Monday, August 10, 2015

Donegal in Meek Surrender as Mayo March On

Despite plenty of faith and optimism amongst Donegal supporters prior to Saturday’s match, in the end it was a somewhat meek surrender by their team on the field. Rory Gallagher’s charges weren’t playing all that well in the opening half but they were still actively in the contest and after previous strong second half showings they would have been satisfied with that.

Aidan O’Shea’s goal just before the half time whistle was the killer blow; the difference between a one point deficit and a four point one as regards the manager’s team talk is massive.

O’Shea would have been talked about quite a bit at training sessions during the week so for Donegal to concede a goal via something they would have worked specifically on stopping is disappointing. Neil McGee had a good battle with the towering Breaffy man and won his fair share of ball. For the goal itself though he needed help and his sweeper riding shotgun with him, Mark McHugh, was pushed off the ball far too easily. To tackle a bigger man, it makes more sense to go low rather than high so trying to push him back at chest or shoulder height isn’t going to work.

The sweeper system employed by the two teams offered an interesting contrast – McHugh is a small player but one who reads the game wonderfully and hoovers up a huge amount of ball. Mayo on the other hand had the giant figure of Barry Moran standing sentry in front of Michael Murphy meaning that even when the Donegal captain did claim ball that came his way he would be met with the imposing figure of Moran – fighting fire with fire.

Goals generally decide the big Croke Park games these days; such is the claustrophobic nature of matches over the past few years, green flags are attached with even more importance.

Criminally another one followed soon after the change of ends, with Lee Keegan’s effort settling in Paul Durcan’s net as opposed to going over the bar. Just like we saw with Fionn Fitzgerald’s equaliser in the Munster Final - when the corner back was aiming to hit a long ball into Kieran Donaghy but it instead split the posts - these are the breaks that big teams get in the course of a championship campaign.

Keegan had a fine match and even though his defensive tendencies are questionable and he can be vulnerable, when he’s in the mood and allowed to attack he’s lethal.

That goal ended any semblance of thought about a Donegal comeback and the game petered out with mistakes aplenty on both sides. A more clinical outfit may have clocked up a bigger tally but while Mayo failed to post a big number when the chance was there, they certainly illustrated their intent to score goals. Earlier in the first half they took a quick free when there was just a sniff of a chance of getting a shot at Durcan and it was this type of quick thinking, even devilment that was lacking from Donegal’s display.

One of the key tactical calls Rory made before the game was the decision to concede the kick outs to Mayo. There was certainly merit in the idea, as Mayo’s bulk and physical advantage around the middle make them favourites to win their own restarts. If Donegal had pushed up and still lost possession they would be leaving themselves open at the back. With Mayo looking to play high ball into O’Shea though, the tactic allowed them to work the ball past midfield following an uncontested kick out and then start the aerial bombardment. Two teams that have successfully overcome Mayo’s dominance in this midfield area are Kerry last year, through matching their physicality and Dublin in the 2013 final, who used pacey midfielders to run their less mobile opponents out of position.

Martin McElhinney made a big difference when he entered the fray, winning the first four restarts that came his way. Three of these were balls that he broke but typical of Donegal on the day none of his team mates were there to collect. It is fairly basic stuff that half forwards and half backs need to be under their midfielders to win breaking ball; the midfielder has done his job when he gets something on the kick out or if he ensures his opponent doesn’t.

There were plenty of other schoolboy errors that plagued the Donegal performance – seeing such an accomplished footballer as Karl Lacey playing a hand pass across his own penalty area in the second half defied belief.

Lacey and the rest tried their hardest in the closing stages and there was no sense of the utter collapse that we witnessed against the same opposition two years ago. Hugh McFadden worked tirelessly throughout and despite his lack of confidence on the ball and reluctance to go forward when in possession he will have learned from this year and his game will improve.

