, close. On a day MacCumhaill’s young sensation Oisin Gallen lit up Magheragallon, it took an injury time strike from Cian Mulligan - Gaoth Dobhair’s best forward - to see the locals through by the slimmest of margin.
Gaoth Dobhair won an absorbing contest watched by a sizeable crowd from outside the perimeter fence.
Gallen hit 1-8, the goal from the penalty spot and four of the points from play were of the highest quality.
Gaoth Dobhair were joined in the last four by Kilcar, Naomh Conaill, the defending champions, and St Eunan’s, the big four as they have become to be known.
The four - champions of the last three years and St Eunan’s - were the raging hot favourites to make it to the second last day long before Covid-19 and the draw was made.
Kilcar was the other side forced to really sweat last weekend. They led St Michael’s by 12 points at one stage approaching half-time.
But goals from Colin McFadden and two from Michael Langan meant Kilcar were clinging on at the finish. And James Connors’ final whistle could not come quick enough for the vocal local supporters on the hill.
It is déjà vu in the semi-finals once again as the two semi-finals are a repeat of last year's last four pairings.
Kilcar v Gaoth Dobhair
O’Donnell Park, Letterkenny. Saturday, 5.30
Eamonn Collum, Dáire ÓBaoill and Kevin Cassidy scored the goals in Gaoth Dobhair’s 3-8 to 0-12 victory over Kilcar, before a bumper crowd, in last year’s last four clash in Ballybofey.
Patrick McBrearty with 0-5, Mark McHugh, Matthew McClean 0-2 each, Andrew McClean and Eoin McHugh 0-1 each scored for Kilcar.
“There was very little between the teams last year,” said Kilcar manager John McNulty took over from Barry Doherty at the end of last season.
“Gaoth Dobhair scored the goals at the right time. Kilcar started that game well and led 0-4 to 0-2 at one stage.
“The first big turning point was before half-time, Pauric Carr was going for a fisted point and it looked as if his arm was pulled back. But the free was not given and Eamonn Collum scored a goal at the other end.
“Again after half-time at the start of the second half we seemed to be caught cold and Dáire Ó Baoill raced through to score goal number two.
“And again, Kilcar had cut the lead to a couple points near the end Kevin Cassidy prodded home goal number three to clinch it.
“Games are won on fine margins and big calls,” insisted McNulty, who is delighted to have guided the club back to another semi-final.
“It was the plan at the start of the year, though at one stage back in June it looked as if there was going to be no championship and that is why it is extra pleasing.”
Former Tyrone player Aidan McCarron is the Kilcar team coach this season.
“It was a matter of taking each game as it came. We played Termon, the first day out and had a good win.
“We then played St Eunan’s in O’Donnell Park and drew that game but we learned a lot about ourselves in that game even though we led by seven points at one stage.
“We got a bit of a fright alright last weekend against St Michael’s and let a big lead slip away again. But there were mitigating factors. We started without Andrew McClean and we lost full-back Brian O’Donnell to injury in the first half. And we lost his replacement to a black card.
“Brian was playing well and his loss disrupted the team and St Michael’s took full advantage. He went off with a knee injury and we don’t know the extent of it.
“But we are definitely without him on Saturday and beyond that we don’t know until he has further tests on the injury.”
The loss of big leads like those they had against St Eunan’s and St Michael’s does raise questions and doubts about Kilcar and in particular defensive frailties.
McNulty, however, insists they will have learned from those games and besides argues they were good enough to run up those leads in the first place against good quality opposition.
“We have learned from those games and they will have sharpened our focus and being honest I prefer running up a good lead and defending it.
“It is much better than having to chase a big lead.”
Other than long term injured Aodhán McGinley and Brian O’Donnell, McNulty expects to have a fully fit squad for Saturday evening’s showdown.
Mervyn O’Donnell, is once again in the Gaoth Dobhair hot seat and hoping to lead his side back to another county final.
It was a school day too for Gaoth Dobhair against MacCumhaill’s, the championship winning boss insists and lessons have been learned.
“Indiscipline at times almost cost us the game and we are going to have to learn from it. We let them back into the game early in the second half and almost paid a high price.
“But on the positive, I thought the lads showed great character at the finish to snatch the win.
“Ethan Harkin showed nerves of steel to come back on to kick the equalising point. We had replaced him earlier with Jason McBride hoping Jason, the bigger man, would win some high ball for us around the middle of the field.
“James Carroll came off the bench and with his first touch kicked a fabulous point. James is not long back from Australia and is fighting to get his place in the team.
“And Cian Mulligan kicked a brilliant point to win it.”
Gaoth Dobhair lined out without their first choice midfield pairing of Odhrán MacNiallais and Michael Carroll.
And they both have been ruled out of taking any part this weekend either by Mervyn O’Donnell.
“Odhrán has a serious quad injury and is receiving treatment. He was togged last Sunday but was never going to play any part. And unfortunately it is a similar story this weekend.
