Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Messiah Takes Us To The Promised Land

We have him! Michael Murphy couldn’t have summed it up better.
After possibly the most treacherous route taken to win any All-Ireland, Jim McGuinness brought us the title we have craved for so long. The scenes were incredible and the tears and drink have flowed in equal measure since Sunday evening.

Many commentators have spoke of the journey the team have taken in such a short space of time and how they’ve come from nowhere to Champions in two years. Jim always believed though.

Ireland’s National Library on Kildare Street in Dublin wouldn’t immediately spring to mind as the location for some sort of premonition as to a potential All-Ireland but it was there in late 2009 that I realised what we were missing. Myself and some of my clubmates from Ranelagh Gaels GAA club in Dublin sat in hushed reverence listening to the great manager of the day, Mickey Harte, offering his views on the game and it was fascinating.
Listening to Harte, it was obvious that Donegal needed someone like him to turn our fortunes around; we needed someone with that obsession to win, the drive and the belief – we needed a Messiah.

Six months later I watched Donegal’s U21s beat Tipperary in Parnell Park to qualify for the All-Ireland Final. It was clear that the players had a belief not often associated with Donegal players; they were so in tune with the game plan they were executing, every man knew his job and they trusted each other and played for their manager.
When Michael’s penalty came crashing off that crossbar in Breffni Park in the dying seconds of the final, there was a sense of unfinished business. The Maestro and The Messiah had an All-Ireland to win.

I first saw a young Michael in Cusack Park in Mullingar in a qualifier fixture in 2007. I hadn’t seen his Championship debut the previous week, instead listening to Raidio na Gaeltachta’s Seamus Mac Geadaigh describe the action while trying to drown out the noise of Oxegen’s main stage behind me. On that day we struggled to an extra time win in Carrick On Shannon.

At the time every team was looking for a Kieran Donaghy type full forward after the Kerry man brought the Kingdom to an All-Ireland the previous year. Michael was only seventeen at the time but had the physical presence and the skill to suggest he could become a star.

On Sunday he scored as good a goal as has ever graced an All-Ireland final with a trademark fetch-pivot-bang finish. He has scored so many of those in his career - Cork in the league this year, Derry in last year’s league, for his club in last year’s county final – but it remains a stunning piece of action to witness.

It set the tone for a superb individual display from the captain and when Colm McFadden got the second goal soon after, it was hard to see us being beaten.
Mayo deserve huge credit for forcing their way back into the game when it looked as if things were heading the direction of their previous finals.

An eerie silence descended upon Croke Park for a while after McFadden’s goal, the stadium was packed but both sets of supporters seemed a bit shocked at the way things had unfolded early on. Mayo did get going again and showed they're a fine side, narrowing the deficit to three by half time.

Donegal always seemed to have an extra gear though and whenever they needed a settling score they got it, with the gap never less than three points.
Mayo needed a goal but barely got a sniff. The McGee brothers were outstanding, with Eamon playing an hour with a yellow card to his name but showing fantastic discipline and composure, particularly in the second half. With younger sibling Peter also in the squad there'll be three Celtic crosses adorning the mantelpiece.

Mayo on the other hand lacked a bit of those traits and seemed to get too caught up in trying to unsettle Donegal. Cillian O’Connor in particular tried to rough up the elder of the McGees, preventing quick frees, throwing the ball away and then taking a pop shot at Anthony Thompson. These could be described as legitimate tactics in the modern game that are used by many teams but it didn’t seem to do Mayo any favours.

Thompson got another box towards the end of the game from Aidan O’Shea but the teak tough Naomh Conaill man soldiered on and he’s another who’s had a hugely impressive year.

Jim was as decisive as always on the line, taking off three players in Ryan Bradley, Patrick McBrearty and Leo McLoone who were playing well and making contributions. Jim is never slow to change things and when he felt he needed fresher legs the substitutions arrived. It was one of the side’s veterans who made the biggest impact with Christy Toye producing a fine cameo for the last fifteen minutes.

As the final whistle got nearer and the finishing line came into view Donegal naturally retreated and ensured that their goal would not be breached. Paddy McGrath gave another brilliant corner back display and he’s had a super year. Indeed he was excellent all throughout last year too but it’s only now he’s starting to get due recognition from national media.

Indeed not getting due recognition doesn’t stop with Paddy. So many pundits and so-called experts derided the team last year and seemed to think that what we produced against Dublin was the endgame in Donegal’s development. They either refused to believe that we were a work in progress or else just didn’t have the foresight to see what McGuinness was building.

Mayo moved O’Shea to the edge of the square for a last throw of the dice in the closing stages. Close to the same spot where he unleashed his bullet for the first goal, Michael twice climbed highest to get his hand to the last two air missiles launched in the big Mayo man’s direction.
He knew the finishing line and the Holy Grail was close and we needed a man to lead us there. It was fitting end to a man of the match display. Throughout the second half he was constantly giving encouragement to his team-mates, applauding their efforts and demanding more.

Sunday was the start of an exciting time for the players and supporters alike. Donegal Town was packed last night and we were treated to Jim on stage with Daniel O’Donnell giving a rousing rendition of Destination Donegal.

This week will go quickly for the players as they go a whistle stop tour of the county. It’s the weeks after that when they get a chance to properly reflect on their achievement that the satisfaction will really hit home.

There are so many little aspects that we can look forward to that come with being All-Ireland Champions. Finding out who will we face first in defending our Ulster and All-Ireland crowns; how many All-Stars will we get? Which of our players will land the Footballer of the Year gong?

There are also novel occasions like the team receiving a guard of honour in their opening games of 2013. The All-Ireland Final DVD will fill manys a stocking this Christmas around the county. Sam will be present at club functions and schools over the next few months as he gets reacquainted with places he hasn’t seen in two decades.

The year started off with a McKenna Cup game against Jordanstown in O’Donnell Park and its interesting now to read back on all the early season reports knowing that it all ends up with Michael climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand to lift Sam.

This could happen again in twelve months time, it could be twelve years time, who knows; so this is a time to be cherished – hold your head high, stick your chest out.

We’re the best team in the land - soak it up, breathe it in. Donegal are All-Ireland Champions, what a thing to be able to say.

Monday, August 27, 2012

One Step From Heaven

Just one more obstacle remains for the Messiah’s men on September 23rd and after yesterday’s fantastic display you couldn’t bet against this Donegal team clearing it.

Despite the excellent form of the team in this year’s championship, when they have done absolutely everything asked of them and more, they still came into this game as underdogs. That didn’t bother the team one bit and indeed the potential favourites tag in the final wont either.

Almost every media preview in the lead up to the game sided with the Munster champions and so the team had to once again remind everyone just how good they are.

It was helter skelter stuff to begin with, scores coming at both ends and a good pace to the game. Both sides moved the ball well and the accuracy from the teams ensured a high scoring opening period.

Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden were both targeted with long ball early on and while there wasn’t a high number of scores coming off this ploy, it only has to work once for the net to bulge. While that didn’t happen the support runners coming through were able to pick off points with the likes of Karl Lacey and David Walsh profiting.

Lacey was again magnificent and even showed his singing skills by giving us a quick blast of Jimmy’s Winning Matches during his on-field interview after the game. What was noticeable in that interview was how remarkably fresh Lacey looked; after playing the type of running game he does it would be more natural for someone to be struggling to stand. Yet he trotted of the pitch after that interview the same way he trotted on at the start of the match and it gives us another insight into the fitness levels attained by this panel of players.

Mark McHugh had a quiet opening to the game but once he started to get on the ball he dictated the game as only he can. So much of the pre-match build up had focused on what Cork would try to do to nullify him but for the last 50 minutes of the game he swept and carried as he has done all year and no-one could get near him.

As has happened in every outing this year the effort and energy expended by the opposition in trying to attack Donegal early on meant that when the blue touch paper was lit in the second half there was only one winner. The key ingredient in the winning of all Donegal’s matches this year has been the period after half time when the team raises their intensity and pummel their opponents with devastating raids and a relentless scoring rate.

Cork’s players and their manager admitted afterwards that they lost the tactical battle but in truth Jim is always a step ahead of his rivals in that regard. Cork’s trump card centred on starting wing forward Ciaran Sheehan instead of corner back Ray Carey resulting in them playing with five defenders and seven attackers, although Fintan Goold dropped back to the half back line at times. It worked to a point in that Sheehan himself did well and got on the score sheet but overall their shape and setup didn’t bother Donegal.

In much the same way that Donegal play, it doesn’t matter who attacks or who defends so long as someone does; it didn’t matter that Cork had an extra attacker because he was simply another man that had to be stopped, had to be tackled and had to be dispossessed regardless of the number on his back or what position he plays.

Neil Gallagher gave an exhibition in old-fashioned midfield play, making several clean catches and outplaying the much vaunted ‘big men’ of Cork. Throughout the week, the physicality and size of the Cork side was viewed by many as a key advantage that would lead them to victory yet Big Neil set the tone in the middle of the field and was deservedly given the man of the match award. Alan Quirke was eventually forced to look for short kickouts such was the dominance of the Glenswilly man.

The high fielding midfielder is one facet of the game that pundits lament about not seeing very often in these days of modern football but there was plenty of it illustrated yesterday.
Another of the modern ills is of course the hand pass and Donegal are the prime target from the purists in this regard. At one stage in the first half yesterday the RTE website commentary displayed a statistic showing that Cork had hand passed the ball 100 times compared to Donegal’s 30; by the end of the game Cork out-hand passed us by 250 to 170.

