Monday, April 28, 2014

Dún na nGall Undone by Mighty Monaghan

Another bad day at the Croke Park office for Donegal yesterday in what turned out to be a meek surrender against a superior Monaghan outfit. Throughout proceedings the Farney Men were faster, sharper and above all more committed in the tackle - Donegal just didn’t get into any rhythm and looked sluggish and well off the pace. Perhaps this can be attributed to last week’s training camp in Portugal; whatever the reason there was certainly something amiss with the performance, or non-performance, to put it more accurately.

Monaghan took control of the game in the second quarter as their tactic of taking points from distance reaped plenty of rewards. Teams have realised that carrying the ball into the waiting hordes of gold jerseys usually results in a turnover so shooting from forty yards out renders the blanket redundant.

It was interesting that almost all of the scores at this time were taken with the outside of the boot; even though this is a difficult skill to execute, it is generally a technique used by players who aren’t natural strikers of a ball or who don’t often find themselves in scoring positions (a Michael Murphy or a Conor McManus would normally kick around the ball when taking scores rather than cut across it) and it was primarily Monaghan’s defenders and midfielders who were getting up to register these points and kick in that style.

Derry may well try something similar in the upcoming Championship battle so we may see Donegal’s defensive screen pushing slightly higher up the field as a counter measure. This tactic will not always work of course, due to the difficulty of the shots on offer but Monaghan excelled in this facet of their game.

Following this first half scoring spurt, Donegal were always chasing the game and with a somewhat misfiring forward unit this always seemed destined to be a fruitless pursuit. Patrick McBrearty struggled to get into the game while Colm McFadden had one of those fidgety days where his control and accuracy disappear for large periods. Murphy did fairly well when the ball came his way but his marker Vinny Corey, as he has done in the past, did a decent job on the Maestro.

Things certainly improved when Neil Gallagher was introduced late in the first half as he helped gain some level of parity around the middle third. The decision to keep both Gallagher and Mark McHugh on the bench may have been some shadow-boxing ahead of Championship but there is no question that both need to start in four weeks’ time in Celtic Park. Gallagher’s importance cannot be overstated and he’ll now have even more responsibility on his shoulders seeing as his midfield partner Rory Kavanagh will be suspended after being shown red in the game’s key incident - any chance of a comeback was put to bed with the dismissal of the St Eunan’s man after half time.

Kavanagh had lost his right boot in a tangle for the ball - Darren Hughes then kicked his boot away as he tried to pick it up, then knocked it out of his hands after he had picked it up; Rory reacted by jabbing the boot into Hughes’ nether region – cue the Oscar-winning performance from the Ulster captain. Rory’s actions were petulant and silly but Hughes should be embarrassed with himself. Such a fine player, having a fantastic game at midfield, he let himself down badly with his play-acting, writhing around for a few minutes as if he had been shot, with his only aim being to get his opponent sent from the field. Marty Boyle did something similar against Dublin a few years ago and rightly endured some flak for his actions but Hughes was even worse. Kavanagh will now be suspended for the joust with Derry while the futility of the black card was highlighted as Hughes was ordered from the field with only a few minutes remaining after an off the ball hit on substitute Conor Classon – the card was academic at that stage.

History was repeating itself as Jim McGuinness had also seen his side reduced to fourteen in his last Division Two final, on that occasion in 2011 it was Adrian Hanlon who got his marching orders against Laois. Another repeat from that final three years ago was a Michael Murphy penalty dispatched into the Canal End goal; back then it set us on the way to victory but yesterday the Ulster Champions responded with a goal of their own, ending the game as a contest.

Ryan McHugh had won the penalty after an incisive burst into Monaghan territory and he looked lively throughout but didn’t see enough of the ball. It was good to see the introduction of Classon into the fray for his first action of the year; a hugely important member of the U21 Class of 2010, the Ardara powerhouse has never really made it at senior level but his brilliant performance in last year’s County Semi-Final against Glenswilly illustrated his ability and he might be one to watch over the Summer if Jim decides he’s ready for more game time.

It is an unusual thing to say about McGuinness’ Donegal but we looked like conceding yesterday. Normally opponents are swallowed up in possession and you’d be guaranteed to see numerous turnovers and the subsequent swarm break out of defence. Monaghan were comfortable with the ball though and had very little pressure applied to them and looked like they could create opportunities at will. The sheer bloody mindedness of the Donegal defensive effort wasn’t evident yesterday but it needs to return.

So where does all this leave the team as they await the cauldron of Celtic Park for the Ulster opener with Derry? On the face of it, it might be unwise to read much into either team based on events at HQ yesterday. Not long after Donegal left the field, Derry entered the fray for the Division One decider hoping to continue their impressive form and give the All-Ireland Champions a rattle – instead they were totally obliterated as the Dubs produced a frightening display of pace, power and accuracy. Prior to that the Oakleaf County have looked good in the league and there’s no doubt that a huge test awaits.

