Donegal’s drive for three
titles in a row is still on and after a tense affair in Cavan yesterday they
booked their place at the provincial finale in four weeks time. Ulster
Down set the tone for the game with their tactical strategy, James McCartan determined not to let history repeat itself. In last year’s Ulster Final, Down stayed with Donegal for the first half before being blown out of the water - yesterday they were going to stay with them right until the end.
The Mourne Men set themselves up the same way Tyrone did in last year’s semi final and made life very difficult for the Champions. It was just what this Donegal team needed though; a tight, tough, tense encounter and while not playing at their best - indeed not being allowed to play at their best - they still came through and that’s the mark of a team who know how to win matches.
Most games are decided in the closing stages but in truth the first fourteen minutes settled this contest. With Down’s red and black bus parked at the town end of
they were setup to defend a lead
and look for scraps on the break, going 0-4 behind at this stage of the game
though signalled trouble. They fought brilliantly throughout and McCartan and
his players deserve huge credit but they never looked like finding enough
scores to get over the line. Breffni Park
In the first half Down tried to attack through the middle when they may have been better off using the wings where there was more space. They did get back to within two points by the half time break but that was as close as they got. After the break, they used the wide areas more before bursting inside at angles and got some joy with Donegal forced to give away a number of frees. Every time though they got within striking distance, the men in green and gold mustered a point from somewhere. One key moment in the last quarter could have turned things but once Eamon McGee collected a Down free off the upright the Ulster Final was in sight – if that had been converted it was a one point game.
McGee alongside his brother Neil and Ardara’s Paddy McGrath were outstanding in the full back line. In today’s game positions around the middle don’t really mean a lot – half forwards, midfielders and half backs all do a similar job and have to work in a scrum of bodies everyday they take to the field. The other lines though have more individuality about them and that trio in the last line of defence were immense.
So too the inside line. Right now our full forward line is the best in the business and they proved their worth in spades yesterday. Patrick McBrearty worked tirelessly throughout and despite being under the weather, which resulted in a visit to a local dentist on Saturday night, he played his part in the victory, the highlight for him a beautiful point from play in the first half.
Colm McFadden was the star of the show and the win rounded off a very special week for him following the birth of his son Matthew (Jimmy’s nephew) on Wednesday night. When the game was growing tenser by the second it was the Creeslough man who stood up and boomed over two towering long range points to keep Down at bay.
Michael Murphy came to the fore as well finishing
the day with 0-5, four of those coming from frees. His last free, which sealed
the win, was a massive 60 yard effort and it had plenty to spare as it sailed
over the same crossbar which caused him so much grief three years ago in the U21 Final. Murphy
gets a bit of stick for not contributing more from play on the scoreboard but
there aren’t many players in the country who could nail such a mammoth kick.
Ryan McHugh made his Championship debut yesterday and despite reservations about the strength of McGuinness’ squad the substitutes again played their part with Marty Reilly and Martin McElhinney showing well once more.
McHugh was assigned a man-marking brief on Conor Laverty, just as he had been in the league match earlier this year in Ballybofey. Laverty had caused a lot of problems in the first half; his low centre of gravity allied to his balance and sharpness make him a difficult opponent and indeed an early challenge on him resulted in a yellow card for the elder McGee. His threat certainly waned though once McHugh got to grips with him.
Despite the good performance of McElhinney after his introduction, midfield was again a worry. Tyrone were on top in the middle third for long periods of the quarter final and with strong displays from Kalum King, Ambrose Rogers and Kevin McKernan yesterday Donegal were under the cosh again. It was clear after half-time that Paul Durcan used the short kick out a lot more in order to provide primary possession for his team-mates. Its obviously something the management are working on - Maxi Curran could be seen recording all of yesterday’s kick outs and these will no doubt be analysed forensically in the coming weeks.
Ryan’s brother Mark as usual treaded every blade of grass on the field of play and after an injury ravaged league he seems to be getting back to his best. Injuries, or hopefully the lack of them, as we go through the year are going to have a major impact on Donegal’s season. Without two starters yesterday, Karl Lacey and Neil Gallagher, the team lost two more by half time with Ryan Bradley and Frank McGlynn succumbing to concussion. Club Championship action this weekend has the potential to add more bodies to the treatment table so it will be a huge positive if Jim and Rory can get everyone to Clones on the 21st fit and well.
Down will feel they let the game slip due to the fact they had Donegal within striking distance but couldn’t provide a killer blow. They didn’t actually have that many chances though and often seemed reluctant to shoot. A hallmark of the McGuinness tenure is the economy that his side shows in front of the posts – it’s very unusual to see a Donegal player take on a low percentage chance - they remain patient and wait for the right opportunity. Down on the other hand rushed a lot of their shots and played quite a number into the grateful hands of Durcan.
The absence of both Lacey and McGlynn left a distinct lack of pace in the half back line and against such a packed defence this can lead to slow ball and therefore more time for the defensive wall to regroup and get set. Donegal suffered from this in the now infamous semi-final defeat to
in 2011 and it was shown up again
Early on, Donegal counteracted Down’s deep lying blanket by pushing up on them and employing a high line pressing game that Mayo have used to good effect in their last two games. If anything though they committed too many men forward and cluttered things up even more for themselves. This led to poor, impatient passing and Down forced numerous turnovers. As the half went on, Donegal retreated to cope with the attacking threat which belatedly came from their opponents. After having too many bodies forward they then left the ball carrier isolated on a few occasions; Leo McLoone in particular found himself high and dry as he moved into a full forward role at the end of the first half. This is out of character for this team and unfortunately we also saw glimpses of it the league defeats to
and Mayo. Cork
As for the game itself as a whole, some have described it as a tense, engrossing affair while others are lamenting the lack of flair and space. So far Championship 2013 analysis has been dominated by the lack of competitiveness and the gap between the haves and the have nots. You cant have it both ways and surely a gripping contest with a grandstand finish beats a one-sided stroll any day.
Either way Donegal or indeed Down won't care too much about the quality of the game - they both know the result. The latter head to the qualifiers in good fettle and with a good chance of making
in August - for the
double Ulster Champions it's all about Clones in a month’s time and making it a