Almost all teams play in a similar way nowadays, the difference is that Jim McGuinness has taken the style that brought Tyrone three All-Ireland titles and almost perfected it - how perfect it is can only be judged in four weeks time.

Now the chance is there for his team to claim their title and he immediately got the player’s heads focused by saying that the next four weeks will be the most enjoyable of their lives. Jim is always thinking of what’s coming next and even in the aftermath and the euphoria of the win he was getting down to business.

For the supporters, before the ticket scramble begins in earnest, it’ll be satisfying being able to sit back and enjoy this Sunday’s second semi final waiting to see who’s next up to try and stop the Donegal juggernaut.

After the terrific day we had yesterday it was all put in perspective with the tragic news about Termon GAA player Andrew Duffy, who lost his life after falling into the Grand Canal in Phibsboro after attending the game at Croker. Thoughts and prayers go out to his family.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Thy Kingdom Come Undone Against Dún na nGall

Yet another milestone for this Donegal team was reached at Croke Park yesterday, beating the aristocrats of the Kingdom with a performance illustrating all of our good traits - pace, power, intensity and Kerry couldn’t live with it. In the aftermath of the league game between the teams earlier in the year, Jim McGuinness said that when the sides met again Donegal wouldn’t afford Kerry the same respect - he knew their paths would cross once more and yesterday was very different to the pedestrian Donegal side that played in Killarney.

Despite doing our best to throw the game away and putting the supporters through the ringer, Donegal were by far the better side and thoroughly deserving of a semi final spot.

Two of the game’s eminent forwards lined up as opposing captains for the toss as Michael Murphy and Colm Cooper went through the pre-match formalities. Its little moments like this that make you realise how far we‘ve come; this is where Michael and his team-mates belong, on the biggest stage on the biggest days ready to go into battle.

Both epitomised their class early on hitting wonderful long range scores despite being under pressure from defenders throwing themselves at their shots. Plenty of people had spoken in the build up that Michael was due a big game and he delivered one. He made a complete nuisance of himself challenging Aidan O’Mahony and Brendan Kealy for the early goal and scored some crucial frees to stretch our lead in the second half.

Colm McFadden was outstanding yesterday. He’s what people often term as a confidence player and once his first effort sailed between the posts you just knew he was going to have a good day. He was out in front of Marc O’Se throughout, his handling and control was excellent and that trusty left peg scored 1-5.

A lot of Kerry’s big players didn’t perform to the level they can, the O’Sullivans of Declan and Darran in particular. Paul Galvin had a quiet first half but was far more influential after the change of ends. Galvin has re-defined the role of a half forward in recent years since he burst on the scene in 2004 - the role is being transformed again in the shape of Mark McHugh. His fitness and work rate have been well documented but it just defies belief at times. His positional sense and reading of the game allows him to pick up so much loose ball and start so many of Donegal’s attacks. The role is so unique that its near impossible to counter it; teams could push up his direct marker and do a man marking job on him but that would be unusual to a see an extra defender being given so much attention. McHugh was nominated for last year’s Young Player of the Year award and if he keeps going in this vein of form he may well be in the shake up for the senior gong later in the year.

Karl Lacey was back to his magnificent best yesterday after a relatively quiet championship campaign so far by his own high standards. This time last year in the quarter final against Kildare, he produced one of the best displays ever seen at Jones Road. Many had expected him to be given a specific man-marking job on Colm Cooper but Lacey instead picked up Declan O’Sullivan and gave his customary tour de force running display, dragging his marker up the field with him. O’Sullivan was taken off with half an hour remaining; the ultimate compliment for a defender is seeing the forward he’s marking being taken off.

It was noticeable in the league game in Killarney that most of the Donegal team, and Lacey in particular, looked a bit heavy-legged presumably due to the ferocity of the team’s training around that time.
It has stood them in good stead though as players were still breaking forward at the end of the contest yesterday. It was no surprise to see Lacey getting up to take Rory Kavangh’s pass to seal victory with the insurance point - you wouldn’t want anyone else in that position. Even when Marty Duffy blew the final whistle it was Lacey who was in possession, ready to gallop out of defence again.

Neil McGee meanwhile was assigned to mark Cooper and had a fine game on the Kerry sharp-shooter, giving away just two scores from play and using his physicality to good effect, imposing himself on the Gooch. McGee had a great game against Cork’s Donncha O’Connor in the league clash in Ballybofey in March and the duo are likely to lock horns again in three weeks time.

This game was billed as a clash of styles, of modern football versus traditional values and Kerry couldn’t cope with The McGuinness system. Donegal have so many options that teams don’t seem to have enough of their own to counter the challenges that Jim presents. What other team would have their centre back bombing forward to score the insurance point while their team is defending a one point lead in the last minute?

The stars from last year like Lacey, Murphy and McGee have been joined by the likes of Frank McGlynn, Leo McLoone and Ryan Bradley who are all taking more responsibility and have improved their own individual games. McLoone especially had a good day yesterday, scoring a second half point to add to great work-rate and economy throughout the field.

So we’re back to where we were last year, facing into a semi final but crucially a year wiser and a year more experienced. Cork will provide another huge test and they’re one of the few teams who can match us for physicality and power. It promises to be a fascinating contest, no doubt Jim and Rory are getting their plans together already.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Back to Back Joy for Tir Chonaill

History was achieved in the most emphatic fashion imaginable in Clones yesterday – Donegal obliterated Down in the closing stages to put the gloss on back to back Ulster titles.

The game followed a pattern which we’ve become accustomed to now with this side – let the opposition run themselves into the ground, let them tire themselves out and when the time is right go in for the kill.

Down found some joy running at us in the first half and opened us up for a couple of half goal chances. The Mourne men are a classy outfit with ball in hand and showed their skill and verve with some dashing raids down the barrel of the gun. The thing with playing against ultra-fit Donegal though is that it is nigh on impossible to keep that kind of play going. We appear to be quite comfortable in letting teams have a go in the first half and then turn the screw in the second with our superior fitness and power. The Tyrone game worked out like that, as did the games in the league against Mayo and Armagh.

Donegal appear to be able to up the ante and move through the gears whenever they feel like it. With Down on a good run coming up to half time the lads collectively just seemed to decide that we needed some scores and in six devastating minutes we registered 1-3. Declan Walsh’s two points were crucial as a decent lead for the underdogs would have given them plenty of confidence for the second half. Instead the Malin man burst forward for two coolly taken points.

Allied to running directly at Donegal, many believe that the way to beat the system is to kick long range scores – this is a common myth amongst teams and press alike but no one has actually done it yet. Tyrone in last year’s semi-final had chances but kicked a lot of wides in the first half, just as they did this year. Derry had chances in the first half of last year’s Ulster decider, as had Down yesterday, but again kicked some wayward wides – all a coincidence? No.

Kicking from distance is a good ploy and the scores registered can be a huge boost to the crowd and to a team’s confidence but such is the difficulty in the technique it will not win a game and certainly not against this Donegal team. The pressure that forwards are put under is so intense that when a player finally finds himself in a couple of yards of space he will invariably rush his shot and hence his technique lets him down. The only big game this team has lost was last year’s All Ireland semi and that was primarily due to Dublin running hard at the defence as the Tir Chonaill legs started to feel the strain. Long ball is another option against us but again few teams have tried this, although Tyrone did create a few chances when long ball went into Stephen O’Neill in the semi final a few weeks back.

Ryan Bradley had another stormer yesterday, epitomised by his wonderful point just before his withdrawal, due to concussion, in the second half. Rising highest to claim a Down kick-out, he took the ball on himself and hoisted a huge score to the delight of the crowd.

Bradley, along with Paul Durcan, Colm McFadden and goalscorer Frank McGlynn, are in All Star form at the minute and regardless of what happens for the rest of the summer, Donegal will no doubt be represented again when the team of the year is announced in November.

With Neil Gallagher missing yesterday we could have expected to see Michael Murphy stationed at midfield but he spent most of his afternoon at full forward. The psychological hold that Jim McGuinness has over his opponents is such a huge weapon right now. Down had Dan Gordon looking after Michael with Brendan McArdle close by to double-team him. Yet doing that just leaves more space for the other forwards, perfectly demonstrated by Leo McLoone’s goal when he was completely unmarked. Teams come up with plans to hold Donegal but Jim will have something else to counteract that and give them something further to worry about.

Teams are spending so much time in trying to figure out how to beat us, their own successful traits aren’t being seen. Darren O’Hagan, Aidan Carr and Conor Laverty for example have all been in great form in 2012 (particularly the latter in the league encounter in Newry in February) yet there is such an emphasis on stopping Donegal that their talents weren’t seen to the full yesterday.

Oisin McConville, in his role as BBC pundit after the Tyrone game, waxed lyrical about Paddy McBrearty’s effect on the game and in particular his ability to always take the right option – the Kilcar youngster illustrated this again yesterday. Whether in near goal or out the field, every time the ball came his way he seemed to have that extra half second and used it to decide the best option whether it be shooting, kick passing or hand passing. Even in the space of a year his game has come on so much and training and playing alongside the Murphy maestro has brought his game to a new level.

One of the most satisfying aspects of last year’s win over Derry was the fact that we were able to truly savour the occasion such was our lead going into the final few minutes. The same happened again yesterday with the final ten minutes turning into a procession and yet at no stage did the players take their foot off the pedal; they kept tracking back, working hard to win possession and took their scores with real aplomb.

