Sunday, February 9, 2014

Donegal Dismiss Troubled Tribesmen

For the second week in succession Donegal steamrolled inferior opposition and they already look far too good for Division Two football. While the swagger present in Portlaoise last week wasn’t quite as obvious today, Jim McGuinness’ men were proficient in how they went about their business and bagged another pair of league points in the process.

Even before the ball was thrown in, the gulf in class and gap in professionalism of both teams was evident. The Donegal players arrived out on the field at Pearse Stadium forty minutes before throw-in to undergo their warm up routine - and they all looked the part decked out in their newly acquired O’Neills gear. Their drills had already been set up, cones laid out and the players went about their work before retreating to the dressing room for final words from their mentors. Galway on the other hand, only took the field twenty minutes before the start of the game and their preparation lacked the efficiency and organisation of their counterparts.A few handling errors by his men in the drills had McGuinness barking orders and demanding more of his troops. At the other end the hosts looked liked they had come for a training session.

When the action got underway, Donegal adapted to the conditions better and implemented their running game whilst playing against the strong breeze blowing in from the Promenade in Salthill. Galway, despite having the stiff wind at their backs, were reluctant to shoot from distance and they made hard work of the scores that came their way.

Once Colm McFadden goaled after a quarter of an hour, following a wonderful sweeping move that started in the opposite corner of the field, it gave his team a cushion that was never going to be threatened. Donegal’s play was patient, smart and precise – they were quite happy to take numerous passes before the correct run was made and then they attacked the central channel of the home defence.

Having only passed a pitch inspection this morning, the recent wet weather left the sod extremely soft today and both teams will be feeling it in their legs tonight. The state of the pitch made it particularly difficult for the forwards – several times decent passes were played in front of them but with little or no bounce off the soft turf many of these were spilt and ended up in the hands of defenders.

They stuck at it though and the starting full-forward line of McFadden, Michael Murphy and Dermot Molloy posted 1-10 of the 1-16 Donegal total. Add in Patrick McBrearty’s three fine points from play after his introduction from the bench and there is real quality in Donegal’s forward play right now. They’re all playing with confidence, evidenced by McFadden’s audacious effort to lob the Galway netminder Manus Breathnach after he left his goal unguarded in coming out to intercept a pass destined for Captain Murphy.

There’s plenty of confidence amongst the supporters at present too, with a huge Donegal faithful in attendance today and indeed at times it seemed as if we outnumbered the locals.

While Donegal got a lot of joy from attacking centrally, there was no such luck for Galway going in the opposite direction as they met Leo McLoone putting in a masterclass at centre-back. He was as solid as a rock for the seventy minutes, breaking up plenty of opposition attacks and getting forward when the chance arose as well. Pound for pound he’s one of the squad’s leading ball players and appears to have made the number six jersey his own with Karl Lacey being used in the full-back line of late. Lacey was initially given marking duties on James Kavanagh, the former Kildare star who transferred to the maroon and white this year. Kavanagh though dropped deep and played much of the game at midfield, a strange call by the management given his prowess in front of the posts.

Donegal’s other corner back, Ryan McHugh, had a good day at the office and is certainly stating his case for inclusion come the summer. His burst of pace and economy while in possession make him a solid option for numerous positions on the field and showed he can score too, firing over early in the second period.

Another who impressed was Martin McElhinney, who played at midfield partnering Rory Kavanagh in the middle in the first half and then the returning Neil Gallagher in the second. McElhinney’s strong, direct running has always been a big part of his game but his primary ball winning ability is improving with every outing and his all-round game today was excellent.

With the likes of McElhinney,the aforementioned McHugh and half forward Odhrán MacNiallais all revelling in their starting roles, the league is already proving very useful for the team as regards improving the strength of the squad. That will be tested in three weeks time when Donegal face into what will most likely be the toughest game in the division as Ulster Champions Monaghan come to O’Donnell Park. There will certainly be a bit of spice in that one after the events in Clones last July and at this rate it might well be a dress rehearsal for a league decider in Croke Park come April.

