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.