Honours even in Ballybofey but that wasn’t enough for Donegal to retain their Division One status. Yesterday wasn’t what relegated us though, the damage was done in previous weeks at Pairc Ui Rinn and McHale Park. In fact the weekend thankfully saw Donegal get back to a level of performance that brought us success last year. As with most final day league shoot-outs, it was close to Championship pace and in the first thirty-five minutes we played some of our best football of the campaign.
Everything about the game and occasion had a Championship feel to it, from the traffic approaching the Twin Towns to the atmosphere of the crowd inside to the level of play on the field.
Stephen Cluxton’s renowned kick outs were causing Donegal problems early on, each and every one finding a blue shirt. Anytime the home side left a man free on a restart Cluxton found them and time and again quick, short distribution was the ploy.
Michael Murphy moved into a deeper role to stem the tide and while it worked in gaining more possession and a platform around the middle, it resulted in Michael having one of his quieter days at the office. One of his early efforts was blocked and after that he seemed a bit reluctant to shoot, strange for a man who made a stunning 0-13 contribution to his club’s league win over Buncrana last week. His marker and DCU team-mate Johnny Cooper did a wonderful shackling job on him as well, keeping him to 0-3, all from placed balls. Cooper has been an excellent addition to the Dublin panel and looks well placed to nail down a starting spot for their 2013 Championship odyssey.
Mark McHugh’s winter and spring has been interrupted by various niggling injuries and he hasn’t looked himself thus far – yesterday though he looked more like the McHugh of 2012. He played the sweeper/ball carrier role that he has made his own and produced his best display of the league. His marker Darren Daly, tracked him on his sorties back the field but as we’ve seen with numerous teams’ attempts, no particular plan seems to work against the Kilcar man.
As always Jim McGuinness was thinking a few steps ahead and even a few months down the line when selecting his team. Not many teams would throw in two League debutants in an important game like this but Eamon Doherty and Luke Keaney were given their chance and both acquitted themselves reasonably well. There’s a fair chance these sides could meet again in Croke Park at some stage during the summer so by picking some fringe players McGuinness is keeping his opposite number guessing while at the same time widening his own options – everyday is a school day after all.
The bizarre sight of the referee Padraig Hughes being stretchered off in the second half after what appeared a fairly innocuous coming together left the crowd somewhat bemused but that feeling would soon grow to frustration as Michael Duffy assumed whistling duties. Hughes had been consistent throughout, particularly in highlighting fouls for over-carrying for both sides. Duffy was anything but consistent though and some of his calls in the frantic last few minutes left players and supporters alike bemused. Dublin tagged on a few scores from placed balls in the closing stages and at least two of these calls should have gone the other way.
One example was especially frustrating; Luke Keaney made a fine catch in the air inside his own 13m line and was pulled down as he made his descent but instead of awarding a free out Duffy waved play on; Dublin gained possession as Keaney tried to release as he lay on the ground and only a superb save from Paul Durcan, one of many he produced on the day, prevented a goal.
Whilst it is obviously disappointing to be going back to Division Two the encouraging aspect from yesterday was how we competed with and even bettered Dublin from a physical and intensity perspective. Jim Gavin’s men will be our main challengers for silverware later in the year and at times they couldn’t live with our ability to break tackles, our direct running and our support play. All these traits brought Dublin to an All-Ireland two years ago so to out-do them in those departments for long periods is a big plus.
Ryan Bradley, Anthony Thompson and Frank McGlynn all put in excellent displays with the latter doing an efficient marking job on Kevin McManamon, keeping him scoreless.
The fact that the team trained on Saturday makes the good performance seem even better. They had also trained Tuesday and Thursday before that as Jim ‘pushed the button’ on the preparation for the Tyrone clash.
The Saturday training may have told in the final stages as Donegal sat deep and relied on picking the Dubs off on the break. It’s a risky strategy but one that we’ve become accustomed to Donegal employing and it will generally work on the proviso that when chances come on the break they must be taken - unfortunately while they did suffocate the visitors and break at pace, the team was guilty of missing crucial chances and thus the victory escaped them.
The first culprit was Ross Wherity who was through one-on-one with Cluxton but his poor effort was straight at the Parnells clubman who saved with his foot. Wherity had two similar guilt edged opportunities in the game against Cork and fluffed his lines on both those occasions as well. He does so many things right however and its easy to see why McGuinness is persisting with him. He’s a strong runner, athletically built and can carry the ball well, as demonstrated with his penalty wins against Tyrone and Kerry. It was just one of those days for him though with the ball spilling out of his grasp several times including one crucial occasion late on when Paul Durcan found him with a pinpoint kick out down the centre.
Wherity’s club-mate Rory Kavanagh had one final chance to secure Division One football for next year when put through by substitute Martin Reilly; he hesitated slightly, seemingly caught in two minds and this allowed the tackle to come in. Whether or not the tackle was legal is highly questionable but Rory should have made his mind up quicker in any case. The failure of Duffy to award a penalty further irked the players and spectators and from then until the end of the game almost all the decisions seemed to go towards the town end of MacCumhaill Park.
So what does this all mean for D-Day, May 26th? Relegation will not have any major impact on preparation for that game, if anything it might leave the players with a point to prove to themselves. As the scores were coming in from the other grounds yesterday it was clear that Kerry were giving Tyrone an absolute hiding early on and that their forwards were cutting through the Red Hand defence at will. Tyrone are very beatable on the evidence that Kerry provided and remember it was a fairly tight game in Omagh last month up until Michael’s red card just before half time.
It is going to be one hell of a battle and while it might not be the most aesthetically pleasing game of football ever played it will without doubt be a compelling, engrossing and intriguing affair.
Before that though we have an U21 Ulster Final to look forward to on Wednesday night; while Ray Durack’s hurlers also have a league final next weekend.
Along with the aforementioned Keaney, all of the U21s involved with the senior panel (bar Ryan McHugh) got game time yesterday and this was presumably worked out between Jim and Maxi Curran prior to throw in. It will have been a good test for them, not least in the physical stakes and this can only help them as they bid for a provincial title in Enniskillen. Ádh mór lads.