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.