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.