As usual it was Murphy who led from the front with an exceptional performance culminating in a total of eight points. It is the great conundrum for his managers – forward or midfield? Michael produced a fantastic display yet if he were at midfield could he have brought that presence that could have tipped the scales and made for a different strategy on kick outs? It is a tricky one but at the same time it’s a great problem for a manager to have, having to pick where to play the game’s best player.

Allied to the differences in opposing sweepers, another contrast between the sides that doesn’t reflect well on the Donegal players and management, is the quality of ball played into their respective dangermen. Throughout the match, Mayo played excellent ball into O'Shea; ball that often gives him the advantage over his marker – a few yards in front of him, good height and supplied from an angle. At the other end of the field, Murphy deals with good ball, bad ball, high ball, low ball and every kind of Hail Mary ball in between. It often is 50-50 at best at makes Michael’s job extremely difficult and of course this gives great encouragement to opposing teams. While Michael isn’t far off being Superman, he still needs more care and precision to be taken by those delivering the ball to him.

Murphy was needed to carry the scoring burden with Patrick McBrearty and Colm McFadden both misfiring. The huge promise shown by McBrearty all year had us all thinking that he was about to make the step up from good to great but when it came to Croke Park he just wasn’t able to do the business. Granted he has been troubled by numerous niggles since the Armagh game and like many Donegal players it has hampered both his preparation and his performance.

Others like the McGees, McElhinney, Lacey and Murphy suffered injuries in the past few weeks and it is another example of a wee bit of luck that has eluded Donegal this season.

So where does this leave the team for 2016 and beyond? The easy synopsis is that Donegal were a tired team after travelling such an arduous route to get to the quarter finals whereas others like Mayo and Dublin have had it much easier. Monaghan suffering defeat as well at the weekend against a Tyrone team who have had a straight forward run through the qualifiers adds credence to that claim - is it that simple though? Mayo impressed in many aspects of their game but still didn't seem a vastly superior outfit; basic errors from Donegal and killer goals were the difference. Is that directly correlated to tiredness versus freshness? If the answer is yes then an incursion through the back door seems to be more beneficial for any Ulster county - the fact that both finalists bowed out of the championship within hours of each other doesn't say much for the provincial competition but such is the folly of the system.

There will no doubt now be talk of retirements and of eras ending. These conversations follow any championship exit but the future is bright for Donegal football. Even if some of the elder statesmen on the panel decide to call it a day there will remain an outstanding bunch of young, talented players like Odhran MacNiallais, Ryan McHugh, Darach O’Connor, Martin O'Reilly and of course Murphy. Others such as Eamon Doherty, Eoin McHugh and Ciaran Thompson will don the Donegal jersey with distinction in the years ahead.

As has oft been the case in recent times, there is a lot to be learnt from our neighbours in Tyrone, their play-acting antics apart. After their opening day league defeat to Monaghan there was talk of a crisis and the same chat started again after their capitulation in Ballybofey in March. On each occasion they went back to basics and worked their way back to form and now find themselves facing a clash they will relish – Kerry at Croke Park. In the games following the defeat to the Farney men, against Mayo and Dublin, they made themselves hard to beat and ground out league points. In the qualifiers they were efficient without ever really moving through the gears.

Since 2011, when this Donegal team began to realise its potential, they were hard to beat. Donegal were horrible to play against. They were feared. Everyone knew what they were going to do but few knew how to counteract it. They have moved away somewhat from what made them successful. That stubbornness, that thou shalt not pass mentality needs to be rediscovered. Be hard to beat and then the attacking play, slickness and confidence will follow. Time to go back to basics.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Donegal Tame Tribesmen as Familiar Foe Awaits

A familiar foe awaits Donegal in Croke Park next Saturday and the team go into that game feeling good about themselves and knowing they have the wherewithal to beat Mayo.

The only issue is whether Donegal have enough left in the tank after five tough matches; because there is no doubting the ability is there with the second half blitz on Galway providing ample evidence.