One slight worry going into the All Ireland series is our tendency to depend on our second half displays to finish a team off – what if it doesn’t happen for us some day? This can all be tracked back to last year’s joust with Dublin where we wilted in the Sky Blue onslaught, scoring just two points after the break. McGuinness has obviously put a major emphasis and focus on ensuring that that doesn’t happen again. In 2011 we tried to hold onto leads whereas this year we’re simply staying in the game early on before pulverising teams. We scored an incredible 1-13 in the second half yesterday; 2-16 in the last 40 minutes compared to 0-2 in the opening 30 minutes.

Of course this gameplan will be more severely tested when Donegal meet one of the big hitters in Croke Park but we’re certainly primed for an assault on Sam and next Monday we’ll find out who’s next to feel the full force of The Messiah’s men.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Dún na nGall March On...

A statement of intent was delivered to the rest of the country at Clones yesterday; Donegal are now firmly amongst the All Ireland contenders and in beating a Tyrone team without hitting top gear the team illustrated the assurance and maturity that they’re operating off.

A large green and gold contingent made their way to Clones yesterday and it was clear that there was a level of supreme confidence amongst the fans around the town. All the pundits had tipped us to win and while there was no way that the game was going to be as straight forward as some had predicted, we knew our form pointed to victory.

The game panned out in a very similar manner to last year’s encounter; Tyrone did most of the running early on with Donegal happy to let them tire themselves out, safe in the knowledge that there was plenty more in the tank. While the goal chances at the end of the game caused many a heart palpitation around St Tiernach’s Park, Donegal always just seemed destined to come out on top and looked the better side.

A definite pattern has emerged in many of Donegal’s championship games this year and last - the opening exchanges usually involve opponents running at us full of intent and belief that they can defeat the system. Inevitably our strength and know-how wears them down and when we hit our purple patch we can put teams away.  Tyrone didn’t score for over half an hour in the second half yesterday while we scored five points in the same period. Donegal are so patient and controlled that they have an inner belief that the scores will come - that belief probably wasn’t there in last year’s All-Ireland semi final but you get the feeling if the situation presents itself again the team would be able to push on that bit more rather than waiting for the finishing line to come to them.

Tyrone set the tone for a tactical chess game with their formation at throw in, Mickey Harte had a very clearly defined plan as to how to beat Donegal and they were close to pulling it off. Harte is the game’s eminent tactician, the only manager who can compete with him was the man in the other dugout. The game’s premier coaches went head to head and it was Donegal’s familiarity and know how of their own system coupled with their fitness and power that won the day.

The amount was of switches at throw-in was mind-boggling and indeed hard to decipher exactly what was going on; it took quite a while for the game to settle down into any kind of pattern. Both teams favoured short kickouts rather than risking losing possession by delivering into midfield which was somewhat strange from a Donegal point of view considering the form that Neil Gallagher is in at present.

His midfield partner, Ryan Bradley, had another terrific game yesterday and is playing like an All Star in the making if he keeps going. He is a prime example of the McGuinness effect having been a bit part player under previous bosses but thanks to the tutelage and guidance of Jim he has been transformed into an immense athlete of pace and power to go with the footballing talent that’s always been there.

Losing Neil McGee early on was a blow and indeed some of the goal chances Tyrone created through high balls in his absence was worrying. On one occasion Neil’s brother Eamonn was one on one with Stephen O’Neill, a situation you generally don’t see with this Donegal team - thankfully after he won the ball O'Neill's effort clipped the post.

Karl Lacey had another fine game, not allowing Peter Harte to dictate things too much while carrying a huge amount of ball for his side. He popped over one of his customary points near the end too and a fit and on-form Lacey is imperative for an All-Ireland challenge.

The chance of Ulster glory comes before that of course and Down stand in the way on July 22nd. They’re an exciting outfit with some top class forward talent but its hard to see how they will cope with the sheer size and speed of Donegal. Back to back titles would be an amazing achievement for this team and it’s a very real possibility. Three weeks time will tell all.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Demolition Derby sends Derry packing

Nothing beats being there - thats the current tagline the GAA are using to market this year's Championship and its hard to argue with it. Especially when your approx 2,400 km away from the ground. That was the reality for those of us taking up our posts as part of Trappa's army in Polska; we're missing out on our regular GAA hit but thanks to a combination of Highland Radio, phone calls to pitchside and Twitter, Donegal Gaels could keep abreast of proceedings at Ballybofey yesterday.

There are certainly quite a few of us in Poland, without doubt there are more Donegal jerseys here than any other county. I'm currently residing in the tourist town of Torun, which is half way between the match venues of Poznan and Gdansk.

Torun unfortunately does not have an Irish bar and therefore for the first time in many years it was Charlie Collins' job to guide me through a Championship game. The big news delivered by Charlie before throw in was that the maestro had overcome his knee injury and was fit to captain the side; while Michael Murphy wasnt at his mesmeric best just getting him on the field and into Championship action was hugely important.

Ryan Bradley took the place of injury victim Rory Kavanagh at midfield and by the gushing praise coming from co-commentator Declan Bonner, the Buncrana man had a fine game. He deserves great credit for that after enduring a disappointing day in Breffni Park last time out when he was replaced early on.

Mark McHugh once again played his specifically defined role to a tee and he is developing into a Lacey-esque type figure who never ever seems to play poorly; its an insight into how Donegal are coached and how each player knows their role.

Derry tried to get bodies back behind the ball but there's more to playing a good defensive system than that. Jim and Rory work relentlessly on 'the system' in training and nothing is left to chance - other teams cannot just copy it and hope to have success.

The goals either side of the break closed out the game and it is hugely encouraging that Donegal were so clinical and professional. We've certainly moved on to another level after last year, and indeed Derry have stood still under John Brennan. The more games this team plays the more at ease they feel with the style of play and the better they are utilising their intensity and energy. The system requires incredible fitness but the players appear to be managing their bursts better now and they know when to take a breather and when to foray up the field.

Another plus from yesterday's game was the spread of the scorers; we can always rely on Murphy and Colm McFadden and it wouldnt be a Donegal win without at least one member of the half back line scoring. But both midfielders scoring as well lads like Leo McLoone and David Walsh getting on the scoresheet is a big postitive.

And so we're as we were last year, facing into a pivotal semi final dual with Tyrone but unlike then we will probably go into the game in two weeks time as slight favourites. We were a little bit in awe of Tyrone twelve months ago and early on it looked as if we were going to be steamrolled. Eventually we found our feet and ground out a win with Brick Molloy's late goal.

This year it will be up to Mickey Harte's men to take the game to us, we're the champions and the challenge for them is to knock us off our perch. To score 2-13 today is very pleasing, and you can be sure Tyrone will not be notching 0-19 in the semi-final like they did against Armagh last week.

Poland will be a distant memory by the time that rolls around in and the Donegal jerseys will have departed Torun, Gdansk and Poznan and will instead converge on Clones.
Come on you boys in green...and gold!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Dún na nGall Clear First Hurdle

A case of job done in Breffni today - an accomplished, professional display from Jim McGuinness’ charges in a game we never looked like losing. Cavan came out of the blocks quickly but it was inevitable that Donegal’s pace, power and strength would be too much for them and by half time the contest was finished.
Even without the difference in fitness and physical levels, Donegal simply had the better footballers.

This time last year, RTE infamously struggled to pick a man of the match from the preliminary round clash with Antrim such was the poor fare on show; today it was difficult to pick one standout such was the high quality of performances from several men in green and gold.

Frank McGlynn played at half-back today following a reshuffle before throw in which saw Declan Walsh make his Championship debut at corner back and Leo McLoone getting a run in the forwards - and all three impressed. McGlynn was outstanding, hoovering up plenty ball and playing high up the field.

Leo picked up where he left off in the league, bringing the promising form he showed then into his new half forward role today. He poses a formidable obstacle to a defender carrying the ball forward but along with his strength he has great footballing ability, illustrated by two fine scores from play.

Leo was pushed further forward alongside Colm McFadden in the second half and he again excelled while also proving to be a nuisance to Cavan goalkeeper James Reilly when he attempted any quick restarts. McGuinness of course used McLoone in a roving full forward role with the U21s, he and Michael Murphy alternating in many of the games in that Championship run two years ago.

The national media this week were still talking about Kevin Cassidy’s absence but the performances of McGlynn and McLoone today showed that maybe they should take a look at the footballers we have in the Donegal panel rather than looking back.

Cavan boss Terry Hyland tried to mimic his counterpart in the other dugout by pulling men back behind the ball but McGuinness simply told his men to follow their markers and this gave McGlynn, along with Karl Lacey and Anthony Thompson, licence to push up the field. The home side seemed to confuse themselves with this tactic and Donegal took full advantage, gaining a lot of possession from short kick outs.

Another Cavan tactic, in naming players out of position in an attempt to flummox Jim, didn’t really work either. In 2009, Antrim named somewhat of a dummy team and then at throw-in their players switched positions and it certainly unsettled Donegal that day and contributed to the Saffron’s shock win at MacCumhaill Park. Cavan tried a similar ploy today with forwards Ronan Flanagan and Robert Maloney-Derham named at corner back and half back respectively. Such a trick is never going to catch out a manager as astute as Jim McGuinness and again it didn’t really help Cavan and may only have served to take their focus away from the field of play.

No such trouble with Donegal in the first half though with the pace of our attacks a real feature of the match. Without Michael absent today the forward unit changed shape and there was very little long ball played into Patrick McBrearty and McFadden. Instead pinpoint ball was played in front of the forward duo and they dished off possession to the runners coming onto the ball. It was encouraging to see McBrearty in particular doing well in this role; though he didn’t manage to register a score himself, his all round effort was crucial. He had his fingerprints on many of his team’s scores today through winning so much first phase possession in the lead up to points, as well as winning the penalty.

