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.