As now seems the norm, the team stormed out of the blocks but then faded just as quickly. The second quarter appears to be a form of downtime, it happens so often that it is no longer a surprise. On the big days when the team has managed to put together a consistent display across most or all of a match, including a big second quarter, the performance has been amongst their best – think of the semi final victories over Cork and Dublin.

Donegal certainly reached a different level after the break with a devastating counter attacking salvo that floored Galway. A central figure, particularly to the fore when the game was still close, was Odhran MacNiallais.

The stylish midfield operator was outstanding in everything he did. He caught some superb ball in the engine room and scored three glorious points from play; there aren’t many players in the country who could convert the chances the young sharp shooter was knocking over.

His fielding was wonderful to watch and it is especially impressive considering he rarely gives away frees when contesting for kick outs. So often you see referees penalising players for a slight nudge in the back or an arm over the shoulder of an opponent but Odhran’s spring off the ground means he can out jump most without resorting to fouling.

The long range efforts along with those of Colm McFadden and others were in stark contrast to the shooting against Monaghan last time out – those that were shanked wide in the Ulster Final were finding their target this time around.

McFadden ran MacNiallais close for the man of the match gong after he produced a brilliant display around the middle. Whether he’s spraying passes, making tackles or kicking over booming points, the Creeslough marksman is revelling as a deep lying link man and it was important he got back on track following an abject display in Clones.

Colm has always been a talented finisher but he has added a significant string to his bow by committing to taking on his marker much more and ruthlessly driving at goal. His first instinct nowadays when close to goal is to beat his man and he displayed this with his assist for Patrick McBrearty’s early goal. In years gone by his first option would be to find a yard of space in which to swing that trusty left peg but now he is direct and sniffing for goals – a feature of his and Donegal’s game that will be crucial next week. Mayo’s Achilles heel over the past few years has been the number of goals they concede in big matches, as Donegal know all too well from 2012.

Another man who will be central to the assault on Mayo’s rearguard will be Michael Murphy. He spent much of his Saturday evening inside at full forward and produced some majestic moments like only he can.

His outrageous catch and subsequent point was a stunning piece of action; it was Aussie Rules-esque and even had a hint of a basketball slam dunk with Michael managing to hang in the air for that split second before he got his paws on the O’Neills. It was an important moment in the overall context of the match too as it lifted the crowd and Ryan McHugh’s goal followed soon after. The Maestro was again central to that score, the deftness of his touch vital in ensuring McHugh didn’t have to break stride before finishing beautifully to the corner of the net.

Of course after any full-forward magic from Murphy, the usual cries of ‘why doesn't he play there all the time?’ grow ever louder. Galway were very accommodating in their defensive setup and effectively laid out a welcome mat for Murphy unlike Monaghan or indeed any Ulster team who suffocate him with anything up to four markers at times. The good news is that Mayo may well be just as obliging – if so, expect to see quite a bit of Michael on the edge of the square again.

While Donegal had a few standout performers, there were plenty others who went about their business quietly and efficiently. Neil Gallagher got through his usual mountain of work while surprise starter Hugh McFadden handled his first championship outing at Headquarters admirably. The Killybegs man put in a great shift and notably made some big hits when the ball was being scrapped for in the middle third.

Half time substitute Anthony Thompson also went about his task with the minimum of fuss and with doubts over Karl Lacey’s availability next weekend Thompson will surely be needed again. Eamonn Doherty is another option at half back and he will be pleased with his calm and assured time on the field, a couple of potentially costly slips apart.

Overall though the defence looked a little bit loose and open in the first half and while Donegal will be intent on plundering Mayo for goals, it is just as imperative that Paul Durcan’s goal is kept under lock and key.

As well as the injury concern over Lacey, Eamon McGee and McBrearty are unlikely to be fully fit but in the case of the latter he will certainly be expected to start even though that knock to the knee suffered against Derry continues to be a problem.

