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.