Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dún na nGall Left With Much to Ponder

Another defeat for Donegal and just like last year the team are facing into a final day shoot out hoping to avoid relegation. Right from the start of this campaign Jim McGuinness’ focus has been on Tyrone in May and what happened before then mattered little. However the manner of the defeats to Cork last week and Mayo today have raised a lot of questions and some of those will need to be answered against Dublin in a fortnights time.

The team’s passing, particularly in the final third, was again very disappointing as it was in Pairc Ui Rinn last week. Bursting out from the back isn’t a problem, the team are so in tune with each other and know how to create overlaps and knit passing patterns together in order to turn defence into attack. They are struggling to find their forwards though and therefore are not scoring heavily. The ball going in isn’t favouring the attackers and Mark McHugh in particular epitomised the wayward distribution today with some terrible passes.

A fourth defeat of the campaign wont do much harm psychologically as it reminds the players that the core values of work ethic, honesty, effort and concentration that reaped such dividends last year must be maintained to have a chance of more success. Decision making today looked on the lazy, lethargic side and against a Mayo team with a point to prove that was never going to be good enough.

The home side and their supporters were well up for today’s game and they’ll be delighted to get one over on their All-Ireland conquerors. They have learned some tricks from that day in September too - it was interesting to see them having players run across Colm McFadden’s line of vision as he took his frees.

They also learned their lesson as regards marking duties with Michael Murphy well marshalled today, often by more than one defender. Last year this ploy was employed by most teams and Colm McFadden was the one who benefited due to the extra space. Teams are now trying to double up on both Murphy and McFadden, a risky tactic in a sense but if Donegal’s other players don’t step up to the plate then it’s one that can work. Others did get on the score sheet today but no one consistently offered help to the two main men up front with even Patrick McBrearty, fresh from a stunning midweek display for the U21s, looking a little off colour.

Towering midfielder Barry Moran was given the man of the match award and he had a huge influence on proceedings today. He caught numerous kick outs and as a result was the launch pad for many of his side’s attacks. What was frustrating from a Donegal perspective was that Paul Durcan kept hitting his kick outs down on top of Moran. It’s a basic enough tenet of football that if a midfielder is dominating then you try to keep the ball away from him. Granted Neil Gallagher was marking him and that’s who Durcan looks for on most of his kick outs but with Moran in such form it would have been better to try to find Rory Kavanagh.

Neil McGee hobbled off early in the second half and his importance to the team was illustrated in his absence. The defensive shape all but disappeared without the Gweedore man at full back and with regular centre back Karl Lacey also missing these days, there was a lack of solidity in the Donegal rearguard.

Donegal received a third major setback soon after; following the injury to McGee and Michael Conroy’s goal, Anthony Thompson was shown the line after he received his second booking. Marty Duffy issued plenty of yellow cards today and it was clear early on that there wouldn’t be thirty players left on the field at the end such was the booking rate. A lot will be made of the fact that its Donegal’s third double yellow red card this year and maybe the reputation they have gained as a systematic fouling team is starting to have an effect on referees. Its another thing that will have to be looked at by the management.

Indeed the team are giving away quite a number of scoreable frees, something which didn’t happen last year. Think of the big games last year - Colm Cooper, Bryan Sheehan, the O’Connors, Donncha and Cillian - all free takers with their respective teams but none of them scored too much against Donegal. Today Mayo’s O’Connor ended up with five points, four of them from placed balls.

Its not all doom and gloom of course and the McGuinness mantra of May 26th has to be kept in mind also. Colm McFadden is improving with every outing and today looked the sharpest he’s been this year so far. An incident at the end of the game highlighted another positive - the players hate losing and want to get back to where they were last year. An off the ball altercation involving Mark McHugh and Donal Vaughan led to a few players getting tangled up with the usual shouldering and pushing and shoving; but it was the normally mild mannered Frank McGlynn who got really riled up and he wasn’t going to let any of his team-mates be pushed around. He was worked up and it shows that there’s still plenty of fire in the bellies of these players. They’ll need to show that and more if they are to beat the Dubs and the drop when they welcome the table toppers to Ballybofey in two weeks time.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Dun na nGall Undone by Rebels Rising

Donegal’s high flying stars would have been grateful of their plane journey back to Carrickfinn last night - it would have been tough facing into a long bus journey home after a frustrating defeat to Cork at Pairc Ui Rinn.