The health and wellbeing of the team is Rory Gallagher’s biggest concern this week but in mixing things up a bit against the Tribesmen, the boss will hope that Martin McElhinney and Christy Toye amongst others are fresh and ready for big impacts. Toye only made a brief cameo but still managed to add another goal to his Croke Park tally; his wonderfully struck shot the latest in a long line of HQ goals that started way back in 2002 with a major against Meath.

One week doesn’t allow much time to prepare for such a huge game but the team appear in much better shape than at the same stage two years ago. After the 2013 Ulster Final defeat to Monaghan, Donegal made seriously hard work of their qualifier against Laois. It was sheer will that got them that victory, even though it was clear there was very little left in the legs that night in Carrick on Shannon. Now though there seems to be confidence within the players that they can still achieve the ultimate goal this year and they know that one defeat doesn’t suddenly make them a bad team.

There are plenty arguments that can be made for a win for either side next week so whether Donegal or Mayo win, neither outcome would be a surprise. The margins are so very fine.

At half time of the earlier game on Saturday between Tyrone and Sligo, the Artane Band provided the musical entertainment. One particular tune that got an airing will strike a chord with Donegal supporters as they converge onto Jones Road next week in their droves – Don’t Stop Believin’. Bring it on.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Donegal Fall to the Farney Army

Simply a bad day at the office or a sign that all is not well? There are arguments for both when looking at all of the different aspects of today’s Ulster Final but we won’t know the definitive answer for another few weeks.

What is not in doubt is that Monaghan were the sharper, hungrier team today and despite a valiant comeback, the last few fingers clinging onto the Anglo Celt cup eventually slipped off.

All pre-match predictions forecasted a tight game with nothing much expected to separate the teams and so it proved.

Donegal, as they have done regularly this year, started well and posted three early points from play through Patrick McBrearty, Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn. There were plenty of players breaking forward - Eamonn McGee in particular was marauding towards the town end goal, setting the agenda with his marker Kieran Hughes, daring the Scotstown powerhouse to follow him.

All seemed to be going according to plan at the other end too with good hassling and pressure put on the ball carrier while there was some wonderful blocks put in, including two fabulous shutdowns from Christy Toye.

The transition to counter attack was slick and Donegal made numerous incisions into enemy territory in the opening quarter but once there they became ponderous, began to over elaborate with intricate passing and inevitably Monaghan started turning the ball over. Turnovers are like fuel in the modern game, each time a team successfully stops an attack and takes possession they find a bit more in the legs, the crowd gets up and there’s always an extra runner or two committed to the offensive effort. The partisan home crowd thrived off these incidents and it conversely sapped the enthusiasm and energy from those in green and gold, both in the stands and out on the field.

In recent contests between these sides, most notably in last year’s league final, Monaghan have been superb at shooting from distance against the blanket and again today they chalked up a few mammoth scores. It was in stark contrast to Donegal’s shooting in the second half which was woeful - and that is putting it mildly.

At no stage during the opening exchanges, when Donegal were in control, was there any hint of panic from the men in blue and white. They were completely focused on the task in hand and stuck rigidly to their plan. Their evergreen defender Dessie Mone hit an absolute stinker of a wide early on, the ball screwing wildly off his foot, yet soon after he backed himself when presented with another opportunity and delivered a glorious score. He epitomised the attitude of Monaghan and they just looked that bit more clued in throughout the seventy minutes.

Another who exploded into life following a quiet start was Conor McManus. Clontibret’s finest is up there with Michael Murphy, Diarmuid Connolly, James O’Donoghue et al as the games’ leading forwards and he showed his class with six points. His marker Neil McGee was intent on roughing him up from the first whistle and the pair were involved in a couple of flashpoints before eventually being booked. This didn’t perturb McManus who went about his business and kicked over point after point. At one stage in the second half, McManus attacked up the left wing with McGee and Paddy McGrath in tow. The defensive pair did everything right – didn’t allow McManus to get past them, forced him out wide; half the job was done, now they had dispossess him or force him to pass. Inexplicably, the duo let McManus turn back, find a yard of space and drill the ball over the bar. It was a most un-Donegal sequence of play and one which will be raised when the video analysis is carried out amongst the squad this week.