While Donegal’s start has been nothing but impressive, the visit of the Farney men will tell us a lot about how the team is shaping up and will be a more accurate barometer of what awaits over the course of the year.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Laois no Match for Ruthless Donegal

An emphatic Donegal put Laois to the sword this afternoon and in the process made it very clear that they intend to keep their stay in Division Two to one season. Despite the hosts looking clueless at times and unwilling to work as hard as their opponents, this was still a mightily impressive display from Jim McGuinness’ charges.

Particular pleasing was how they kept their foot on the throttle long after the result and the two league points had been secured. The game was effectively over just after the restart, thanks to Colm McFadden’s goal, but he and his team mates posted 0-13 in the remainder of the match.

The hosts started reasonably well and indeed may have come into this encounter thinking that there was a chance of an upset given that they frustrated Donegal for long periods the last time the sides met, in Carrick-on-Shannon last July. That was under previous manager Justin McNulty and while his spell wouldn’t be termed a success amongst the Laois faithful, he did make his team hard to beat. 

Now Tomas O’Flaharta has taken the reins with a stated mandate to bring positive football back to the O’Moore County - he has his work cut out going on today’s evidence. His team disappointed both from attacking and defensive perspectives; on numerous occasions in the opening period, Donegal created overlaps and were presented with four-on-three and five-on-three situations as the home defence looked a mess.

Odhran MacNiallais’ goal came from one such opportunity with Anthony Thompson making the incisive run from defence and after neat passing the Gaoth Dobhair man was on hand to palm the ball to the net. Even at that stage, the writing was on the wall for Laois.

Thompson was joined in many a raid forward by Neil McGee and Karl Lacey - both were operating in the full back line but bombed forward at will. Laois’ inability to cover the piercing runs from deep proved to be their downfall. It may be an unglamorous brief for a forward to track attacking forays from their markers but in the modern game it’s a must. With the runs not covered it led to some easy scoring chances for Donegal - almost all of their first half scores were from simple chances inside the 21-yard line.

The exceptions came from the right boot of Michael Murphy; firstly he nailed a 45' into the teeth of the wind and moments later he stroked over an absolutely majestic point. With Murphy having to stoop to collect an ever so slightly under hit pass, Frank McGlynn made a run off the shoulder for his captain - it seemed easier to offload to the marauding wing-back but instead Michael dummied to handpass and with his marker, along with everyone else in O’Moore Park, buying the dummy he split the posts from forty yards. He repeated the dummy trick late in the game to nonchalantly register his second score from play (and sixth in total), this time off his left peg.

Christy Toye came into the starting line-up before the throw-in in place of the hamstrung Darach O’Connor and he had a fine game operating at centre forward. He’s still as good as any at picking a pass and he distributed wonderfully throughout his time on the field, which was cut short after suffering a nasty gash to his face.

Another who has had his share of injury trouble is Mark McHugh but he looked back to his best today, covering the ground like only he can. He was in the thick of things at both ends of the field and got his name on the score sheet in the closing procession. He also shipped a ferocious hit after a frontal charge in the incident that led to Laois’ Denis Booth being shown a red card. Despite the lead being enjoyed by Donegal at the time, his team-mates were incensed at the challenge and weren’t slow in making their feelings known to Booth and his counterparts.

The younger McHugh, Ryan, played at corner back and acquitted himself well and it is an area that the team could do with some competition for places. Paddy McGrath is still a number of weeks away from seeing some action so its likely we'll see some more experimenting in the 2 and 4 jerseys in the next few games.

Debutant Hughie McFadden certainly put his hand up for some more game-time, scoring a brace of points after joining the action in the second half. McFadden was one of the stars of last year’s county championship, playing an integral role in Kilybegs’ march to the final. He can operate around midfield or on the edge of the square so it will be interesting to see how he develops in a senior jersey over the coming months.

Having two away fixtures to start with, Donegal knew a win or two from those would put them in pole position for promotion. They made a big statement today and the other teams won’t relish taking on the McGuinness juggernaut when its in this kind of form. Galway are next up in Salthill next weekend and after their defeat to Meath today they wont be looking forward to seeing another team in green and gold.