The three-in-a-row dream died against a Farney onslaught yesterday but Donegal are still alive in this year’s quest for Sam - going by their display in the provincial showpiece though things need to improve quickly. Its six short days until the back door is bolted shut for another year and the team face a tough task in ensuring they are still at the party come closing time.
There can’t be any complaints about proceedings in Clones; the best team won on the day and there were no ifs, buts or maybes from the defending champions’ perspective. Mark McHugh going off injured was a blow but such was the lethargy and clumsiness on show from his team mates it didn’t make that vital a difference when the game is looked at as a whole.
Two key chinks were exposed in the Donegal armoury yesterday and they have been worries for quite a time - but this was the first time under McGuinness that a team successfully exploited both.
Firstly we were by and large wiped out at centre-field and this had already been a major problem against Tyrone and indeed in some of last year's games. Thankfully Neil Gallagher’s introduction steadied the ship somewhat and only for his efforts things could have been a lot worse. Apart from Gallagher's tour de force against Cork in last year's All Ireland semi, this Donegal side have rarely dominated a team around the middle third and yesterday it was Monaghan who were doing the dominating. Coupled with the midfield platform they created, they then attacked Donegal in a way that few teams have – with direct high ball in on top of our full back line.
Eamon McGee actually mentioned in an interview he gave earlier in the year that he had spent a lot of time doing extra training on high fielding – he and the management team were well aware that this was a potential weakness for the defensive unit and they had tried to correct it. Yet when someone like Kieran Hughes is in the sort of form he showed yesterday sometimes its just near impossible to cope. Hughes had a terrific game in Ballybofey in the McKenna Cup back in January and while that competition was disregarded by Donegal he left his mark that day and did so again with even greater aplomb in the biggest match of his life.
It was so unusual to see both McGee brothers given the run around yesterday; they’ve been the embodiment of this current Donegal team with their strength, power and assurance yet Hughes along with Conor McManus were unmarkable yesterday. How many times over the last couple of years have we seen full-back Neil come storming out from defence to take man, ball and all? It just didn’t happen this time, he was close to McManus on a number of occasions but was never able to get a hand in or shove the Clontibret sharp-shooter off the ball.
The tackling in general by the whole team was lazy. Monaghan players on numerous occasions side-stepped or wrong footed green and gold men with quick movement of the hips or shoulder and they created space easily. The game’s opening score was a case in point with Darren Hughes easily selling a dummy to Karl Lacey to get into a better scoring position. Normally the ferociousness of the Donegal tackle makes teams wilt and that’s why teams hit so many wides against us because they are forced to shoot when they don’t want to. Instead Monaghan took their scores when they were on and were supremely confident in their shot making ability.
Monaghan got the early run on Donegal and the four-point lead they amassed, just like we did in the semi-final, was a crucial cushion. In a game where both sides are setup the same way and both trying to hit on the counter, a deficit like that is extremely hard to claw back. Down only once got inside the three point margin against Donegal in
and in Clones
yesterday we never got inside that margin at all. Breffni
Aside from Gallagher in midfield there weren't too many players who could be happy with their days work. Paul Durcan was excellent in goal, dealing well with almost every high ball that came into his square - and Ryan McHugh was on hand to give him a dig out for the one he didn't manage to claim. The younger McHugh looked very composed when he came on and capped a good cameo with a wonderful score floated over with the outside of his right boot.
Unfortunately such scoring feats were few and far between. Michael Murphy was largely anonymous with Vinny Corey giving an imperious display at full back. He rarely looked at or for the ball, his eyes were firmly fixed on the Glenswilly man-mountain and it made for a frustrating day for the captain. Even when Murphy appeared to be hauled down in the box approaching half-time it was he who was shown a yellow card by the referee, thus infuriating him even further.
His strike partner Colm McFadden had a similar afternoon; twelve months on from shooting over booming scores from all angles in the 2012 decider he was thwarted time and again by Drew Wylie; there wasn't anything too scientific about the man-marking jobs carried out by Wylie or Corey, just good old-fashioned staples of defending - stay tight on your man and keep him on his weaker foot.
Of course everyone is now asking the question, why did this happen? Was it tiredness in the bodies, tiredness in the minds, hype getting to the players – the truth is nobody knows. The squad though are still supremely fit and well conditioned so the physical explanation doesn't really wash. The hype issue and the three-in-a-row thoughts seeping into the player’s mindsets is the most likely reason. Of course with pretty much every one of us having written Monaghan's chances off there was always a chance of that happening. If the treble bid is the reason for defeat then there's still every chance of progressing further in the Championship; however if tired minds are at play then we could be near the end of the 2013 road – we’ll only find out if that is the case next Saturday.
Whatever way you think about or analyse yesterday it wasn't pretty from a Donegal viewpoint - yet we’re still there. We’re not out of the Championship and we are still the defending All-Ireland Champions. The six-day turnaround for beaten provincial finalists is usually the kiss of death for teams but after such a wretched performance it may be beneficial having a game so quickly to try to put things right. Carrick on
Shannon holds a special place in the hearts of Donegal Gaels – it was
in Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada that the county secured a first ever national title, becoming All-Ireland winners at U21 level in 1982.
More recently it was the scene of a young Murphy’s Championship debut in a senior jersey on a night when the then reigning National League Champions needed extra-time to shake off a dogged Leitrim team in a Round 1 qualifier. This weekend could be something similar – it’s all about grinding out a win, nothing more.
All players and managers want to get to
for the August Bank
Holiday weekend because that’s when the Championship starts in earnest. Donegal
would have wanted to go there as Croke
Park Champions but instead that
honour is now bestowed upon Monaghan. Its up to McGuinness’ men to earn their place
amongst that last eight and if we get there anything is possible. Ulster
Jim always maintains that his team competes in two different knockout competitions – the Ulster Championship and the All-Ireland Championship; it’s no different this year except that we’re starting the latter a week earlier. The road is a bit rockier but the journey and destination remain the same.
We've heard so often in interviews with the players about the plans Jim and Rory have laid out for them before each game and the work that goes into preparing them for what the opposition will throw at them. That process was again meticulously followed before the Ulster Final as it will be before Saturday’s crunch encounter with Laois. However once they cross the white line its up to the players to determine the outcome. They were off-colour yesterday, no doubt about that; but these players have given us days of joy that we only dared dream of over the last couple of summers; they will know themselves that they didn't perform yesterday and were well beaten. But they also know they’re still good enough and that they haven’t suddenly become a poorer side - now is the time to back these boys.