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.