Sunday, February 10, 2013

Dún na nGall open their Division One account

First two points on the board in Division One for Donegal and a good night all round at MacCumhaill Park.

As with last week, it took Donegal quite a while to get into their stride and get up to the pace of the game. A lot was made of the team’s second half performances in last year’s All-Ireland march - that was primarily due to the reserves of fitness that the players had in their collective tanks - at present though its more to do with the tank running a little low. The side found enough in the second half though to put this game to bed as the Down challenge fell away just as it did in last year’s Ulster Final.

The first half was a scrappy affair with the Mournemen employing a running game but didn’t make too much headway. They simply don’t have the physicality to burst through the Donegal rearguard although they did manage to win a few frees and with Donal O’Hare in good form from the boot they went in a point to the good.

The hosts’ handling throughout the game was a particularly impressive facet of the game; time and again players caught balls over their head or even one-handed and unlike the Irish at the Aviva today, the ball stuck. Its another insight into the training that Jim and Rory put this team through - its not all running and strength work. Clubs across Donegal and indeed all over the country are trying to emulate the McGuinness template with players enduring arduous long runs, numerous ascents of sand dunes and countless hours in the gym. It cannot be overlooked though that this Donegal team possesses superb footballers with extremely high skill levels - that, as much as the conditioning of the squad, is the reason why we are All-Ireland Champions.

Donegal weren’t at the races but whatever was said at half time had the desired effect. They immediately reeled the visitors in and took control of the game. They would keep Down scoreless until the latter stages of the game, while eight white flags were raised at the other end.

A quiet and subdued crowd in Ballybofey were awoken from their slumber with the news that Neil Gallagher was going to join the action for the second half. He had a huge impact on the game and gives such an important physical presence around the middle third as well providing his ability to win primary possession. Gallagher replaced Martin McElhinney who again failed to stamp his authority on the game at midfield; the hard work required in the engine room doesn’t allow him to show his full skillset. The St Michaels man is better suited to a deep lying half forward role where he can use his driving power and penetration to trouble defences. Indeed in last year’s league encounter with Down he did just that early on and gave Donegal some impetus at Pairc Esler.

That night last year in Newry, we were without our twin towers strike force of Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy but last night they were both in the side, the latter shaking off the hamstring injury he picked up last week. McFadden still looks a bit off the pace and the three week break will help him regain some of his sharpness. No such worries with the country’s form player Murphy however, his six-point haul last night brought his total for the week to twenty-four for county and college. God help the UCD defence who have to face him in the Sigerson quarter-final this Thursday.

Those six-points were key to Donegal registering their first points of the campaign and just as vital was the contribution of Mark McHugh. The Kilcar man is such a vital cog for this team, his paws are on so many of our scores and there isn’t a blade of grass on a pitch that he doesn’t cover at some stage during a match.
So much of Donegal’s approach centres on players using their physique to carry the ball into a tackle and then off loading, thus creating space for the receiver. So often that receiver is McHugh - he is the main outlet anytime one of his team-mates go on a foray into traffic.

Neil McGee picked up the Setanta man of the match award and while he did have a fine game, its quite possible that it was a case of mistaken identity. The older brother Eamonn gave a commanding display from start to finish and often it was him and not Neil who came marauding out of defence to instigate another Donegal attack.

Its hard to know where this Down side goes from here, two defeats and they are propping up the table with Kerry and Cork in Division One. Not bad company to be keeping but James McCartan’s men face a huge task in trying to retain their status in the top flight. They’ve always produced classy footballers and still have plenty of them in their ranks but getting a coherent plan together is crucial in the modern game and they have yet to find the right blueprint.

The teams are on the same side of the draw in this year’s chase for Anglo Celt honours so they may meet again. Tyrone will of course have a lot to say about that on May 26th and next up in the league is the dress-rehearsal for that crunch encounter. How seriously either team will treat that remains to be seen, neither manager will want to give too much away but as always with McGuinness and Harte it will be fascinating battle. Roll on Healy Park.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Murphy Magic not quite enough for Donegal

Michael Murphy put in another Tour de Force display at Croke Park on Saturday night but Donegal still came up short in a cracking encounter with Kildare.

