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.