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.