Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dún na nGall Too Good for Wee County

After only securing one point from the last four on offer, Donegal got back on the promotion track today with a relatively straight forward win - but they did make life hard for themselves in the second half in Ballyshannon.

Having started the two previous games against Meath and Down sluggishly, today Jim McGuinness’ men were quick out of the traps and made a blistering start, out-scoring their opponents by 0-6 to 0-1 early on and this was pushed out  as far as 0-12 to 0-1.

Louth were only out on the field a couple of minutes before throw-in and they were extremely slow to settle once the ball was thrown in. In their pre-match warm up half an hour earlier, it was strange seeing them play small-sided games with kids-sized footballs – Donegal at the other end of the field stuck to the size fives and it showed in the first quarter with fine scores taken from Dermot Molloy and Declan Walsh amongst others.

Molloy only just passed a fitness test moments before throw-in, having tweaked ligaments in his ankle in the game in Newry. Neil Gallagher didn’t make the Donegal starting line-up – he picked up a muscle strain in action for Glenswilly last weekend – although Louth had their own version playing in goal; he was a busy man with kick-outs as the home side swarmed forward at every opportunity, determined to post a big score.

Jim had been annoyed with his troops’ lack of economy in front of the posts in their last match and with two shooting drills finding their way into the warm-up routine, it was clear that they meant business in this facet of their play. Today his side managed more points in the first half (0-13) than they had managed in the entirety of either of the last two games.

With Martin McElhinney unable to start and Gallagher not fit to come in as a direct swap, it was left to Christy Toye to line up alongside Rory Kavanagh in the engine room. Both players put in excellent displays with Kavanagh the best man on show. His fielding, surging runs forward and finishing ability make him such a good all-rounder and we saw a vintage performance today from the Eunan’s man.

It is a huge credit to Toye that he has the fitness and conditioning to be able to undertake a midfield role having been on the sidelines for so long; he, just like his sidekick Kavanagh, registered a brace of points in the opening period.

Aside from the absence of the emigrated Ryan Bradley, few would have thought there would be much change to the Donegal championhsip starting fifteen from last year to this. As we near the end of the league though Toye, Ryan McHugh and Odhran MacNiallais would appear to have secured their starting jerseys for the Celtic Park showdown and that turnover of players is crucial for the panel this year.

McHugh came on for the second half of the game while his U-21 captain, Patrick McBrearty, started in attack; both men will be vital to Donegal’s attempt to get back into another provincial final on Wednesday night.

Back to today and the visitors simply had no answer to Donegal’s running game in the early stages and had only a single point to show for almost the entire first half. They picked up two black cards in their attempts to stop the Donegal waves of attack and only a late goal put some semblance of respectability on the half-time scoreboard. It was a crazy decision to let the goal stand though, with Paul Durcan being clattered as he rose to claim a high ball into his square and the Four Masters man should have been given a free out.

The next phase of the game will not have pleased neither supporters nor management. Donegal seemed to canter through the third quarter and over elaborated in attack, not taking scores when they were on. The Wee County made them pay for this with two quick fire goals and an earlier free - suddenly the gap had gone from ten points to just three. This awoke the hosts from their slumber though and they replied with a major of their own – a thunderous finish to the roof of the net from substitute David Walsh after neat link up play to fashion the chance. It was a sign of the annoyance running through the team at their own sloppiness in the preceding period as any one of Molloy, the younger McHugh or Colm McFadden could have popped the ball over for a point but it was a goal they wanted.

Louth kept plugging away and the movement and sharpness of their full forward line was causing problems for Donegal’s last line. The absence of old fashioned markers like Paddy McGrath, Frank McGlynn and Karl Lacey, who was taken off at half time, exposes this full-back line. Regardless of defensive templates and blanket systems, teams still need to have a few specialist defenders who can mark their man and be out in front of the ball; Neil McGee apart that was lacking at times today.

Overall though the objective was to get two more points and that is exactly what Donegal did -  themselves and Monaghan are out in front of the chasing pack so a draw next week in the Athletic Grounds will secure promotion and a league final place but depending on other results they may well have done enough already. An additional league outing, on the best sod in the country on Jones Road, would be welcome as it would help in getting the likes of Neil Gallagher and Paddy McGrath closer to full fitness ahead of the Derry game. That is why Donegal won’t want to rely on other results to secure their passage so it’ll be full tilt for a win next Sunday against Armagh.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Below Par Donegal Defeated by Down

While last week’s patchy performance against Meath was generally viewed as a welcome eye-opener for Donegal, today’s against Down suggests that Jim McGuinness’ men have some serious work ahead of them if they’re to slay the Oak Leaf County on May 25th. The anticipated response following the game in Ballybofey on Sunday last did not materialise in Pairc Esler and instead the county’s followers are left with more questions than answers.