Cavan couldn’t live with the speed of the runners from deep and the visitors chalked up plenty of scores throughout the day via this tactic just as they did against Armagh in the last league outing.

Mark McHugh gave a master class in how to play the modern half forward role; as usual he was the designated sweeper and played this role to a tee. He also got forward whenever he could and ended up with two points from play. The Kilcar man is liable to show up anywhere on the field such is his fitness and conditioning.

The midfield duo of Rory Kavanagh and Neil Gallagher both delivered big performances, and they had to coming up against Cavan‘s impressive young duo of Gearoid McKiernan and David Givney. Centurion Kavanagh notched three points from play and Neil got on the end of a move in the second half as well to get his name on the score sheet.

Paddy McGrath gave a super display from corner back but much of his good work came in Cavan’s half of the field as he raided forward with purpose throughout. His style of running, in particular how he runs across any potential tackler while he’s soloing, makes him very hard to stop and he wins plenty of frees from this - vital in giving his fellow defenders a breather after working hard to dispossess an opponent.

Many say the provincial Championships aren’t all that important anymore but the fillip of winning back to back titles will spur this side on in Ulster this year. Preparation and focus is still key; the management team certainly weren’t taking this game lightly and as they did last year, took up residence in the Slieve Russell Hotel on Saturday night.

Not quite as glamorous for the minors however, they were spotted stopping off for some bargain purchases from Aldi before they headed for home! They can certainly be proud of their efforts today as well, a huge win for Stephen Friel’s side over the reigning provincial champions. Minor championships are almost impossible to predict and indeed Cavan would have been fancied to win but today showed anything is possible.

Its back to Ballybofey for the next day out, a Saturday evening clash with Derry. The Oak Leaf county are still smarting over their defeat in last year’s decider so a huge battle is to be expected. They should have the Bradleys back in tow which will make it a tough assignment for The Messiah but no doubt he’ll already be formulating a plan to get us over the next hurdle.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Dun na nGall remain part of the elite

Donegal are a Division One team - that’s the outcome of today and that’s where we belong. 2013 will see the country’s top eight sides plying their trade in the league’s top tier, something which in truth hasn’t happened for quite a number of years.

The players showed great heart and determination in the second half in Ballybofey and like our other 'must win' games this year against Cork and Mayo you just got the feeling we wouldn’t be beaten. Armagh had their chances of course and will maybe feel that they could have come away with the win but overall the home side looked the better when it mattered most.

Plenty of rain early in the day left conditions fairly treacherous and indeed the referee didn’t seem to take this into account for much of his decision making in the first half. Both teams won some handy frees and with Michael Stevenson finding his range a lot quicker than Colm McFadden, Paddy O'Rourke's men built up a neat cushion.

Two of McFadden’s club mates were taken off before half time although Daniel McLoughlin and Martin McElhinney had been doing as well as anyone in the home attack. Jim McGuinness was looking to bring a bit of structure to his forward unit and the introductions of Dermot Molloy and Patrick McBrearty did add a bit of impetus to his side. McBrearty’s appearance brought to an end a busy week for the Kilcar youngster, as he had attended AFL trials in London organised by former Sydney Swans star Tadhg Kennelly. Neither Brick nor McBrearty had a huge impact on the game but they played their part in the overall team effort.

An inspirational score from Leo McLoone got things going in earnest for Donegal, the Naomh Conaill man had another stormer today before being replaced after shipping a heavy knock late in the game. McFadden pointed a free just before the half time whistle and being two points down at half time wasn’t the worst situation to be in as the teams headed for the dressing rooms.

After a decent match appeared to be breaking out in the first half, the intensity and the hitting was upped considerably in the second and we were treated to a cracking Ulster contest. It was as close as you’ll get to Championship fare at this time of year and the crowd responded in kind with the noise levels going up a few notches.

Armagh stretched their lead to four points at one stage but after that they would add only one more while Donegal would score eight. When we get in the mood our running game is incessant and teams simply cannot cope with our pace and power.

Brian McEniff famously told his charges in 1992 to run at the opposition like the waves hitting Tory and a similar ploy was adopted today. Leading the charge were Rory Kavanagh and Ryan Bradley, who constantly ran at the Armagh defence, prepared to take the hits and put their body on the line. The scores didn’t come immediately, over-elaboration in attack leading to turnovers and poor decision making; the players weren’t deterred though and kept running at the Orchard.

Of course you need possession to do anything and there was only one go-to man to win the ball and that was Big Neil Gallagher. Armagh had no answer to the Glenswilly midfielder as he caught numerous kickouts and was in the mix for any breaks that were going as well. He has really taken his game to another level over the course of this league campaign and is one of the major positives the management team will take out of it.

Another huge plus today was the outstanding performance of Malin’s Declan Walsh. He’s been in and around the panel for a few years now but today he really came of age putting in a great corner back display in place of the absent Paddy McGrath. On a couple of occasions in the second half he showed great maturity and composure by batting down high balls aimed in towards him rather than chancing a risky take over his head.

As Donegal struggled to show their superiority on the score board, Armagh remained dangerous on the break but thankfully the game’s pivotal moment swung in the home side’s favour. A misplaced pass from Rory Kavanagh led to a goal chance for Jamie Clarke (who had been well marshalled throughout by Karl Lacey and the afore mentioned Walsh) who skipped past Paul Durcan but could only find the post with his goal effort from a tight angle.

Mac Cumhaill Park was rocking at this stage and as the ball was scrambled clear the crowd urged the boys on another surge up the field. Its been quite a while since I can remember an atmosphere like it along the River Finn; the old pitch lost a bit of its allure somewhat after three successive Ulster championship exits from 2008-2010 but it had its mojo back today and it was great to hear the Tír Conaill faithful in full voice.

The story had a fitting finale with local lad Martin Reilly knocking over a point that made the game safe; Adrian Hanlon made extra sure with a fisted effort in the dying seconds to make it a three point win.

So overall a good league campaign; the primary aims were to blood new players and tweak the formations and systems and to do this while still keeping our Division One status intact will please everyone concerned.

All minds switch firmly to Breffni Park in six weeks time when national eyes will again fall on Donegal. Jim was asked about this, and the inevitable focus that will be on his players, in his post match interview with Charlie Collins today and was typically honest in his response regarding the media, “some people can give their opinions with dignity and respect, others cant.” It was a wonderfully measured statement and shows that whatever everyone else thinks about him and his team, all Jim cares about is doing the best he can for his county - and beating Cavan on May 20th.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dubs take the points

Two late goals from Dublin made last night’s encounter look lop-sided but Donegal can be fairly satisfied with their display; with fifteen minutes to go we were right in it.

Similar to last year’s semi final, it was the departure of one of our star performers that ultimately cost us. Then it was Karl Lacey, and to this day there remains that ‘what if’ for the Donegal faithful as to what would and could have happened had he stayed on. Another knee injury last night, this time to Michael Murphy, and when he left the field our chances of a win seemed to go with him.

Prior to that he was once again turning on a master class. Much has been made of the decision to play him in a deep role last August and on the day it didn’t really work. This time around though the country got to see Michael in one of his bravado, tour de force performances. He was catching ball at full forward, winning frees out the field, driving through the Dublin defence - by the time he departed he had notched 0-6 leading to him receiving the man of the match gong from broadcaster Setanta. Its not often that we see a player on the losing side pick up the award so it goes to show how good he was going.

He kicked two from play and his place kicking was excellent, indeed it is encouraging to see him kicking most of his frees off the ground; it’s a dying art in the game and a huge asset to any side who possess someone so proficient in the skill.

He has now racked up 2-19 in his four matches since returning from injury, although whether or not the fifth game will be against Armagh in two weeks is a serious doubt with his knee not looking in good shape when he was forced off. You could see he was revelling in being on the big stage and almost had to be dragged off the pitch by the Donegal doctor. The big players are born to play on the sacred turf in Drumcondra and with Michael in form like this it shouldn’t be too long until we’re back on Jones Road.

With Michael off the field, Paul Durcan’s attempt to mimic Stephen Cluxton’s All Ireland Final heroics didn’t quite work out and he had to endure a long trot back to his goal with the jeers of Dublin fans ringing in his ears. Between the sticks though he had a fine game, stopping three goal chances - the first effort from Eamon Fennell in the first half drew an incredible reflex stop from the big Four Masters man. Indeed he was unfdortuante to see Diarmuid Connolly's late effort squirm past him after another good stop.

While Dublin did manage to post a 2-16 score line, four or five cheap points were conceded by Donegal from turnovers around midfield. After hard work in stopping a Dublin attack or winning a dirty ball in the middle, on numerous occasions this good work was quickly undone and that was particularly frustrating.

Also a worry was our distribution. Dublin kept a sweeper back in front of the full forward line and yet time and again we kicked the ball directly to him. We’re normally more shrewd and clever when faced with this and should have been recycling the ball and probing for an opening. Our first three attacks all ended up being kicked straight to a sky blue jersey and this was quickly followed by three balls dropped short into the hands of Cluxton.

Patrick McBrearty did catch one lovely ball over his head in the second half and forced a smart stop from Cluxton; that was our second goal chance of the game. We saw last year how crucial Colm McFadden’s missed goal chance proved to be and unfortunately again we failed to take any.

Dublin looked impressive on the night, that bit sharper and more clinical as a unit than us. The movement of their forward line was especially eye catching - always available, always running onto the ball at speed and able to take on their man. While Donegal struggled to find their inside men with wayward passing, Dublin made theirs stick.