It’s quite a while since we’ve seen McGee on the end of such a run around, particularly in the Ulster Championship, and you can be sure the three-time All Star will be determined not to let it happen again.

The ‘roughing up’ was obviously a deliberate tactic and you’d have to wonder is it worth it or does it work? Glenswilly’s Murphy was quite simply ‘McMahoned’ against Tyrone yet stepped up to dispatch the last three points in a three point win. Dublin had three men marking McManus at certain stages of their league semi-final in Croke Park earlier this year yet he still scored 0-8 and came away with the man of the match award. Maybe defenders are better off focusing on the ball more than the man.

Donegal spluttered and stammered their way through the second half and despite wide after wide stayed in the game. Monaghan only scored three times in the second half as they dug the trenches in front of their goal and were prepared to hold what they had. That task was helped by some horrid shooting from the likes of Martin McElhinney and Odhran MacNiallais but of course in previous games in this campaign those two and many others were splitting the posts from all angles. Maybe it was just one of those days.

There is so much analysis and meticulous studying of games these days yet quite often a bit of luck here and there can have a big influence on games. Karl Lacey went off early in the second half, whether it was an injury or a tactical switch is not known, either way it didn’t help his team’s cause. The heavy strapping on Captain Murphy’s right knee suggested all is not right with the Maestro and Vinny Corey certainly had an easier day that he would have been anticipating.

History can also play a factor in these jousts; even though there has been an intense rivalry building up between both teams over recent years, the truth is that Donegal have a wretched record against the Farney Army.

So even with luck and history not quite on Donegal’s side today, the team very nearly snatched a draw or could maybe even have got a win. A large part of the comeback and the fact that the gap was closed to the minimum was down to the Kilcar contingent. Ryan and Mark McHugh along with McBrearty were immense in the second half with the brothers taking responsibility time and again in collecting possession and trying to find gaps in the Monaghan rearguard. They won frees, took the hits and went back for more.

At half time the likely message from Rory Gallagher and his backroom team was to shoot on sight. It would keep the score board ticking over while also drawing out the Monaghan back line. As the wides mounted, Rory was short on options and it is clear he needs to work on his team’s attacking shape. With Colm McFadden misfiring, Darach O’Connor and Martin O’Reilly became the Donegal full forward line. Two small, fast players who could normally cause defences all sorts of problems but with so little room in front of the Monaghan goal and physically imposing defenders beside them, the pair were on a hiding to nothing. O’Reilly did make some brilliant runs from deep when he came out the field for the ball and even looked to have the slightest chance for a goal at one stage before he won a free for McBrearty to tap over.

While the county held its collective breath as McBrearty’s last gasp effort hung in the Clones sky, in truth a replay would have spelt the end of All-Ireland ambitions for the eventual losers. Had we been travelling back to Clones next weekend for a replay, it would have meant one of the teams would have faced a qualifier the week after followed possibly by a quarter final – four matches on four successive weekends would have taken its toll. As it stands Donegal have a potential fixture list of three games in four weeks; still a tough itinerary but manageable. At the start of the year, the last eight is where every team wants to be and Donegal will still expect to be there.

The road is now mapped out in front of Donegal – Galway in two weeks time and while the Tribesmen are an up and coming force, a fully functioning system should be too much for them. Should the qualifier hurdle be cleared, Mayo lie in wait, just as they did two years when the Ulster title was last surrendered. For the first time under his stewardship, Rory is now under pressure. How he and his team respond over the weeks ahead may well define his tenure.