It was the proverbial game of two halves as the All-Ireland Champions dominated the opening period but were uncharacteristically wasteful and inefficient in the second thus allowing a rejuvenated Cork side to take the spoils.

Captain Michael Murphy started at midfield at it looked a clever ploy from the management as the veteran Graham Canty couldn’t keep up with the Glenswilly man. He claimed a lot of possession around the middle early on and drove straight at the home defence and his team profited from some early frees as a direct result.

The strategy was soon abandoned though with Murphy restored to his natural habitat at the edge of the square and indeed it was strange to see it such was the good work he had produced from deep. Donegal continued to boss midfield however with the star of last year’s joust Neil Gallagher again impressing. Murphy was often double-teamed by the Cork defence after he moved inside, himself and Eoin Cadogan having an ongoing battle with the Douglas clubman performing well against the All Star.

Both these teams have numerous similarities as regards their footballing ability, their forward power and the conditioning. The key difference is that Donegal instinctively know what they are doing, what options are available to each player and they are so used to playing the system that its second nature to them. They illustrated this in the opening thirty-five minutes with an assured performance.

Cork on the other hand can run forward with endeavour but when confronted with a mass defence they appear short on ideas and move the ball around without a plan as to what they’re going to do with it. The groans from their own supporters in the stands convey the exasperation they feel when watching their team - they possess some classy footballers allied with big, strong athletes yet they wait for something to happen, wait for someone else to do something rather than knowing what they want to do collectively.

Indeed they were reminiscent of Donegal of a few years back - no one taking responsibility to shoot or to take their man on and instead engaging in laborious possession back and across the field.

Faced with a similar sight of a defensive blanket, Donegal are patient. Sure they move the ball around searching for an opening but the player in possession knows there will be man on his shoulder if and when he tries to take on an opponent. Such is the team’s upper body strength they can break a tackle and then dish the ball off to a runner and create two on one situations.

Donegal also showed their foot passing ability with Dermot Molloy and Rory Kavanagh unlocking the Cork defence playing clever passes in front of Colm McFadden and Ross Wherity and they were then able to offload to the obligatory runner coming through.

Cork lost their best forward Colm O’Neill to what looked like yet another serious knee injury. The current All Star was showing well early and produced a particularly impressive score off his right foot just before he suffered the sickening injury. As he went for the next ball that came his way his foot planted into the Pairc Ui Rinn turf and, in a similar way to what happened Tommy Bowe when playing for Ulster against Northampton last December, all his body weight went onto his knee and it buckled under the strain. The pace of the game dropped considerably following the stoppage in play; O’Neill’s history with knee injuries was on everyone’s mind and there was genuine sympathy amongst the crowd when he was stretchered off.

Onto the second half and it was as if the players swapped jerseys at the break. Suddenly it was the visitors who looked confused in possession and often took the wrong option. One of the great strength’s of this Donegal team, and it’s the same with the top teams in any sport, is that they do the basics very well. The quality of their passing, handling and soloing is taken as a given. Yet after the change of ends they made bad decisions and their passing into the forward line was poor. Instead of giving passes that gives the advantage to the attacker, on several occasions they gave at best 50-50 passes and it was often less than that, with the defender having the advantage.

Time and again long ball was played into Murphy but the technique of the kicks were awful. The optimum ball to play into a forward is a diagonal ball and with the majority of players being right-footed these usually come from the right wing, as we saw to devastating effect from Karl Lacey in last year’s All-Ireland Final. Substitute Ryan McHugh and midfielder Kavanagh were among those who tried to execute this type of pass in the last quarter last night and the result was a mis-kicked low, cross field ball straight to a red shirt. We have the country’s best footballer waiting for a decent ball to come inside and beside him we have last year’s top scorer and they were kept waiting.