In some ways it is tricky to judge today’s game by comparing the teams as in truth neither side looked in any way impressive in what was a scrappy, error-strewn affair. The blustery conditions led to both teams over and under hitting passes and you wouldn’t have guessed that these sides contested the provincial championship showpiece less than two years ago. Down looked dangerous early on and scythed through Donegal’s unusually porous central channel for some easy scores. They had a few half-goal chances in the opening exchanges and when Niall Madine finally did register a major, it would prove to be the game’s crucial score as they never relinquished the lead it gave them.

The main problem again today was the kick-out and it really is becoming a serious worry as we look ahead to Championship 2014. Again Donegal tried to create a large gap for their midfielders with even more emphasis being put on the defenders in creating that space. Corner backs Karl Lacey and Eamonn McGee were instructed to stay tight to the touchline on Paul Durcan’s kickouts – this either meant they were an option for short kick-outs on any occasion they weren’t picked up by their marker or it left the centre of the field largely free for Martin McElhinney and Rory Kavanagh. The problem is that Donegal without Neil Gallagher are severely depleted under their own restarts - and teams know this. Therefore opponents are happy to close off those potential short kick-outs and force Durcan to kick long. We saw it in the first half in particular today and of course we saw it to devastating effect in last year’s Mayo massacre when a far from fit Gallagher was dominated by an inspired Aidan O’Shea.

With Down on top in the middle and gaining primary ball, they ran at Donegal with Mark Poland especially causing numerous problems. Poland is one of the classiest footballers in the country and he is very difficult to tackle such is his small stature and low centre of gravity. Leo McLoone at centre back tried to get forward as much as possible in an attempt to drag the Longstone clubman away from his centre-forward station and to limit his effect on the game; it was to no avail however and instead it led to space for Poland and his team mates to exploit and this they did. Frank McGlynn took over marking duties for parts of the second half and did have a bit more success but the conundrum remained largely unsolved.

Kevin McKernan and Peter Turley were excellent at midfield, providing power and physicality while the hosts’ defence did well on sharpshooters Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden. In contrast to Donegal’s tactic of a roaming centre back, Down’s Aidan Carr held his position and acted as a screen in front of his full back line, particularly in the second half when the wind-assisted Donegal played a more direct game.

Much was made last year of Down referencing the McGuinness template in the Ulster semi-final between the teams at Breffni Park and in particular the defensive aspects of it. On today’s showing it appears that they have now subsumed the entire portfolio with their much-improved attacking play and ability to commit more numbers to breaks a measure of their evolution.

In spite of the erratic nature of today’s display, Donegal could easily have won the game such was the amount of chances wasted both before and after the short whistle – they recorded twelve wides in all. Corner forward McFadden was guilty of two poor misses from frees and his style of getting height on the ball is a risky one when the breeze is as strong as it was today; on both occasions the wind carried the ball to the right and wide on his own side, the cardinal sin for a free taker.

McLoone had a bit more freedom after the break and was one of the few Donegal players who could be satisfied with their performance. He notched one wonderful point when he showed great intelligence by opting to flick the ball past an on-rushing Mourne defender instead of trying to gain possession immediately and being swallowed up in the tackle - he collected the ball on the other side and stroked over.

That had come after a fine score by Martin McElhinney as Donegal started the second half with much more intent and purpose in their play. McElhinney was excellent throughout and bar one bad miss in front of the posts he performed admirably for his side throughout. With the current problems the team is experiencing around the middle third it would be no surprise to see Gallagher return alongside the current midfield pairing as opposed to replacing one of them, with Kavanagh or McElhinney possibly lining out at wing forward.

The cavalry arrived in the form of Gallagher, Patrick McBrearty and David Walsh but even they couldn’t change the direction of the game and McCartan’s charges saw it out with two points to spare.

It certainly isn’t a time for panic in the ranks or anything of that nature but there needs to be signs of improvement in the remaining two league games to show that the solutions to the problems that have arisen in the past week are working. It may well be three games with promotion chances and a subsequent divisional final spot still looking likely; bottom side Louth the next visitors to the North West. It is ironic though that it was this very same weekend last year, on St Patrick’s weekend, where the first cracks began to emerge. On the Saturday night in Pairc Ui Rinn in Cork, Donegal’s second half performance was light years away from the heights they had reached the previous summer. A week later we saw a similar show in Castlebar with Mayo deserving winners following another poor exhibition from the men in green and gold. The next few weeks will go a long way in telling us what 2014 holds in store.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Point Gained for Dún na nGall after Joust with Royals

A second half revival inspired by Christy Toye earned Donegal a hard fought point in Ballybofey today and keeps the team out in front in the promotion race. After three relatively straight forward victories thus far, Jim McGuinness’ men were given a real test today and his side will be much the better for it heading into the final trio of games.