This isn’t the first warning sign to flash for McGuinness’ side this season; the performance in Newry was below par and that had been preceded by the match with Meath which needed a last-gasp Murphy free to secure a draw. We’ve heard time and again though from both the manager and the players, on the importance of Championship and how everything is geared towards the first round of Ulster. If anyone is going to have a team ready its Jim. He watched his charges suffer relegation this time last year against Dublin but returned to Ballybofey a few weeks later to beat Tyrone. Derry in Celtic Park will be even tougher and there have been aspects in our play of late that will have even the most faithful of supporters a little worried. In spite of that though, we know what this team are capable of and we have to believe that the spark will be back in time for what will be a great occasion on May 25th.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Dún na nGall Seal Swift Return to Division One

Job done for Donegal today in the Athletic Grounds – it wasn’t pretty at times but the bottom line is that they’re back in Division One next year and will also have a re-match with Monaghan to look forward to in three weeks’ time in the divisional final.

As per the McKenna Cup encounter between the teams in January, Charlie Vernon was given the onerous task of keeping tabs on Michael Murphy; Vernon was switched onto the totemic forward in place of Gary McCooey a few minutes into today's contest, in a bid to curb Murphy's influence after Donegal had stormed out of the blocks.

Murphy’s club-mate Neil Gallagher started today, a huge boost for the team as they look to bigger days ahead. He lasted about 50 minutes before being taken off as Jim McGuinness tries to gradually integrate him back into the side. If McGuinness can coax the same amount of time out of the big man in Celtic Park next month, he’ll be relatively happy. Gallagher is crucial to Donegal’s attempts to win primary possession and today he won several kick-outs, both clean and breaking ball for his team-mates. Paul Durcan’s restarts have been both bad and brilliant throughout the league but with Gallagher in the middle things seem so much easier. Mark McHugh was the man to make way before throw-in, the Kilcar man troubled with a hamstring problem, so Donegal in effect had a three-man midfield with Gallagher joined by Rory Kavanagh and Martin McElhinney.

Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn immediately switched at the start of the game and Lacey had his best game of the campaign to date, looking like the rampaging half-back of old – hopefully he has timed his return to form to perfection with big games on the horizon. McGlynn also looked impressive today and his placement in the game with Derry will tell us a lot about Jim’s thinking. Centre forward Mark Lynch has been the standout performer for the Oakleaf men thus far and it is quite likely that Frank will be the one detailed to pick him up. With Leo McLoone more suited to playing a marauding centre back role as opposed to being given marking duties, McGlynn v Lynch seems the obvious match-up.

The visitors were in total control in the opening exchanges today, a penalty from Murphy putting them five points clear. Armagh eventually got motoring while Donegal seemed to stall somewhat, allowing the Orchard County back into the game. Jamie Clarke goaled after a piercing run through the middle and he followed up with an outrageous point from the wing – from this stage of the game until half-time the match descended into shutdown. Both teams were suddenly bereft of ideas and neither team could muster any sort of incision once they got inside the opponents 45. The awkward cross-field breeze didn’t help with wayward shooting a feature of both teams' play.

Aside from his five-minute cameo, Clarke was well marshalled by Neil McGee. The double all-star has been one of his team’s most consistent performers so far this year and no forward in the country would relish pitting their wits against him. McGee’s Gaoth Dobhair colleague Odhran MacNiallais did well again today but more from a defensive point of view as opposed to the promising attacking displays we’ve seen from him this year. Playing as a wing-forward, MacNiallais is learning game by game what is required of an inter-county player in that position; time and again today he was back helping his defenders, sweeping up ball and instigating attacks. His time spent at centre field with his club no doubt a huge aid in this sense.

Thankfully the fare improved after the break and it was Donegal who started to move through the gears. Just as the teams lined up for the second half, some Armagh followers in the stand were commenting on Murphy’s physique, cheekily inferring that ‘he must be on the juice’; whatever juice he is on is certainly doing the trick because soon after he got the game’s pivotal score, a trademark blistering finish to the net after fielding a high ball in from Kavanagh. The captain seemed to get away with a nudge in the back on his marker Vernon although the lack of protest from the Armagh Harps man suggested he was beaten in any case. While Murphy came out on top in their personal dual, it was a great battle between him and Vernon throughout.

From then on Donegal always had Armagh at arm’s length, picking off scores on the break whenever they were needed. The ferocious intensity and hunger that has been this team’s calling card was in evidence in the closing stages as time and again possession was ripped from on-rushing Armagh attackers and swarms of Donegal players raced forward en masse. The only negative was a black card incorrectly shown to substitute David Walsh; without doubt the Naomh Bríd clubman committed a foul but not one of the famous (maybe even infamous) five categories that are deemed as black card offences - a yellow card would have the right colour card.

Anthony Thompson was excellent in this closing period, as indeed he was for the entire game; the Naomh Conaill workhorse endured a torrid 2013 where he was never able to shake off niggling injuries and didn’t look 100% fit at any stage. This year though he’s been a constant in the team and in such flying form is a huge player for the side.

Patrick McBrearty was introduced for the final furlong and he picked off two delightful points to show that he is bang in form as he prepares to lead his county into the provincial U21 decider back here at the Athletic Grounds on Wednesday night.

For Armagh its relegation to Division Three and a far cry from the early part of the century when they were our nemesis for so long – five years in a row they beat Donegal in the Championship but next year they’ll be plying their trade in football’s third tier. They have to now lift themselves for an Ulster joust with Cavan, the team replacing them in Division Two.

McGuinness’ men now move onto Croke Park for a final with Monaghan where they will try, just as the hurlers did today in Sligo, to cap a good league campaign with some silverware.