You can be sure that this will be one the vital components that Jim and Rory will have the lads working on in training as it was a source of huge annoyance and greatly affected the team’s chances of claiming two points. Instead Cork used these stray passes to launch counter attacks and reeled off seven points without reply midway through the second half which ultimately left Donegal with too high a mountain to climb. Murphy's Dublin housemate Aidan Walsh and Nemo Rangers' Paul Kerrigan were especially impressive during this spell, despite the best efforts of Paddy McGrath to stifle with the latter.

Donegal managed to make a decent fist of a comeback and it looked as if the team would be awarded a third penalty in as many games when Murphy got inside the cover and was through on goal only to be hauled down by Michael Shields. The foul though was committed just outside the 13-metre line and with that Cork claimed the points, 0-12 to 0-10.

Donegal will likely need six points to stay in Division One so are one more win away from safety. With Dublin to come in the last game, the team will want to avoid a final day shoot out with Jim Gavin’s impressive side. That makes next week’s All Ireland rematch in Castlebar all the more important; Mayo will be relishing locking horns with their September conquerors, making a tough trip even more difficult. A performance of champions will be needed to secure the points.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Donegal Make Light Work of Unrecognisable Kingdom

Donegal recorded a vital win in Ballybofey today and such is the congestion at the bottom of the Division One table, they find themselves in the top half of the table and well placed to not only avoid the drop but also contest for a league semi-final place.

Perhaps the real story of the day though was the performance of the visitors; for those of us accustomed to Kerry being the standard bearers in the game its astonishing to see them at such a low ebb. Granted its early March and The Kingdom will be a different animal come the Summer but they're such a long way off their peak its hard to see them making up the difference. Watching their substitutes take their place on the sideline before the game, there were no familiar faces and they all looked liked fresh-faced minors.

The last team then that they want to face is the All-Ireland Champions. Donegal looked very efficient today,
exposing Kerry's frailties and the ten point winning margin could have been much bigger with a bit more composure in the final third.

The difference between the demeanour of both management teams on the sideline was noticeable; Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice was quite reserved and barely said a word, with his selectors Diarmuid Murphy and Mikey Sheehy much the same. Indeed it was only the team’s trainer, Cian O’Neill, who looked in any way interested in the game and he was the one dishing out the instructions and encouragement.
On the other hand, regardless of the occasion, Jim and Rory are constantly urging their team on, annoyed when something is done incorrectly or when a call goes against them. Assistant manager Gallagher spends a lot of his Sunday afternoon racing on and off the pitch relaying messages to the players - every game is taken seriously and the management expect their players to reach certain levels of performance and do the right things, anything less is unacceptable.

It was evident from early on that Captain Michael Murphy wanted to atone for his disappointing afternoon in Omagh last Sunday. Inside five minutes he was given a chance at another penalty and he made no mistake this time, drilling the ball low and hard, giving Brendan Kealy in goal no chance.

Murphy was out in front of his marker Aidan O’Mahony on almost every occasion when the ball came his way, combining strength, pace and skill to get the better of the Rathmore man time after time.
In one attack he produced a moment of class that had to be seen to be believed. With the ball coming his way along the ground, instead of bending his back to pick it up, he dummied and allowed the ball to go through his and his marker's legs and ran around behind O’Mahony to retrieve possession. Pele famously did something similar against Uruguay in the World Cup Finals with his 'runaround' move and with the form Murphy is in at present he wouldn’t look out of place on that kind of stage.

He continued to torment his marker with his best score coming early in the second half when he held off O’Mahony with one hand, collected the ball with other and then spun and fired it over the black spot. His strength in holding off markers is incredible, and allows him to always have at least a yard of space to work with.

The forward line saw plenty of ball today and this was down to the work that went on behind them. Paddy McGrath, Rory Kavanagh and Ryan Bradley were hugely impressive in snuffing out attacks and then bursting out with pace and power; with every passing week the fitness and conditioning of the squad is getting better. A lot of the players, Bradley in particular, enjoy bringing the ball into contact knowing they have such upper body strength to break through tackles and knowing that when they do there is a man on the shoulder to carry it on further.

