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.