No one really knew what to expect from the All Ireland Champions such was their truncated beginning to the season. They started brightly but Kildare soon began to dominant and without Neil Gallagher in the side we struggled for primary possession around the middle. They racked up some fine scores, with newcomers Niall Kelly and Daniel Flynn catching the eye. The 'home' side led by five and held all the aces at half time - well all but one Ace.

In the second half Michael took over and almost single-handedly got his side back into it. He played a roving role that saw him pop up just about everywhere on Jones Road and he finished the night with 0-9 to his name.

With Colm McFadden going off early with a hamstring injury Murphy took on extra responsibility with young Ross Wherity helping him out in the forward line. The Eunan’s newcomer showed well for the ball and kept trying but his slight frame was no match for Kildare’s physicality. Improvement in this area though and Wherity will see more and more game time - no doubt Jim already has Adam Speer working with Wherity, and indeed the other new panellists, and they will only get bigger and stronger.

Having Wherity up front was in stark contrast to Kildare who had the man mountain figure of Tomas O’Connor who got a lot of joy in his full forward role for the Lilywhites; both McGee’s had a go at marking him with neither faring too well. The big man up front is certainly one way to beat this Donegal team so expect to see teams employing this tactic quite often.

O’Connor got his side’s first goal after touching home a rebound off the post, bringing back memories of the infamous square ball in the 2011 Quarter Final.
The next key moment of the game was the second Kildare major and unfortunately it had a bit of infamy about it as well. The country’s All Star goalkeeper had one of those howlers that every net-minder dreads. A complete misjudgement of his positioning with the ball in flight and all Paul Durcan could do was help it into the goal. He’s not the All Star No1 for nothing though and he has barely put a foot wrong in the last few years so we certainly won’t hold it against the big Four Masters man. Moments later Kildare tested him again to see how his nerves were with a high ball in on top of him but he dealt with it well.

After Murphy, McHugh et al had done their bit in dragging Donegal back into the game, the goal concession halted the momentum and Kildare had enough to hold on for the win. All in all, the boys will be relatively happy with their performance; they showed plenty of heart and hunger in the second half when the game could have easily gone out of sight. Donegal lost their first two league games of last year’s campaign and they wont want that to happen again – this weekend’s clash with Down in Ballybofey is a crucial tie.

McFadden will most likely be missing for that game and his scoring threat will need to be replicated by Patrick McBrearty. The Kilcar man did well on Saturday but more is needed from the young sharp shooter. His potential as a minor had him on the radar for so long and there is huge expectation on his shoulders. Many parts of his game are in place and he sees plenty of the ball every day he plays but if he could get on the scoresheet more regularly and add that killer instinct that all great forwards have, he can push onto another level.

McBrearty was involved in one the scores of the game, a point started and finished in Kilcar. Substitute Mark McHugh, who made a big difference when introduced, played a ball down the channel for McBrearty. He immediately dinked it up into his hands, found McHugh again with a clever pass inside and McHugh slotted it over.

This had come just a couple of minutes after probably the game’s best score and no prizes for guessing who it came from. Michael won a ball 50 yards out, drove into a gap and motored past two defenders. One managed to stay with him though and threw himself at what he thought was going to be a shot on goal. Instead Michael, showing wonderful awareness and poise, took another solo, left the Kildare man on the floor and stroked it over. It was class personified and conveyed everything that’s good about Murphy.

It strange how such a wonderful individual display can lead to many viewing it as a negative but that’s often what happens, the main argument being that the team relies too much on the Maestro and if he wasn’t there we wouldn’t have a chance.

Sure why wouldn’t we rely on him? The boy is a genius.

Every effort should be made to get him on the ball and let him dictate proceedings. His outing on Saturday night was reminiscent of his display against Dublin in last year’s league; he got injured that night and missed three months of action yet Donegal won the games they played for that period and kept on winning upon his return.

Barcelona don’t get criticised for Lionel Messi scoring almost a half of his team’s goals. Their approach is to keep possession and when the moment is right get him on the ball in the final third and he does the rest. Sounds like a good plan to me.

For Michael Messi Murphy it’s no different. Gaels everywhere should just sit back and enjoy watching an artist at work. He’s the best player ever to pull on a Donegal shirt, a once in a generation talent and he’s an All-Ireland winning Captain. And thank God he’s ours!