If you just saw the final score from the game you’d think we’d be on the receiving end of quite a beating but the two late goals put an unfair gloss over proceedings; we didn’t deserve to come out on the wrong side by nine points. The game plan that Jim had devised to beat Dublin last August was working in many ways last night. He has talked since about his bigger men playing around the middle and breaking forward at pace.
Michael did this and even Christy Toye appeared to be finding a bit of form using his height and strength to good effect in the second half. He wasn’t suffocated by blue jerseys as he was last time out and found a lot more time on the ball. He was about to be taken off at one point but slotted over a score, forcing Jim to quickly abandon the switch for a while.

Another good display was that of Leo McLoone. Much has been made of the man absent from the No 7 jersey but we knew all along we had a man good enough to replace him. He’s still not quite back to his best following his injury plagued year in 2011 but after a shaky opening quarter last night Leo showed signs that he’s going in the right direction. He scored a fine point in the first half as did his club mate on the other wing Anthony Thompson. That duo, along with Lacey, drove forward brilliantly and caused real problems for Pat Gilroy’s men. Full back Neil McGee even got in on the act, helping the Donegal revival early in the second period.

Jim would have felt last night that it was worth a chance having a go at Dublin, with a home match to come against Armagh on Easter Sunday, Donegal should have their destiny in their own hands - depending on results in Castlebar and Killarney today a win should hopefully be enough to keep us in Division One.
Once the Orchard meeting is out of the way its full speed ahead to Breffni in late May. The aim will be to get back to Croke Park in August and who knows, the Dubs could be waiting for us again.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Messiah's Boys Back on Track

A good day at the office for The Messiah’s men in Ballyshannon today and we’re right back in the mix of things in Division One. The way the table is shaping up both relegation and a semi final spot are both possibilities - all that is certain is that everything will boil down to the final game against Armagh on Easter Sunday.

Things started off slowly enough with Mayo looking like we did in the opening stages last week - fresh, fit and full of running. After a fisted effort from Patrick McBrearty, it took an exceptional point from Michael Murphy to really get things going. With Mayo men hanging off him and no sign of a free being awarded, the ball almost got away from the Maestro; but he decided against trying to get the ball back into this hands and instead pulled on it on the volley and drove it over the bar.

Michael had a somewhat frustrating day throughout, getting virtually nothing from the man in the middle. Twice in quick succession in the first half he fielded wonderfully over his head and pivoted as only he can; on each occasion though he was man handled by the Mayo full back Ger Cafferkey yet no free was given. It’s a wonder how he keeps his head sometimes when that keeps happening but credit to him he kept persevering. His final score of the day was another beauty - again looking as if he was being fouled he was almost falling to the ground just as he struck the shot but it still sailed between the posts.

Incidentally, that man in the middle was none other than Mr Marty Duffy. I’m not keen on those GAA folk who go to games with the sole intention of berating the referee and indeed criticising officials is an easy option at times. Yet all that goes out the window when Duffy is involved - he’s useless. An awful referee, he continually slows the game down with inconsistent decisions and never has an official had such a negative impact on supporters, with the feeling mutual between both sets.

He was centre of attention as usual today, straight from the off. Not only does it create an unease amongst the crowd but the players soon get worked up over his calls. Rory Kavanagh felt the wrath of Duffy when he was shown a red card when he gave Kevin McLoughlin what was no more than a dig in the ribs; probably worthy of a red going by the letter of the law but Duffy seemed to guess the decision as he didn’t appear to have seen the incident clearly. One bystander in the stand at Fr Tierney Park commented that Duffy must have very sore arms such is the regularity with which they’re hoisted in the air to signal for a free.

The trying relationship Donegal enjoys with the Sligo whistle blower stems back to the Ulster Championship clash with Derry in 2008. The main talking point that day centred on Derry midfielder Fergal Doherty, who was allowed to stay on the field of play despite a forearm smash to the face of the afore mentioned Kavanagh. How ironic that Kavanagh’s infraction didn’t survive Marty’s card today.
Not even the goalkeepers survived, with both net minders receiving yellow cards which is surely some kind of record - Marty will be happy that his name might be in the history books for that one.

Thankfully despite a shaky start Donegal were able to go and win the game, playing the entire second half with fourteen. Neil McGee was ruled out with flu before the throw in so his brother Eamon stepped in to take his place. This meant Donegal had three corner backs in the full back line and yet Mayo didn’t really capitalise on this as much as they could have. An early high ball caught Eamon out of position and Mayo were able to work a goal but they didn’t do anywhere near enough of this and you’d have to question James Horan’s tactics in this regard.

Mayo were poor today after their early flourish and The Messiah certainly came out on top in this battle of the young gun managers. Horan could certainly have done with some of Donegal’s skill and work rate and if circumstances had conspired differently back in the day maybe they would have. Three of today’s Donegal side - Murphy, Paul Durcan and Martin Reilly all have a bit of Mayo blood in their veins from their parents but thankfully they were in the right jerseys from our point of view.

The home side didn’t need a second invitation though when they had the wind at their backs after the restart and they pummelled Mayo with high ball after high ball. Colm McFadden was the one to drop deep to midfield to create the space for Murphy and McBrearty, a clever move from The Messiah as Mayo would have been expecting the Glenswilly man to play this role. It worked a treat as the scores started to come and Murphy even won a few frees after Marty learned how to spot a foul.

The tactics employed in the second half, including that switch for McFadden, were what won the points for the hosts as they pinned Mayo into their own half of the field. The two men inside worked hard to cut out any short kick-outs allowing Neil Gallagher, who had another stormer, to clean up at midfield. Even when goalkeeper David Clarke did manage to find a defender with a short kick-out, our forwards were quick to press and Mayo were suffocated. Playing against a strong breeze and a strong green and gold wall James Horan’s men couldn’t move past the half way line - their first score of the second half came in the 35th minute.

The critics that have lambasted Donegal for playing so deep would have seen something quite new today had they been watching. Instead of a deep lying defensive line, there was a cordon of men stationed between centre field and Mayo’s 45 metre line, pinning them back in their own half.

The modern defensive game, which has taken many forms over the past decade, will eventually reach a natural evolutionary end in a manner approaching what we saw today. Instead of a deep lying defensive line, it will be much higher up the pitch - so in today’s case when Mayo lost the ball, Donegal didn’t have to travel a hundred yards up the field to the scoring zone, they were already there.

Imagine Donegal’s game plan against Dublin last year but instead of a mass of bodies on their own 45, the bodies are all in the opponents half of the field. We saw a period of play today for about fifteen minutes where Mayo continuously could not get past the half way line, there was a mass of green and gold jerseys waiting for them and they had no answer.

Certain commentators were a bit miffed that Donegal claimed two out of six all stars last year in the defensive positions because of the weight of numbers we have back; but that is a bit of a discredit to the lads because it glosses over the fact that we have some outstanding defenders. Today again they were magnificent, thus contributing to holding Mayo scoreless for almost all of the second half. At one stage late on, Alan Dillon broke through and looked like he had a goal chance but when he looked up to shoot there were six players surrounding him and many of these had just ran back from Mayo’s half of the field. It was total football today with everyone defending and everyone attacking. Allied to great fielding, good passing and fine long range scores it was by far the best performance since the Kildare game.

As we look forward now to next week and a rematch with Dublin there will no doubt be more talk than ever of ‘the system’ although whether we play in a way people expect us to is another matter. Jim said the team learnt a lot from the game in Killarney last week and his language was very telling. He mentioned that when the team faces Kerry again they will be much better prepared - when and not if. He believes his side will be in the shake up once again come late Summer and he fully expects to be meeting the likes of Kerry and Dublin in Croke Park. So there was probably a certain amount of caginess in the display last week and that may happen next week again. Donegal will most likely be safe in Division One if they beat Armagh in the final game so it gives a small bit of leeway for Croke Park. How McGuinness approaches the meeting with the All Ireland Champions will be very interesting indeed.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Dún na nGall faulter as Kingdom Rule

Donegal were brought back down to earth in Killarney today; after last week’s impressive display against Cork, they were on the receiving end of a Kerry team in full flow, showing off their full array of skills and illustrating all of their forward power. The visitors didn’t do an awful lot wrong in the first half, yet still found themselves five points down at the break.

The start was very encouraging with Patrick McBrearty, Anthony Thompson and Michael Murphy all on target in the first five minutes. Bryan Sheehan then scored three frees in succession and he was majestic all day from placed balls. A goal from youngster Patrick Curtin and suddenly Donegal were chasing the game.

Michael did his best, adding a further two scores before the break but Kerry had brought their shooting boots. Anthony Maher scored a huge effort from the centre of the field while Kieran Donaghy scored two carbon copy points, both from the right wing with the outside of his boot; the Tralee man excelling in his wing forward berth, just as he did to such good effect early in the All Ireland Final last year.

Both teams set up similarly as regards defensive structures - both half forward lines dropped deep leaving three men inside. But Kerry pushed up high on Donegal instead of sitting back and indeed it seems the obvious ploy when faced against a deep lying team but very few actually do it. In last year’s semi final Dublin played a similar game to us, leaving three men back marking Colm McFadden when it seemed that pushing their forwards onto Donegal would have broken the deadlock. It certainly worked for Kerry today as Donegal struggled to get out of their half at times. 

Whatever tactics Kerry play though, a key trait that has held true over the years has been to let the ball do the work and they can conserve so much energy with how they do this. They played at their own pace throughout while Donegal had started brilliantly but ran out of steam somewhat and indeed they looked as though they lost a bit of focus following some flash points before half time.

