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.