For Monaghan, it’s show time. They’ve collected a second provincial crown in three years, now they have to ask themselves the question – is that it or have they the wherewithal to go the distance? It’s going to be an interesting August.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Donegal Battle Past Gutsy Derry

The battle we had anticipated to be subjected to in the Athletic Grounds two weeks ago duly arrived in Clones last night. Armagh provided the country with the template of how not to play against Donegal and Brian McIver took note. His side sat back in numbers, dragging his former charges into a tense encounter but experience and class told in the end.

As has been the case thus far this season, Donegal were quickly out of the blocks and built up a healthy early lead. Derry clawed their way back into the contest though with some well worked points. As their comeback was unfolding at one end of the pitch, Patrick McBrearty limped heavily in front of the Derry goal after picking up what looked like a knock to his calf. It left Donegal with little or no outlet inside and the team’s attacking game struggled in the lead up to half time. Martin O’Reilly was alongside McBrearty but he doesn’t possess the natural instincts of a corner forward to make those short sharp darting runs right and left to show for the ball or to create space.

Donegal’s primary option was to create shooting opportunities and while they did this successfully, wide after wide slipped by the posts. With no runners inside it made Derry’s blanket effort much easier and allowed them to push out a little more and apply pressure to the man on the ball. If even a few of these chances had been converted it would’ve made for a much more comfortable half time chat in the dressing rooms.

Having spent most of his time at midfield until that point, Michael Murphy was sent to the edge of the square and immediately forced an excellent save from Derry goalkeeper Thomas Mallon. The next time the ball came his way in front of goal, Murphy was being triple marked and this gives ample evidence in supporting the case for him playing so much of his football out the field.  

It was a strange call by the management to leave McBrearty on when he was clearly struggling to move freely. The break and probable medical treatment at the short whistle certainly helped him but he still wasn't his usual explosive self during the second half.

Derry had elected to start with their two best players, Eoin Bradley and Mark Lynch, in a two man full forward line – the latter’s placing possibly a ploy for him to escape the clutches of Karl Lacey, who gave a defensive master class against him in Celtic Park last year. Lynch didn’t fare too well with Paddy McGrath for company however; the Ardara corner back was immense from start to finish.

Bradley was well curtailed by Neil McGee throughout and was substituted before the final whistle. Lynch meanwhile did boom over one trademark score but generally was unable to influence the game.

Derry had identified the Donegal full back line as an area to attack and they rained plenty of high ball into the square. Paul Durcan dealt with almost everything that came near his goal and was a commanding presence throughout.

It was typical Donegal in the third quarter, that famous blitz that has hit so many teams over the last few years was in full flow again. The chances that had been sailing wide in the first half started to go over in the second with Colm McFadden, Murphy and Martin McElhinney all registering fine efforts from distance.

O’Reilly then popped up to land the killer blow with a finish that was almost a carbon copy of his goal a fortnight ago and his side had suddenly surged into a five point lead. The Mac Cumhaills man’s reputation continues to flourish; while he seemed a bit uncomfortable inside in the first half playing with his back to goal, it is a different story when he’s turned the opposite way and running at defenders.

Derry, to their credit, kept plugging away until the end but never managed to get the margin below two points. It was a cagey finish but in truth Donegal always seemed to have the composure to see the game out.

Neil Gallagher was a colossus around the middle all game but it is in those final frantic minutes of a match where he really shows his worth. The big Glenswilly giant can slow the game down, spray the ball around and take the sting out of proceedings.

Gallagher is seeing much more of his clubmate Murphy around the middle sector and aside from those few minutes either side of half time he played primarily as a midfielder. That doesn’t stop him contributing on the scoreboard though and his first point, a seismic missile from sixty yards, almost defied logic. He notched another magnificent score later on, after a McBrearty free came back off the upright. There’s been a lot written about Michael in recent weeks and he is now regarded as the country’s best player by Peter Canavan amongst others; the national media are simply confirming what the rest of us in Donegal have known for the last few years - he is the best in the land.