As Leo McLoone made a burst forward and laid off a ball he was caught high by Paul Galvin and Leo’s team mates were incensed that the referee waved play on. Galvin was eventually booked but in the very next attack McLoone was again the target of a high tackle, this time from Sheehan, and again he needed treatment.

The Naomh Conaill man of course suffered that horrendous injury in the club championship last year, fracturing a cheek bone and any high challenges he faces, never mind two in two minutes, cant bring back any good memories. This may have been behind Jim McGuinness’ decision to take him off at the interval.

If Donegal lost a bit of composure at that point, Kerry had plenty of it and less than a minute after the restart the game was put to bed when Sheehan stroked home a penalty - that gave them an eight point lead and it was effectively game over.

Donegal responded after the penalty but their finishing let them down, four wides in quick succession would prove costly as they were just too far behind to take advanatge when Murphy drilled home a penalty.
Soon after that, another pivotal turning point when Eamonn McGee was shown a second yellow and that was definitely that. Kerry enjoyed the last quarter and showed all the flair you’d expect of them as they racked up a score that you wouldn’t expect a McGuinness side to concede.

Neil Gallagher did well at midfield for Donegal, winning some fine fetches but overall the hosts won far more breaks around the middle and Galvin and the O’Sullivan’s, Darran and Declan, were quick to feed the inside forwards.

Michael can be pleased with his own performance - up against Marc O’Se for much of the game he scored 1-5 on the limited ball that came his way. Kerry even brought on a sub in the shape of Aidan O’Mahony to sit as a sweeper in front of Michael for the closing stages for fear that he would add to his tally.

One Kerryman showed no fear or indeed manners though as the crowd made its way out of Fitzgerald Stadium - despite a few hundred people walking up the Lewis Road one gentleman decided to relieve himself rather than using the stadium’s excellent toilet facilities - and they call us Donegal wans a rare breed!
There’ll be none of that next week as we’re back home again - Mayo come to Ballyshannon where it’ll be back to the drawing board and a win next week is vital for our Division One survival prospects. The table is looking very tight with plenty of teams vying to avoid the drop - hopefully a positive result next week can take the Messiah’s troops out of that bracket.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Now We’ve Started!

Donegal finally got their league campaign up and running and not for the first time it was down to one man - Michael Murphy. Making his first appearance in his county jersey since the defeat in Croke Park in August, the maestro looked fit and sharp despite his lay off after groin surgery.
And he didn’t take long to make his presence felt - 11 seconds to be precise.

After Neil Gallagher won the throw in, Karl Lacey made the first of several bursts from his centre back berth to get on the ball. The All Star drove it towards Murphy on the edge of the square and just as he did against Derry in Celtic Park last year, it was catch-pivot-bang in one beautiful movement. Quite a way to announce his return and he kept it up throughout the game, finishing with 1-3 and was instrumental in many of Donegal’s better movements.

Reports earlier in the year suggested that young Michael was spending considerable time practising with his weaker left foot and judging by his score early in the second half it seems to be paying off, as he posted a beauty off his ciotog while under pressure from two Cork defenders.

Cork will be disappointed that they didn’t have their defensive alignment sorted out at the throw in for the early goal but if anyone can capitalise on such situations it’s Jim McGuinness. As usually happens with Donegal the third full forward, in today’s case David Walsh, comes out to midfield from their original corner forward position but this doesn’t happen until after the throw in. This denies the opposition the opportunity to use the extra corner back as a sweeper straight away as they await to see how the forward line assembles itself. Today it worked perfectly, leaving Murphy with one-on-one with his man, Eoin O’Mahony, and there’s only one result when that happens.
Its an interesting insight into the McGuinness mind, similar in a way to how he famously told Christy Toye to run straight for goal when coming on as a substitute against Kildare last year in the hope that he wouldn’t be picked up - seconds later he rattled the net. He devises many little snippets of tactics such as this, the opportunity may not always present itself but if it does, his boys are ready.

Walsh did come out to the middle third soon after and Cork boss Conor Counihan instructed the spare man, Ray Carey, not to follow him and instead act as a screen in front of Murphy and Colm McFadden. This didn’t really work as the hosts played the ball down the channels instead of down on top of the deadly duo as the sweeper would have been anticipating.

Even with Walsh around the middle Cork got to grips at midfield as the first half wore on, David's namesake Aidan doing particularly well, and this was cue for Murphy to come a little deeper. Immediately the sweeper was abandoned as Cork went man for man around the middle. This shows the impact Murphy has not only on Donegal but on our opponents; wherever he is positioned dictates how the opponents set up their defence and what match ups they employ. If Cork thought they might get a breather with the big man out the field though thats not how it panned out - the Glenswilly man was involved in everything, and at one stage even caught a ball over his head in the full back position and set the team on their way again.

Much of Cork’s success in recent years has been built on their physical presence and ball winning ability at centre field and any game against them will largely depend on the amount of ball a team can win in this sector. In spite of Walsh (the Cork version) and to a lesser extent Graham Canty doing well to manufacture breaks and win possession, Donegal’s pairing of Neil Gallagher and Rory Kavanagh bossed the area overall and they can be satisfied with a good day’s work.

Kavanagh though was fortunate early in the game that the referee missed a right handed jab he landed on Canty although it wasn’t the only thing man in the middle, Padraig O’Sullivan, overlooked. He brandished five yellow cards in the first half alone in a game where in truth there was no need to stop the game as much as he did let alone book players, Kavanagh’s indiscretion apart. Two of the top teams in the country went toe to toe and unfortunately O’Sullivan prevented a decent game from being a very good one.
The Kerry whistler was a late replacement because the match was actually due to be overseen by our old friend Marty Duffy, so maybe it could have been worse.

On numerous occasions the Donegal forwards were being fouled when running for the ball but these misdemeanours went unpunished. One particular example saw Murphy running towards the ball with both his arms spread out to illustrate to the ref that he was being held; he still won the ball, turned his man and after being tugged back again, Cork came away with possession - yet no free.

In the end thankfully the referee had no outcome on the result and Donegal now sit on two league points, in 5th place in the table. Only two points separate top and bottom in the division so relegation and qualification for a league semi final are both possible scenarios at this stage. A league semi final looked a long way away after the display against Laois but with the cavalry returning today there was a very obvious lift in performance.

The low score line will no doubt lead to the national media assuming that this was a Donegal defence-fest but in truth had the those up front been a bit sharper they could have posted a huge score. McFadden, Lacey and Paddy McBreaty all had second half goal chances while there could have been at least a further ten points added if the wides and shots dropped short had been turned into scores.

Full back Neil McGee had a fine game on one of the country’s leading marksmen Donncha O’Connor, restricting him to just a single point. McGee’s brother Eamon was taken off in the first half along with Creeslough’s Christy Toye which suggests that these two aren’t quite up to speed yet after their injury lay offs.

Lacey was at his superb best yet again, it seems to be that every day with him over the past while - he just cant seem to play anything but brilliantly. He hit his customary score from half back to put Donegal three points up near the end and the home crowd raised a big cheer from the stand at MacCumhaill Park when local lad Martin Reilly sealed the win with a fine point on the run soon after.

There was certainly a spring back in the step of the Donegal faithful as they left the ground today; that was the team’s first win since that epic against Kildare. A performance like today's against one the country’s ‘big three’ bodes well for more days like that come the Summer. Another giant awaits next week….bring on the Kingdom.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Donegal beaten at their own game....

Donegal were served a dose of their own medicine today as they ran into a blue and white Laois wall at O’Donnell Park. For the majority of the game they could find little or no way through the O’Moore rearguard while at the same time leaving plenty of room for the visitors at the back and they took full advantage. If ever a scoreline gave a false impression of proceedings the 2-9 to 2-6 total at the end did just that. It was flattering on Donegal who were never in the game at any stage.

Laois popped over some fine early scores, capitalising on a lethargic Donegal start, in what was a similar pattern to that of last year’s encounter in Portlaoise. On that day MJ Tierney led the way in the point scoring stakes, today though it was Ross Munnelly who produced some memorable points to set his team on their way.

A reshuffle before throw-in saw Neil Gallagher positioned on the edge of the square as Jim McGuinness set out his stall early. Long ball after long ball was pumped in on top of the Glenswilly man and while this had worked to good effect on many occasions during his club’s wonderful Championship campaign last year, it didn’t bear fruit today. Laois had a sweeper in front of him and unfortunately he saw more of the ball than Gallagher. At the other end though Laois’ midfielder-cum-full forward Padraig Clancy had an excellent day, scoring 1-1 and leaving his fingerprints over many of the visitors’ scores.

Parallels can certainly be drawn with last year when both these sides plied their trade in the second tier; then, as now, Laois looked to be flying at this time of year, beating Donegal and Derry among others on their way to promotion. However they flattered to deceive in the Championship and you’d certainly have to wonder about the training regimes of both teams at present.

Rory Gallagher spoke afterwards about how far behind Donegal are on other teams in relation to sharpness and fitness and the evidence was in plentiful supply today. The lads are still likely to be undergoing tough training sessions with emphasis on conditioning for the summer ahead rather than on attaining a certain level of sharpness and improving touch and control. Some of the heavy legs and rustiness that we saw during the McKenna Cup are still evident in some of the players.

As Down showed last week, the half back line dictates most of the play in modern Gaelic Games and while the Mournemen got a large number of scores from this unit, Donegal today couldn’t repeat the trick. The absence of Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden is being keenly felt at present; it was hoped that others amongst the forwards would be able to step up and fill the gap this hasn’t happened yet.

