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.