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.