The dream semi-final, the match that everyone wants to see is now a reality; though there looked to be a real chance of a nightmare unfolding for Donegal in the dying stages of yesterdays contest with Armagh.
Two wonderful points from the left pegs of Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty finally shook off an Orchard side who were behind for much of the game but looked to have timed their raid to perfection.
It was a patchy performance from Donegal, the overall unit not performing anywhere near the level it is capable of but there were some stirring individual displays. The McGee brothers were fantastic in the full back line while in front of them Frank McGlynn and Anthony Thompson put in incredible shifts.
Thompson won a huge amount of ball and in tandem with Neil Gallagher, was the source of so much of the side’s primary possession. Gallagher had another big game at midfield; Donegal just don’t function in the same way when he’s not on the pitch, he holds it all together around the middle and his fielding is a joy to watch. There were a few of Paul Durcan’s kick outs that went awry, on occasion kicking straight to unmarked Armagh men. Whether these were errors from Durcan or from the his men not making the correct run its hard to say but that particular facet of the game will be hugely important in the semi-final and Gallagher again will need to be at his best.
McGlynn meanwhile ran himself into the ground, attacking the left flank over and over again - he can’t have been far off leaving tracks in the Croke Park sod. With McGlynn raiding down the wing the central channel was the route taken by Leo McLoone. The Glenties man’s direct running and superb ball control has been a feature of this year’s Championship and with him being so comfortable off both feet he’s a nightmare for defenders trying to stop him.
While the aforementioned players and others of course all played their part, there was one man who stood taller than anyone else, captain Murphy. We’ve seen numerous exhibitions of football from the Maestro but yesterday was as good as he’s ever been from a leadership perspective. So often when Donegal ran into the Armagh defensive wall, the play slowed down as the team had to be patient and hold possession. Invariably it was Michael who would then inject some pace into a move, make a run, create something from nothing and his fingerprints were on almost every Donegal score.
His equaliser was a perfect example. Making a surge from deep he collected the ball at halfway before off loading; he continued his run and two passes later he was on Frank McGlynn’s shoulder to receive the ball and slot it over the bar with his left foot.
You could almost sense it amongst the team whenever they engaged in the patient, keep-ball build up – they were waiting until Michael got on the ball and then suddenly the runs were made, openings created.
Odhran MacNiallais continued his dream debut season of Championship football, scoring a well taken goal while also getting a crucial score after Armagh had taken the lead late on. He and Ryan McHugh have firmly put themselves in the frame for the Young Player of the Year gong, as well as All Stars. His goal came at a time when Donegal were struggling, content to stifle their opponents but not showing much inventiveness themselves. That changed after twenty minutes when Michael was pushed up alongside Colm McFadden in the full forward line. With that switch Armagh had to reorganise their defence with Charlie Vernon and Brendan Donaghy sharing responsibility for Murphy. The consternation he creates in opposition defences merely by his presence leads to space for others – within minutes of the switch being made, MacNiallais found room in behind and cracked his goal in off the upright.
From then on Donegal appeared to have the measure of Armagh with the Orchardmen reduced to initiating scraps and doing their best to get under Donegal’s skin. As Karl Lacey made his was off the field at halftime, Aidan Forker immediately ran towards him to give him a shunt and some pleasantries in his ear. Lacey looked bemused by the episode and by the childishness of Armagh.
Lacey had a quiet enough game after picking up an early injury; while you’d want to have your top players firing it is encouraging to see Donegal winning games knowing that there is more in the tank. McFadden is certainly a case in point – it is just not happening for him. In trying to make amends he’s probably trying even harder and trying to force things, going for shots that aren’t on. It would be a surprise to see him start the semi-final on the bench but you can be sure it will be discussed amongst the management team.
The third quarter surge that has been key to Donegal over recent years was evident again; the scoreboard was kept ticking over and they found themselves three points to the good as we approached the hour mark. Some wastefulness didn’t help matters and with a bit more composure the lead could have been a few points more.
Then came Armagh’s goal, very unlucky from Paul Durcan’s point of view, with the ball rebounding off the post and into the net off his foot. Armagh sensed blood and started to believe the game was theirs. Donegal though showed huge courage to get back into the game and get back in front, a real mark of seasoned champions.
Substitute Martin McElhinney showed great bravery and heart to throw himself onto a loose ball and guide it into the path of a team-mate in the build up to McBrearty’s winner. That type of play, putting your body on the line, will be required from every man that takes the field in the semi-final. McElhinney’s clubmate Christy Toye didn’t see much of the ball from an attacking sense put he was another who put in a huge amount of work. For large parts of the first half he was marking Aaron Kernan and he covered his runs diligently and sacrificed himself for the cause in attempting to negate one of Armagh’s main threats.
And so to what awaits in three weeks time. The Dubs will present a huge challenge. Many have said that Donegal are the only team that can potentially topple the juggernaut. That is probably true but it will still take the performance of our lives to make that happen. At times yesterday we got turned over in the Armagh half of the field when we were expecting to get frees – these little nuances of the game all have to improve, everything has to be lifted a notch.
Donegal will not have impressed many with their overall display yesterday and as such the team will be rank outsiders for the last four encounter. We’re winning games with our best finisher, McFadden, out of form and with other players who have another gear or two to find. Others though like McLoone, McHugh and Thompson are going above and beyond – is that enough to beat Dublin?
Jim has lost just three championship games as Donegal bainisteoir; with the Ulster Final win this year and now redemption in the quarter finals after last year’s horrow show, two of those three wrongs have been righted. Only one remains - Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final. The game will represent the greatest test of the McGuinness system but no doubt it will be a task he will relish. A win would be his greatest achievement.