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.