Patrick McBrearty had another good outing today, playing primarily as a centre forward with licence to dictate and link the play from deep. He could well be playing the ‘McHugh’ role come the Summer as McGuinness looks to develop new plans that will keep opposition bosses guessing. McBrearty has all the attributes to fulfil that deep lying task and allied to his finishing - he popped up for a fine first half score - he has become a much more rounded player.

Johnny Buckley was the standout of the newer Kerry players, following up a good showing against Kildare last week. Otherwise it was the old heads of Tomas O’Se and Kieran Donaghy who took the fight to the home side.

Donaghy played most of the game between midfield and half-forward and won quite a bit of ball around the middle third. Kerry’s problem is that he isn’t inside to receive the ball coming in; stationed on the edge of the square for the last fifteen minutes, he won every ball that came his way, including the possession that led to Kieran O‘Leary‘s missed penalty. Kerry have to somehow find a role for Star that allows him to have an effect on the game both inside and outside the 45. Donaghy made the long journey back home that bit easier for one young Kerry fan, giving him his match day gloves as a present as he took his place on in the dugout following a nasty looking foot injury. With the current turmoil in the camp they can ill-afford to lose the big Tralee man for an extended period.

O’Se is the veteran of the Kerry team and it was a joy to watch him in action today, flying up and down the wing like a rookie. He didnt help his team's cause though with one moment of indiscipline when he introduced himself to one of Donegal’s newest recruits early in the second half; the effervescent Ryan McHugh was on the receiving end of a box in the ribs right under the nose of linesman and O’Se was subsequently sent for an early shower.

Kerry’s other main forward star on show, Darran O’Sullivan, was given the full forward jersey and this provided Neil McGee with a different challenge to what he’s used to. McGee is an old-fashioned full back, physically dominating many of his opponents but today he had to use his intelligence as a marker to ensure O’Sullivan didn’t get a chance to burn him with pace. He did this fairly well and the Kerry sharp-shooter managed just one point, although McGee was relieved of his duties in the second half when the fabulous McGrath was given man-marking duties on O'Sullivan.

Despite a frustrating day for O’Sullivan he showed his class late on after an incident with his new marker McGrath. The former All-Ireland winning captain caught the Ardara man with a tackle around the neck but the corner back kept going and made nothing of it. As they returned to their positions, an apologetic hand was offered to McGrath and it was such a contrast to the nastiness on show in the card-ridden contest last weekend in Healy Park.

The snow falling throughout the game today suggested we were in the depths of Winter and it must feel like that for Kerry with the Summer and Croke Park seemingly a long way off. For Donegal on the other hand, they’re motoring along nicely and slowly but surely they’re getting to where they want to be. Their finest display of last year's odyssey came against Cork in the semi-final and its the Rebels who provide the opposition in Pairc Ui Rinn next weekend.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Battle Lost at Healy Park but War Still to Come

As dress rehearsals go this was pretty close to the real thing as regards Championship preparation; there is an intense rivalry between the neighbouring counties of Donegal and Tyrone and yesterday served to further highlight this. In 12 weeks they will do it all again but the prize will be much more than two league points.

Tyrone took the spoils this time and did the damage in a devastating third quarter when they pushed home their numerical advantage from the field to the scoreboard.

The size of the crowd at Healy Park conveyed the importance attached to this fixture and how both sets of supporters are eagerly awaiting the showdown in May. Unfortunately the organisation was somewhat lacking at the Omagh venue with hundreds of people still queuing up outside as the match threw in. Tyrone GAA in general is a shining example of how to do things right so it’s a shame that their premier ground is not setup to cater for a such a large crowd.

Much of the pre-match build up focused on how the managers would setup their sides and whether or not they would try to keep their cards close to their chests. Jim McGuinness opted to station Neil Gallagher on the edge of the square, only coming deep for kick-outs; he wouldn’t be unfamiliar with the role having fulfilled this with his club during their County title winning charge but you’d imagine there’ll be no repeat come May.

