Five long months have passed since humiliation in Croke Park but the New Year brings new hope to all counties and today, players and supporters alike were glad to be back in action. The result didn’t go to plan but they generally don’t for Donegal at this time of year so nothing much to worry about there.
We’ve become used to battles with the Red Hand over the past few years and again the game’s two eminent minds patrolled the sidelines at O’Donnell Park. It was Mickey Harte who won the battle of wits as his charges reacted to and bettered the home side’s tactics and were deserving winners. Jim McGuinness will be more concerned with the wars of Summer rather than battles in January.
Donegal started brightly in what was a good contest throughout considering the poor underfoot conditions and the fact that McKenna Cup fare can be sloppy at the best of times.
What was clear straight away was the amount of time Donegal have spent on the training field concocting ways to win primary possession from their own kickouts. Key to Dublin’s All-Ireland win last September was the ability of Stephen Cluxton to find his men on his restarts and it was particularly evident in the final against Mayo. While Durcan isn’t in the same league as Dublin captain Cluxton, his low trajectory missiles are a hugely important part of Donegal’s artillery, especially when Neil Gallagher is unavailable.
Donegal’s plan today was based on their two midfielders, Rory Kavanagh and Odhran MacNiallais, along with the two wing forwards, Gary McFadden and Marty Reilly, bunching at centrefield before a pair broke to either side; if their runs weren’t followed Durcan was expected to find his player. If the run was covered then Michael Murphy, stationed at centre forward when Durcan had the ball on his tee, would make a late run into the space vacated by the quartet and he picked up plenty possession in the first half from this tactic.
It was working well but once Harte got talking to his charges at the break the possession dried up. This is the manager after all who deciphered Armagh’s 2002 All-Ireland winning kick-out strategy, thus helping his own troops to the Holy Grail the following year. Harte instructed his middle four to follow their runners while the ever impressive Tyrone full back Conor Clarke was well out in front of Murphy for kick-outs, allowing him to block the Glenswilly man’s runs where possible.
In truth, Tyrone today looked as they always do - comfortable in possession, eager to work and, when chances came their way, clinical. Harte has the unique ability to fit new, upcoming players seamlessly into his setup and this was conveyed today by the last of the McGuigan brother's to make their inter-county bow, Shay.
For the time Donegal were on top in the first half, they took some excellent scores and the attacks from deep we’ve become accustomed to in the McGuinness era were working well. Eamon McGee, playing at full back, got a wonderful score after gathering possession on his own 21yard line before galloping up field and finishing a move that involved Reilly, Colm McFadden and Dermot Molloy.
The hosts’ dominance wasn’t showing on the scoreboard and their cause wasn’t helped by Murphy’s penalty miss – this after failing to convert a penalty against the same side in Omagh last year. Credit must go to Niall Morgan who produced a fantastic save down low to his right.
Michael soon made amends though; after a delicious pick-up on the run, he bore down on goal and fired a bullet into the same corner that his penalty attempt had targeted – there was no stopping this one.
The captain repeated his pick-up trick early in the second half as he hoisted a fine point over the black spot while under pressure from his marker Clarke. Murphy though was the only Donegal player to register in the second half (0-2) and the game soon got away from the men sporting their new green and (predominantly) gold jerseys.
Leo McLoone brought his good form from the recent challenge games into today’s match in his centre back role. This was the role Jim had initially planned for Leo back in 2011 and he was excelling in the role at the time, most notably against today’s opposition in a league game in Healy Park that year, but a nasty ankle fracture put paid to those plans. Plan B back then wasn’t too bad though, a certain Mr Lacey becoming Footballer of the Year in the No 6 jersey a year later. Whether McLoone stays there remains to be seen but it’s quite likely he will for the league, with Lacey being moved to wing back or possibly fulfilling a wing forward berth when he regains fitness.
Bar the kickouts and Leo’s positioning, Jim didn’t provide much more new material in today’s game. The team have not gone down the Dublin/Mayo route of engaging the opposition higher up the pitch at their 45m line; instead Donegal stay on their own ‘45’ and try to dispossess and counter attack from there.
Every All-Ireland winning team is mimicked by all the other teams the following year - we saw that ourselves last year - but aside from putting more emphasis on primary possession from kick-outs McGuinness wont be taking too much from the Dublin blueprint.
For all the talk of black cards over the Winter we only saw one shown today and that was to Eunan’s man, Kavanagh. Seeing a game in action illustrates the ‘deliberate’ ingredient in the new rules – only when a referee is certain that one of the black card category fouls has been committed deliberately can he brandish his notebook. So it may not have that big an effect on inter-county games, aside from the few controversial calls that will inevitably be made. It will be the club players the length and breadth of the country that will really feel the full force of the new rules.
Kavanagh’s midfield partner MacNiallais can be happy with his day’s work and the Gaoth Dobhair youngster will be looking to nail down a starting place for the league somewhere amongst the middle eight. His dainty left foot compliments his wonderful vision and on today’s showing he is a good option for McGuinness as a deep lying playmaker. His club form in the past shows too that he’s well able to get on the scoreboard which makes him an even greater asset should he be needed further forward.
So all in all it was the proverbial game of two halves for Donegal - promising and encouraging in the first but outfought and out thought in the second. That’s what these games are all about though, finding out what is working, what isn’t and how to remedy those facets of play.
Next stop Athletic Grounds this day week.