Meath manager Mick O’Dowd and his sidekick Trevor Giles deserve huge credit for the way they took the game to Donegal; the duo had clearly done their homework in the lead up to the game and the packed house at MacCumhaill Park were treated to a fascinating tactical battle. They looked at the well known aspects of the McGuinness system and figured how they could use it to their own benefit - the role of Mark McHugh is crucial to how Donegal play and immediately from the throw in Meath set about exploiting the space he vacates while on sweeper duties.

After some positional re-alignment, O’Dowd stationed Andrew Tormey as their free man, i.e. the man who McHugh would pick up in an orthodox line-up, and he saw plenty of ball in the opening quarter playing between half-back and midfield. Tormey was free for kickouts, picked up several breaks off his midfielders, Shane O’Rourke and Bryan Menton, and registered 0-2 in the first quarter. Cork tried a similar tactic in the All-Ireland semi-final of 2012 in an attempt to stifle McHugh’s influence when they played with five defenders and seven forwards - like today it worked for the early part of the game but on that occasion as we all know, once Donegal found their feet they had the measure of the Rebels; it wasn't quite as straight forward this afternoon.

On account of Meath effectively having an extra body at midfield, Paul Durcan struggled to find his players from his restarts and O'Dowd's men quickly ran up a healthy lead. When Durcan lined up his kick-outs in the first half what he saw was a mass of bodies directly in front him with Meath having pushed up on Donegal’s defence. This left a large section of space between the 45s and it was Meath who dominated here through their sheer size around the middle third - it wasn’t until Neil Gallagher was introduced that Donegal looked comfortable in that sector.

Meath have struggled over the past few weeks in the league but what we saw today wasn’t anything new - they demolished Dublin’s lauded kick-out strategy in last year’s Leinster Final and if they had had the legs on the day they could have claimed the trophy. Back then it was Stephen Cluxton who found the going tough in finding his men, today it was Durcan. In their dominant spell at the start of the game they stretched their lead out to 0-6 to 0-1 at one stage but Donegal didn’t panic and slowly reined the Royals back in.

One vital trait that Jim has instilled in his players during his tenure is belief and in a situation like they found themselves in today, it was clear that the players didn’t panic and instead they managed to think their way through the first half.

To get back into the game the onus was on the defenders to attack from deep; Durcan began to find his full and half back lines for short kick-outs and with possession won it was about carrying the ball through the Royal rearguard. Both McHughs did this with great diligence and effort and soon the chances came. Leo McLoone and Anthony Thompson relentlessly motored forward from their defensive posts while Neil McGee made a burst up from full back only to see his scoring effort drift wide of the posts. Frank McGlynn was next up and while the Glenfin star didn’t hit the crispest shot he’s ever let fly off his left boot, it deceived the giant Meath goalkeeper Paddy O’Rourke enough to nestle in the corner of the net – game on.

Meath responded with their own green flag in what was becoming an absorbing contest but Donegal kept their foot on the throttle and by half time had cut the lead down to a manageable two points.

It was after the break that Toye came storming into the game. At times it seemed like a one man fight back effort from the Creeslough native – he made numerous dispossessions, won turnovers, drove through the Meath defence and capped off his performance with a couple of points to boot. With the amount of turnovers Toye and his team-mates forced there really should have been more than the one Donegal goal to show on the scoreboard.

Donegal lost some of their urgency when Ryan McHugh went off after being shown a black card – it was the correct decision by referee Padraig Hughes although a first half body-check on the elder McHugh, Mark, should have also been punished with a black card but was let go – new rules, same inconsistency.

Mark had a fine afternoon overall and it was interesting to see that while Meath’s free man, Tormey, had emptied the tank and was taken off with ten minutes to go, the energy reserves of Donegal’s equivalent were still in credit and he was able to keep going right until the end.

McGuinness gave Darach O’Connor a real confidence boost by throwing him into the fray in the closing stages today and the Buncrana teenager showed great maturity when he went for the equalising score in the dying minutes. In no more than a yard of space he could have easily tried to recycle the ball and wait to give a team mate an opportunity but instead he took the responsibility on himself and was unlucky to see his shot come back off the post. At that stage it looked as if it was Meath’s day but there was to be one last chance and Michael Murphy struck a fantastic free from close to the sideline to gain a point for his charges. Despite it being ‘only’ a league game there was a fair bit of pressure on the free given the anticipation from the crowd and its proximity to the sideline made the kick even tougher; there was no doubt though in Michael’s mind where the ball was going - he trusted his technique and caught it beautifully to send it sailing through the posts.