When the dynamic duo are in the side the whole focus of Donegal play is to stop the opposition scoring, turn over possession and get the ball into the inside line and they will do the rest. The ideas employed to cope with their absence aren’t quite coming off right now and the onus is on the half back line of Karl Lacey, Anthony Thompson and Leo McLoone to get forward and support. Today we saw this but it led to large gaps at the back and Laois were able to pick off scores at ease any time a Donegal move broke down.

Aside from the condition of the teams though and also the non-availablility of key players, overall today there were just too many unforced errors and too much sloppiness and this led to the huge eleven point lead that Laois enjoyed at one stage. The team stuck at it though and kept the effort up and were eventually rewarded with a couple of goals, even though the first appeared to have stayed on the line rather than rolling over it.

Young Martin Reilly did well throughout as did the energizer bunny that is Mark McHugh. These two, along with Paddy McGrath and Ryan Bradley, put in a Trojan amount of work but unfortunately too many of their team mates did not reach the required level of performance.

While the league position we find ourselves in and the general level of display is disappointing, the most worrying aspect of today’s game was the sight of Lacey hobbling off with what could be a reoccurrence of the knee injury he sustained at Croke Park last August. There’s been no update as of yet on what the injury is but he is certainly in the indispensable category and it would be a huge blow if he were to spend some time on the treatment table.

The mini break that now takes place in the league should allow Donegal to ease down on the heavy training and get back to achieving a better level of performance. That will most definitely be needed as we face into a daunting set of fixtures against Cork, Kerry, Mayo and Dublin. The next three weeks will be critical in the team’s 2012 development and will have a big baring on what division we’ll be playing our league football in next year. The Messiah has work to do.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Donegal Downed in Newry

A frustrating evening for the Donegal contingent at Pairc Esler in Newry, a one point defeat when a draw was certainly within reach. In an entertaining encounter under lights, both teams played some excellent football and both deserved a share of the spoils. The home fans left happier though and next week’s home tie with Laois is now in the must-win category for Donegal.

Down were lively early on, determined to run at Donegal and were quick to register points on the board. The battle around the middle made for interesting viewing with Neil Gallagher and Dan Gordon having a great contest. The impish Conor Laverty, named at full forward, played a deep playmaking role to good effect and was involved in much of the good work from Down early on. The home side found themselves five points clear after a goal from Liam Doyle but Donegal responded well and began to take control around the middle.

Donegal played a pressing game high up the field and it led to a couple of scores as they clawed their way back into the game. Mark McHugh was prominent throughout this period, getting his name on the score sheet twice in a matter of minutes following the concession of the goal. McHugh, a surprise starter following a muscle injury sustained last week, is widely regarded as a hard worker and skilful ball carrier after his sweeper role last year but he’s also a fine half forward and is well able to take his scores.

His club, Kilcar, will be hoping he can keep doing that as himself and Patrick McBrearty are in Ulster U21 club action tomorrow; with both on song you wouldn’t bet against them. The younger of the duo McBrearty, showed well for the ball over the course of the game and looked dangerous when running at defenders, something we will hopefully see more of during the league.

The pressing game is just another layer of the McGuinness defensive system and it was employed tonight in a similar way to last year’s championship game with Cavan. Despite what the national media would have you believe its not as simple as putting everyone behind the ball; Jim is an astute manager and not a one trick defensive pony of a coach.

One consequence of the modern game of packed defences is the accuracy with which passes have to be made in the opposition‘s half of the field. The little dink pass over one line of defence, a drilled pass into a man in the full forward line - they’re fantastic skills to see when executed well and Ryan Bradley, Martin McElhinney and Leo McLoone all gave us fine examples as indeed did the Mourne men.

Stephen Griffin had another frustrating night in a Donegal jersey - he did almost everything right but things just don’t seem to fall for the Nauls man. On four or five occasions he positioned himself well to receive the high ball coming in but each time the ball managed to squirm from his grasp. He backs into defenders correctly, uses his strength, gets his hands up but the ball just always finds a way to escape from his hands.

With Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden on the sidelines at present, the free taking duties were rotated with Griffin, McBrearty and substitute Dermot Molloy all having a go. So too did goalkeeper Paul Durcan but the Cluxton experiment didn’t quite work tonight with the big Four Masters man seeing both his attempts go wide. He’s been known to be a regular scorer for his club, even playing outfield on occasion, so we may see more of this as the year goes on.

One huge positive from a Donegal point of view was the return to competitive action of Karl Lacey. The man is just a joy to watch, an incredible footballer. At the peak of his powers right now he invariably takes the right option, rarely if ever gives the ball away and has that brilliant knack of being in the right place at the right time. There’s always that ‘what if’ in the back of our minds in relation to his departure early in the second half of last year’s tussle with Dublin.

Leo came more into the game in the second half, driving forward from half back along with Lacey and Anthony Thompson. Paddy McGrath was excellent on the night, both in his defensive duties and in his support play on the right flank.

The last ten minutes were set up for a grandstand finish when Martin McElhinney finished off an intricate move to finish to the net. Down edged in front with a couple of quick points, including one particularly dubious effort with Laverty clearly picking the ball up off the ground before offloading. Brick had a great chance to level it but his effort floated wide and soon after he had a placed ball to square things up but unfortunately the result was the same.

Its never good to start your league campaign with a defeat but Donegal have the perfect fixture next week, with Laois visiting O’Donnell Park, to get off the mark and get two points on the board. There were a lot of good aspects of our play tonight and considering we were short of our main attacking options overall the display was good. A similar display next week should lead to a win.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Defeat to Derry, now on to Down

Donegal rounded off the 2012 McKenna Cup campaign tonight with a date with Derry, a repeat of last year’s Ulster Final. It was a decent Donegal display, coming out on the wrong side of the result by two points. Jim McGuinness again gave youth its chance with survivors from Sunday’s line up including Martin O’Reilly, Daniel McLaughlin and Michael Mullin.

Dermot Brick Molloy was the star of the show early on, scoring five points (three from play) in the first half while it was only an early Derry penalty that kept them within touching distance. Derry played with quite an experienced side and John Brennan has certainly added some defensive steel to his side despite his apparent abhorrence to the notion last season.

Rory Kavanagh made his first appearance of the year, lining out at midfield; the Eunans man was hampered for long periods of last year’s Championship with an ankle problem so he’ll be a huge plus for the manager if he can regain full fitness.

Derry fought back well early in the second half while the home side went a long time without a score, almost twenty minutes, similar to what happened in the second period at Breffni Park. Donegal eventually awoke from their slumber but couldnt catch the Oakleaf county who go on to a semi final this weekend. Meanwhile Donegal can take stock of the opening stages of what is hoped will be another long inter-county season.

Overall the competition served its purpose - players got back a bit of match sharpness, a welcome break I’m sure from the hectic training schedule they’re going through at present, and there were also some newcomers introduced to keep existing panellists on their toes.

After a successful 2011 though, Donegal are not looking to reinvent the wheel in 2012. The system will remain much the same; tweaks have to be made up front and also in how the half backs and midfield support the full forward line. Other teams will have a better idea as to how to play us, so there’ll be a step up to be taken overall - if your not moving forward your standing still after all.
Similarly the personnel will not change greatly, if Jim unearths a player or two who can perform in the Championship cauldron then great. If not, it will be those players who didn’t quite make the starting team last season, those from 16 to 22 on the panel, who will push us on that bit more. We've already seen Brick and Neil Gallagher do this in the opening fixtures, its up to other players like Eamonn McGee, Martin McElhinney and Marty Boyle to show the manager they're worth a starting berth.

With the way our league fixtures are mapped out, a win in our opener against Down could set us up for a great Division 1 campaign. Last year showed the importance of getting points on the board early - we looked dead and buried against Sligo in our first game, but somehow salvaged a draw from eight points, and a man, down. Then came the terrific performance against Tyrone in Healy Park and after that we were looking good for a promotion push.

It'll be no different this year, we'll have a fair idea after our first two games whether its a relegation battle or a chance at a semi final spot. Tyrone managed to mount a promotion bid last year despite enduring a poor start but Division One won't be as forgiving should Donegal start off poorly. Laois, a team we've played on numerous occasions in the league in recent years, visit O’Donnell Park in Round Two. We'd be expecting to win that game and if that was bringing us to three or four points with three home fixtures remaining we could be anticipating another promising league run.
Its a bit early though for those kinds of permutations and predictions - Jim will be looking at getting somewhere close to his championship 15 over the course of the league and what will be of most interest will be the make up of the forward line.
Michael Murphy's groin operation rules him out until March at the earliest and a niggling back injury will also rule out his partner in crime Colm McFadden for a similar length of time. That means likely starting spots for Dermot Molloy, Patrick McBrearty and Stephen Griffin - certainly two of those three should start in Newry. Griffin, being the only natural right footer of the trio, has a good chance of starting after an his excellent display against Cavan; indeed he would have started tonight but was withdrawn from the line up before throw-in.
The other main selection difference from last year's Championship team will be the gap left by Kevin Cassidy. Leo McLoone started as last year's centre back with Karl Lacey at wing back and there’s a fair chance that that will be the configuration again come the Summer.

So its all ahead of us now - at least seven league fixtures and hopefully a lot more than the bare minimum two Championship clashes. A journey like last year is what we’re all hoping for and we’re dreaming of it being one game longer.
Newry in February…..Croke Park in September…..we’re on the road again.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Breffni Blues for Dún na nGall

Another game, another defeat for Donegal and with no chance of qualification from Section C, the McKenna Cup campaign will come an end with the upcoming midweek fixture with Derry. It was a similar story last year of course, Donegal only winning one of their three games and it didn’t do us any harm for the rest of the year.

