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.

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