Matches against Derry have acted as important staging posts along the way for the Donegal captain. He crashed home a penalty as an eighteen year old in an Ulster quarter final at Ballybofey in 2008 while a year later, all of six years ago, the boy became a man in one of the best performances ever seen in a green and gold jersey. The River Finn was again the backdrop, this time in a qualifier clash, in what became known as one of the greatest games never seen thanks to the absence of the TV cameras.

Another penalty was dispatched in the Ulster Final of 2011 and Michael will now have a chance in three weeks time to lift the Anglo Celt cup for an incredible fourth time. Our old foes Monaghan will provide the opposition for the third year running and a packed house will await the players on July 19th.

On the way through Clones’ main square yesterday before the game, a rendition of ‘Rory's Winning Matches’ could be heard from the Creighton Hotel. Rory is certainly on a roll as he has taken down three Ulster giants in the space of six weeks. He will now be eyeing up a first piece of silverware as the main man and hoping to make a massive statement of intent.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Ruthless Rory Exposes Gullible Geezer

Everyone expected a tight tussle, a war of attrition and a real test of Donegal’s championship credentials but in the end it was nothing of the sort. Armagh were woeful from the off, this largely due to the naivety they showed and the false impression they have of themselves as a team ready to join those at the top table.

Perhaps it was because they have won so often this year, having plied their trade in Division 3 of the league, that Armagh had become used to taking the initiative in matches, that they felt the onus was on them to take the game to their visitors and go at them from the whistle – whatever the reason for the gung ho approach it cost them the match.

The home side immediately pushed up on the Donegal defence and almost all of their players were in the Donegal half of the field. This left Patrick McBrearty one-on-one in the full forward line and the Kilcar man made hay as the summer sun shone brightly on the Athletic Grounds. Rory Gallagher had anticipated the approach adopted by his counterpart Kieran McGeeney and instructed his troops to hit McBrearty early and often. Michael Murphy played deep and produced a passing exhibition with some wonderful deliveries, mixing it up between high boomers and low chasers into the chest.

The damage was done after only a few minutes and with 1-3 coughed up Armagh brought a sweeper back to play in front of McBrearty but it was too late by then.

It defied believe that Armagh and McGeeney could be so immature in their tactics. There is nothing wrong with a coach admitting that his team are playing against a better side and setting up his team up accordingly. It illustrated a sort of bravado nature in the home team’s psyche but the days of Donegal wincing before an Armagh challenge are long gone.

This Donegal team is the best counter attacking side the game has ever seen – pushing up and leaving on ocean of space behind midfield was playing into their hands. Despite Rory predicting the hosts’ thinking even he must have been a bit surprised at how easy it all was as it unfolded before his eyes.

The primary reason for optimism amongst the Orchard faithful and many pundits this week was the closeness of the skirmish in last year’s All Ireland quarter final. Yet put into context, the game was just about getting over the line for Donegal before they faced the challenge their entire year had been geared towards, that never to be forgotten joust with the Dubs. Armagh are a decent team who can be competitive against the big boys but that's as far as it goes for the time being.

Donegal of course had to take advantage of the situation they found themselves in and they did to the highest standard in the first half. The power each player possesses on the ball, the ability to burst through tackles whilst protecting the ball and coming out with it the other side is exceptional.  Armagh met Donegal high up the field as they had so many players pushed up, so once that high screen was broken there was a vast prairie of space to exploit.

Also the angles and lines of support running from team mates are wonderful and so hard to defend against. It is instilled into the players by now, its instinctive – the man in possession knows where the support runner will be coming from and when he’ll make the run. They make it look so fluid and that is down to the work meticulously carried out on the training field.

Even in the age of packed defences, this style of support play gets rewarded with space and opportunities to create scores. If one defender is beaten then the entire defence is at risk because someone has to leave their position to cover the space just created; Donegal are masters at breaking that first tackle and breaking the gain-line. It is a hugely important facet of play in rugby and with so many bodies in and around the ball nowadays in gaelic football, it is a vital weapon in any team’s arsenal.