Cavan will take a lot from their performance today and indeed they should, having played with great enthusiasm and passion throughout and were well worth the victory.
They got two points in their opening two attacks and left the visitors chasing the game from early on. Chase they did though and eventually got in front when Stephen Griffin finished well to the net after good work from Mac Cumhaills debutant Martin Reilly. Griffin got more into the game today than he did last week, hitting 1-2 from play along with two frees. Hopefully there’s more to come the Nauls man; there’s been plenty of potential there for a number of years but it’s never quite happened for him on a consistent basis. Griffin and second half substitute Dermot Molloy will be among those vying for Michael Murphy’s jersey in the coming weeks with the maestro due to miss the start of the league in order to undergo groin surgery.

Donegal played without an orthodox midfielder throughout - Conor Classon and Christy Toye taking the spots in the middle at the beginning despite Neil Gallagher being named in the original line up. Conor McManus was later introduced as a substitute and performed a lot better than he did in Letterkenny last week. He’s a robust, old fashioned centre fielder - likes to throw himself about and brings more of a presence to that area than we’re used to, the afore mentioned Gallagher apart.

Daniel McLoughlin registered two wonderful points as he showed well throughout from his position at centre forward. The St Michaels sharp shooter put in some encouraging displays this time last year too and he’s another who its hoped can get to the next level for the county this year.

Hard work from the half forwards and half backs, in particular Tommy McKinley and Gary ‘Copper’ McFadden, meant that Donegal coped at midfield; they weren’t far from breaking even around the middle third and went in one point ahead at the break.

It was a very different story in the second half though….Donegal only managed 1-1, the goal coming late on from Patrick McBrearty, who again looked very dangerous on his introduction after a similar cameo last week.

For the second successive week we finished with fourteen men, McKinley this time the recipient of a second yellow. Up until then though the Naomh Colmcille man had a fine game at wing back, his distribution in particular catching the eye. Stationed at centre back for U21 All Ireland run two years ago, he’s well able to pick a pass and his immediate thought on receiving the ball is to look to see where his forwards are moving - very much a ‘head up’ type of player.

Cavan will certainly be an interesting team to watch throughout the league; if their young guns can continue performing like this they’ll win plenty of admirers. After looking lost in the championship last year, they now appear to be playing to more of a system where everyone knows their role and what is expected of them.

On the day of last year’s Ulster joust they looked bereft of ideas, clueless as to how to break down Donegal and their young team lacked the guile required at this level. Today their youngsters were a lot more composed on the ball and attacked with meance - Eugene Keating and Raymond Galligan in the full forward were especially impressive. The same can be said of their midfield pairing of Gearoid McKiernan and David Givney who never stopped attacking, constantly causing problems for the Donegal rearguard.

Possibly the removal of Seanie Johnston from the panel has worked in their favour as they now have more structure to their attack rather than feeling obligied to get the ball to him were he playing. Also, they have a talented free taker in Galligan, a huge plus for any side.

It wasn’t just Cavan’s juveniles who impressed though with some of Donegal’s newcomers doing their future prospects no harm at all. Reilly at wing forward got through plenty of work while net minder Michael Mullin looked very comfortable and was unlucky that none of his defenders followed up his penalty save - instead Niall McDermott reacted quickest and put the home side in the driving seat. Cavan finished much the stronger after that and a three point margin of victory at the end didn’t do their display justice.

Donegal learnt a lot more about Cavan today than the other way around. Val Andrews already knows the challenge facing his team when they enter the Championship arena and while today will have given his side a lot of confidence, things will be a lot different come May. What is certain though is that we will face a much sterner test that what awaited us on last year’s trip to Breffni.

We know that Jim isn’t one for showing his hand and its unlikely he’ll be too bothered at defeat today considering he’ll bring his side back in May for the Ulster Championship opener.
It could be much the same on Wednesday - should Donegal get past Cavan in Ulster, Derry will lie in wait in a quarter final and Jim wont be giving too much away in a dead rubber game McKenna Cup in January. He'll be already turning his attention to February 4th and Pairc Esler in Newry.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Here We Go Again...

The euphoria of Ulster titles, epic last minute championship wins and packed houses in Croke Park seem a long way away when your sitting in O’Donnell Park on a cold, blustery January day like today. But that’s where it starts every year – the glory must wait for later in the summer (or maybe Autumn!).

The off season is meant to be quiet time for the inter-county scene but as we know from past events, that’s not how things necessarily pan out in Donegal. The furore surrounding Kevin Cassidy’s removal from the squad has died down somewhat now but once again during the depths of winter we were the focus of national attention over a disciplinary issue.

No doubt if a half back has a bad game in the league or someone misses a 50-yard kick the shouts from the stands will be ‘Cass would have won that ball’ or ‘Cass would have nailed that score’ – all in all though Jim McGuinness has simply been true to his team and to his beliefs.

At the start of the year he asked for total commitment and total confidentiality – Kevin Cassidy gave the first of these in bucket loads. He’s a dream player for any team because as well as his talent he’s got that unbounded drive and passion that is so hard to find. He failed on the second count though by taking part in Declan Bogue’s book. The book itself is a great read - brilliant for a supporter in gaining an insight into a team’s preparation, their mindset and habits, and Cassidy plays the leading role with his enthusiasm and insightfulness.

The book also divulges some of the goings on in the Donegal camp in previous years – mainly the drink and the craic. These types of stories have become legendary and used as a stick with which to beat Donegal football for many years. The yarns are exactly what you’ve heard before and worse.

It is against this background that Jim took over – there was a need to get rid of all kinds of indiscipline and to finally get the best out of the talented footballers we’ve always had. That’s why Jim wanted players signing confidentiality agreements and devoting themselves totally to the cause. The agreement itself probably didn’t mean an awful lot by itself but it was more the act of the entire squad making a commitment to each other and to their manager – this is not the type of mentality previously associated with Donegal football.

So after all that its not surprising that Cassidy paid the price, just as Adrian Hanlon did last Summer – different offences but both seen as a breach of trust. Even though Cass had a super year and was deservedly awarded an All Star, the team and the trust must supersede all of that.
If this is the end of Cassidy’s Donegal career its sad to see it finish on a sour note but if achieving the over-riding aim of an All Ireland means releasing a star player from the panel then that’s the way it has to be.

The Messiah will have been glad to get back to business today and get back on the sideline. The team stuttered through last year’s McKenna Cup with only a skeleton of a panel available for the first two games. This year the panel is that bit stronger and despite the result not going for us today there were positives to take from the match.

None more so than the displays of Neil Gallagher and Dermot ‘Brick’ Molloy. It is encouraging this early in the year to see the lads who were just short of the starting fifteen putting down a marker to the management team. Brick was our impact sub in 2011 but you can be sure he has his eyes on becoming an automatic pick this time around. Playing today in a two man full forward line with Stephen Griffin he registered five points and had a handful of other chances as well. His left peg is devastatingly accurate and he slotted over some fine points today.

Big Neil was dogged by injury for the early part of last year and it was only really in the Ulster Final where we saw him approaching his best form. He was excellent at midfield today, demanding the ball and keeping his team mates around him focused and in tune. His performance was littered with some high fetches and good ball into the forwards - just what you’d expect from the Glenswilly man.

It was typical January fare in the opening quarter - shots dropping short, misplaced kick passes, heavy legs and a soft pitch. Its hard to believe that these same players who performed out of their skins on the big days last Summer can struggle to complete a simple kick pass now but that’s just how the GAA season works.
Its very rare you see a crisp kick pass into the chest this time of year; instead its usually a ball in front with a hop or two along the way before it reaches its target.

This time of year though as we know, is all about getting rid of any excess weight, getting the blood flowing in the legs and getting up to pace of inter county football again. This was the team’s second game in 48 hours having beaten Roscommon in a challenge game on Friday night so its been a testing weekend for them.

Some players though just seem to be able to pick up where they left off though and perform effortlessly even in the tough conditions at this time of year. Frank McGlynn, Anthony Thompson and Paddy McGrath to name but a few would fall into this bracket - they all looked comfortable in possession, eager to make things happen and looking fit and ready for what lies ahead. Indeed many of the UUJ contingent would be the same and Leo McLoone playing at centre back for the students looked in good shape and no doubt he will be a big player for his county this year. There’s every chance he will be stationed at No 6 for the Summer with Karl Lacey moving across to fill the void created by Kevin Cassidy’s departure.

Another man flourishing despite the tough conditions is Ryan Bradley who, only a week after tying the knot, had a good game playing at centre forward. He contributed two fine points including a great individual effort in the first half - taking possession in a crowd of players he took a hop, then soloed with his right turned onto his left and slotted it over the bar. Bradley has great ability in amongst bunched defences; he seems to weave and solo his way through bodies and around tackles, a great asset to possess in the modern game.

With a stop start first half ending at 0-5 points apiece, the second half was a much more keenly contested affair with CJ McGourty the main danger man for UUJ. He tagged on a couple of scores near the end and Donegal just couldn’t fine their way to the goal they needed. Paddy McBrearty appeared for the second half and popped over two scores to enhance his ever growing reputation. He’s only a young lad but he looks like he’s eager for more senior action and he’ll certainly have a big part to play in 2012.

UUJ finished up two points to the good at the whistle and they’ll be delighted as they continue their preparations for a tilt at Sigerson glory. Donegal head for Breffni Park next Sunday - that will probably be a welcome respite for the players as there’ll be a lot more hard work done during the week - it’s a long road ahead after all.