His influence and organisation was missing around the middle third with several instances of Tyrone men winning kick outs uncontested and it gave the home side a platform from which to launch their attacks. Even on limited primary possession Donegal looked incisive when they went forward and McGuinness will be happy with how they were able to open up the Tyrone rearguard. Primary possession of course isn’t hugely important to Donegal such is their ability to turn the ball over and win it back when opponents foray into the hungry tacklers lined up along Donegal’s 45 metre line but even still, the amount of pressure-free ball Tyrone players were allowed to win needs to be worked on.

Donegal didn’t yield too much from the Gallagher at full forward ploy but their running game was working and they also had a certain magician in the No 14 jersey. An outrageous point from Michael Murphy showed his glorious run of form shows no sign of stopping. Receiving possession on the right wing he took a hop, soloed with his right and came inside onto his left foot; then in feigning to shoot, he dummy soloed and in one movement turned 180 degrees and stroked it over from a tight angle without barely a glance at the posts. Not many players in Ireland could execute such a piece of skill but its just another magic trick from The Maestro’s ever-growing repertoire.

The great players, in any field sport, always have an ability to create time and space for themselves. Whether it’s a side step from Brian O’Driscoll or close control from Lionel Messi, these skills result in a player having more time than they had when they first received possession. Murphy’s marker Conor Clarke, who a super game in last year’s Championship clash, was within a half yard of his man but with the dummy and turn Murphy was in a few yards of space. It’s the art of forward play and artists like Murphy aren’t made, they’re born. He scored another from play soon after but just before half time the game was turned on its head.

A missed penalty from Murphy, a second booking for a sliding tackle on Joe McMahon and also a first yellow for Neil Gallagher which would be followed up by another in the second half . Michael normally throttles his penalty shots but he didn’t get that correct strike through the ball and Niall Morgan was off his line quickly to get his hands to the effort. As for the red card, it was a silly attempt to retrieve the ball by Donegal’s captain and could be deemed dangerous but he can feel hard done by for a challenge that was clumsy rather than malicious.

While that was undoubtedly a huge moment in the game, the real sucker punch came courtesy of Stephen O’Neill’s goal. A hesitant Neil McGee let a long ball drop in behind him and while he made a heroic effort to block the follow-up shot he couldn’t prevent it from finding the net. McGee and O’Neill had quite a battle on the edge of the square and they continued to exchange pleasantries after the final whistle - that’s certainly a confrontation brewing ahead of May.

Donegal had got a couple of scores on the bounce at this stage and were within a point of the home side so the goal couldn’t have come at a worse time. The hosts pushed on after that and even though Donegal stuck to their task and were helped by substitute Patrick McBrearty’s contribution they could never get to within striking distance of the Red Hand men.

There were encouraging signs from some of the players who’d been missing until now though with Paddy McGrath and Frank McGlynn both getting a valuable 70 minutes under their belts.

Leo McLoone ran well from deep, often sitting in front of centre-back McGlynn. Leo had one of his finest ever displays in a Donegal jersey in the same fixture two years ago when he produced a master class and gave the great Sean Cavanagh the run around.

Both McLoone and Cavanagh have endured injury nightmares since that fixture and Tyrone fans are delighted with the Moy clubman’s performances to date in 2013. He’s keen to make up for the amount games he’s missed through successive shoulder injuries and he was certainly fired up for yesterday’s encounter. A fine long range point in the second half and the salute to the crowd which followed it illustrated how pumped up he and his team-mates were in facing the All-Ireland Champions.

The atmosphere on the field of play spilled over on numerous occasions and losing a physical, heated battle such as this will generally give a team a sense that they’ve been bullied - this will give Donegal huge motivation for when the sides meet again.

Mickey Harte said in his autobiography a few years ago how annoyed he and his players were by what they saw as showboating on Donegal’s part in a league victory in 2007. He noted the lack of humility from those in green and gold but was well aware that “there’s always another day.” That day came a few months later when his Tyrone team blitzed Donegal in the Ulster semi-final at Clones.

While the home team enjoyed their victory and revelled in the nasty undercurrent on show, Donegal know that there will be another day - and, assuming the Ulster Council make the right call on the venue, you wont want to be anywhere other than Ballybofey on May 26th.