“Michael Carroll has a back problem and suffered back spasm last week and he was not even togged against MacCumhaill’s, and he won’t be ready to return this weekend either.
“It is a huge blow to lose your two midfielders. They are both key men for us and are naturally a huge loss but we are just going to patch together a midfield again on Saturday.
“We are going to have to go again with Odhrán McFadden Ferry and Eamon McGee in the middle of the field and hope it works for us against Ciaran McGinley and Eoin McHugh.
Other than MacNiallais and Carroll, Gaoth Dobhair have no other injury worries and the starting team is expected to be very much along the lines of that which began against MacCumhaill’s.
After last weekend the odds have shifted a little on Gaoth Dobhair. They may have to move Dáire Ó Baoill to midfield to counter the pace of Ciaran McGinley and Eoin McHugh.
And bigger shifts will be expected from Kevin Cassidy, Eamonn Collum and Naoise Ó Baoill up front if they are to advance.
Kilcar with all their perceived defensive frailties have probably the most potent forward line left in the championship. Patrick McBrearty, Matthew McClean, Conor Doherty, Stephen McBrearty, Andrew McClean and Darragh O’Donnell have all chalked up big numbers in the championship so far.
Mark McHugh in a roving role is having one of his best seasons in a number of years and you add in Ciaran McGinley - the best club midfielder in the county for a number of years - Eoin McHugh alongside him and Ryan McHugh prompting from the back, Kilcar are a potent force going forward.
Naomh Conaill versus St Eunan’s
MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey,
Sunday 4.30 pm
Naomh Conaill have been the form team in this year’s championship
They face a St Eunan’s side who have been tipping away nicely too and apart from their first half performance against Kilcar in the second round they haven’t put a foot wrong.
And after last Sunday evening’s 29 points quarter-final win over Bundoran in O’Donnell Park, their odds have tumbled.
What do you read into their 8-11 to 0-6 win over Bundoran? Was it a case of St Eunan’s being so good or Bundoran just being poor?
First of all St Eunan’s were brilliant. The question remains how good are Bundoran.
Brian McIntyre, the young St Eunan’s corner forward, was named man of the match after Sunday evening’s victory.
He told Ciaran O’Donnell of the Donegal GAA Streaming service afterwards that no one was going to get too carried away with the big win and the margin of the victory.
“It is all about getting back to another semi-final and righting the wrong from last year,” said McIntyre.
“We reached the semi-final last year too but we felt we did not play well and we did not do ourselves justice.
“It was a similar story last year we beat Milford by a big margin in the quarter-final too so we won’t be passing too meed heed on the score.
“The good thing is that we are back in the semi-final. There is a lot of hunger for championship success in the squad and a lot of hunger for the Dr Maguire Cup.”
While Naomh Conaill are the form team and have run up big winning margins in their five games to date in the championship, questions have been raised about the quality of the opposition. .
Neighbours Ardara’s 13 point defeat was the closest any of their five opponents got to them.
They had 23 points to spare at the end of the clash with Milford, 28 points to spare over Termon, and 17 over Glenswilly in the group games.
And they were 17 points, 2-16 to 0-5 winners over Glenfin, in last Saturday’s quarter-final, in Davy Brennan Memorial Park.
“It’s a fair comment. But we can only beat what is put in front of us,” said Naomh Conaill manager, Martin Regan, now in his sixth season in charge of the blue and whites.
“But that should not take from the fact we have played well in all those games and despite winning well I feel we never lost our focus in any of those games.
“We have a strong bench and competition for places is pretty keen and it helps to keep everybody focussed.”
Naomh Conaill lost midfielder Ciaran Thompson to injury in the first half against Glenfin. And the manager rates his talismanic midfieler as extremely doubtful for this weekend’s game.
“Ciaran is very doubtful and at this stage I would say his chances are 50/50. It is a calf injury and it can be slow to heal but we are keeping our fingers crossed.
“Ciaran is a huge player for us and is irreplaceable really but if he doesn’t make it we are just going to have to get on with it.
“We are fortunate Leo McLoone returned last week and by the time the weekend comes he will have four weeks training done.
“Ciaran Brennan is back home and has also transferred back to us and the only player we don’t have from last year is Kieran Gallagher. Kieran is a nurse in a Covid-19 hospital in Belfast so he unfortunately could not commit.”
Last year’s meeting, one of the games of the championship, ended in a narrow one point win for Naomh Conaill. They came from two down late on.
It promises to be a close encounter again this time and much will depend on the fitness and availability of Ciaran Thompson.
St Eunan’s are, by and large, a very young side blessed with blistering pace all over the park. On balance one to 15 they are probably the best balanced team left in the championship race.
It really is a 50/50 game and while I think I will stick to the lotto this weekend I’ve fancied Naomh Conaill from early and I’m sticking with them.
With the outlet Charlie McGuinness gives them at full-forward and given the form Dermot Brick Molloy is in up front, in a tight game they may have the cutting edge to snatch it.
Verdict: Naomh Conaill
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