The real negative from the game was Donegal’s inability to win primary ball from their restarts. We’ve seen already through the course of the McKenna Cup and the League that they’ve done quite a bit of work on this aspect of their play over the winter but there’s still plenty to do. Of course it’s nowhere near as big of a problem when Neil Gallagher is on the field. The Glenswilly man and another substitute David Walsh made huge impacts off the bench today and the sooner these lads, Gallagher in particular, are fit enough to last seventy minutes the better.

Had the hosts been a bit more clinical in the closing stretch they could have probably come away with full points but the bit of a scare will do them no harm. Teams generally like to have things to work on and facets of their game to improve upon – Donegal had been so untroubled in the opening matches it seemed that everything was going perfectly so a bit of a reality check at this stage can be seen as a positive. That is how Jim will be looking at it and after last week’s result in Croke Park and todays in Killarney, Jim Gavin and Mickey Harte will be thinking the exact same. Definitely a point gained today for Donegal and looking ahead to the summer, it could be worth a lot more.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Donegal Young Guns Shoot Down Monaghan

Its three from three for Donegal in the league and with Jim McGuinness’ men leading the standings, the young leaders on the field of play are making a big impression. Odhran MacNiallais and Ryan McHugh were the stars of the show today as the home team got some measure of revenge against Monaghan for the Ulster Final reverse in Clones last July.

MacNiallais got the capacity crowd to their feet early on with a blistering goal; his presence of mind and spatial awareness created the chance and he finished with aplomb. Receiving the ball forty yards from goal, the boisterous Letterkenny support were encouraging him to shoot for a point but he saw space in behind the Monaghan rearguard and once he got past the first tackler with a devastating change of pace, he drove straight for the whites of Rory Beggan’s eyes in goal. The Gaoth Dobhair man added to his tally soon after with a point off that trusty left peg and added a further two scores in the second half to put the seal on a wonderful individual display. He also managed a sublime assist with a cushioned volleyed pass to set substitute Declan Walsh up for the game’s last point. The more we see of MacNiallais, the more he looks like a starter for the big one in Celtic Park on May 25th.

Ryan McHugh picked up from where he left off in Salthill three weeks ago, producing another excellent performance both in defence and attack. He made the incisive burst to set Dermot Molloy away in the lead up to the second goal, eventually finished to the net by Colm McFadden. McHugh looked a little out of place during last year’s championship due to his diminutive frame but he’s obviously put in the hard work in the gym since and is well able for the cut and thrust of top level football.

Of course the old guard are still making a huge contribution and today was a big test of Jim’s defensive alignment as regards the positioning of Karl Lacey. A centre back for the most part in the McGuinness era, it looks as if he will spend most of his time in the last line of defence this year. Having been assigned marking duties on one of the country's leading attackers, Conor McManus, today was a good test to see how Lacey is faring back in his former No 2 jersey. While McManus was out in front quite a bit in the first half he rarely got past the Four Masters man and as the game wore on the battle pendulum swung towards Lacey. He produced a brilliant saving block on the goal-line towards the end of the match and thus earned his side a second successive clean sheet.

With McManus engaged in his battle with Lacey, attention turned to Monaghan’s newest sharp shooter, Jack McCarron. A nephew of the famous Ray, McCarron has a had a fine season to date and while not as prolific today he did show some glimpses of his talent, the highlight an exquisite point from the wing, kicking across the ball with his favoured left foot and gliding it over Paul Durcan’s crossbar.

Around the middle, the powerhouse displays of Martin McElhinney and Rory Kavanagh gave Donegal an excellent platform in the first half and despite leading by six points at half time there was a sense that it should have been even more. Kieran Hughes, the man who tormented the green and gold defence from full forward in last year’s provincial decider, came more into the game in the second half at midfield. It took until the last ten minutes for the hosts to shake off the stubborn Monaghan resistance; Paddy McBrearty’s brace after coming off the bench ensuring there’d be no comeback mounted from the Farney men.

Referee Barry Cassidy did his bit in keeping Monaghan in the game with some questionable decisions while he also awarded a yellow card instead of a black to Colin Walshe, after he deliberately dragged down MacNiallais. The Donegal players in general were unhappy with Cassidy, particularly when a high challenge on McHugh went unpunished, with Michael Murphy receiving a yellow for his protestations. Murphy was a bit out of sorts today with both he and Frank McGlynn guilty of some poor distribution.

With six points on the board, Donegal are well on their way to promotion and to a league final appearance at Headquarters. Two more wins out their four remaining games should seal the deal but Jim will want to get those victories recorded as quickly as possible so as to allow him to continue re-integrating the likes of McBrearty, Neil Gallagher and the soon to be returning Paddy McGrath and David Walsh into match action and get them up to speed.

A stuttering Meath side are the next visitors to the North West with Mac Cumhaill Park playing to host to that clash on Sunday next.