Teams can get frustrated when faced against a mass of bodies but those that display a bit of innovation and above all else patience can break it down. At Lansdowne Road on Saturday we unfortunately saw an Irish team bereft of ideas when faced with a compact defence, passing over and back with no incisiveness before eventually going long in hope. Donegal on the other hand are patient, try to work openings, make runs to create space for others and then go long if the defence has been dragged apart and there is sufficient space. Other times they drag the backline from one side of the field to the other and work a scoring chance from out wide – typified by the magnificent Odhran MacNiallais point in the opening period.

It is a great source of encouragement that the younger players on the team are stepping up and making big contributions. Along with MacNiallais, Martin O’Reilly capped a fine day with the killer second goal, showing great composure and intelligence to round the goalkeeper before firing to the net.

Ryan McHugh had a terrific game after being quieter than usual in Ballybofey four weeks ago. Armagh simply had no answer to his running ability and his trick of slowing down as he carries the ball towards a defender before instantly accelerating away once they try to make a tackle is becoming a feature of his game. Similar to Sean Cavanagh’s famous left to right jink, everyone knows the trick is coming but stopping it is a different story – they nearly always take the bait and are made to look very ordinary.

Somewhat inevitably Donegal's tempo decreased in the second half allowing Armagh to become a bit more of a threat on our goal. The Orchard men were in a real catch-22 situation after Donegal’s blitz start – they were well behind on the scoreboard and therefore needed to attack but also had to play more defensively as the half went on in an effort to stop Donegal. They did manage a couple of decent goal chances with Paul Durcan producing one brilliant stop to keep his clean sheet intact.

Once Donegal lost their target man McBrearty to a hamstring twinge, they played without any focal point in their attack with only O'Reilly occasionally up front.

It mattered little by that stage and a nine point winning margin at the end only told half the story of Donegal’s dominance. Rory will be delighted with having an easier than expected day in the sun especially with a short turnaround of thirteen days until the semi-final.

His cult following continues to grow too - even in the sweltering June heat there were a few of his famed bobble hats, made famous during the much cooler league, on show in the stand.

His managerial reign has got off to a great start and enormous credit must go to Donegal’s favourite Fermanagh man. The boys will resume training tomorrow night and all focus will switch to Derry. One thing will be certain - the Oakleaf County will not be as nascent in their thinking in Clones on June 27th. They understand the template of how to beat Donegal and will have taken note of Armagh’s abysmal attempt at creating their own. It is unlikely that Derry will have the wherewithal to create a shock and indeed they won’t have many backers but certainly they will give Rory’s men the battle that they were expecting to be involved in yesterday. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Dún na nGall Clear First Hurdle as Tyrone Tamed

The first hurdle has been cleared by Donegal and as was widely expected beforehand, Tyrone presented a huge challenge and pushed the home side all the way to the final whistle. The league encounter seven weeks ago left a false impression of Mickey Harte’s team – yesterday was a more accurate reflection of their qualities.

It was a big day for Rory Gallagher. His tenure as manager started well with good performances in the league and some tweaks to the system being implemented to good effect. Still though, it is all about Championship so he needed to get a win under his belt and he duly delivered.

A blistering start certainly helped with four excellent scores registered inside nine minutes. The opener came from Frank McGlynn, who was immense throughout. As well as getting on the score board himself he set up numerous others and his pass to tee up Martin McElhinney for his first point of a 1-2 tally was nothing short of audacious.

The visitors fought their way back into the game and turned a four point deficit into a two point lead. Aided and abetted by Darren McCurry’s goal, they moved up through the gears and caused the Donegal back line numerous problems with their strong direct running; Peter Harte particularly good in this regard.

While all this was going on, the crowd at MacCumhaill Park were more taken by the battle, or maybe staring match would be more descriptive, going on between Michael Murphy and Justin McMahon. Wherever Murphy went, McMahon was never more than a nose away. Every run was blocked, every jink obstructed and at one stage McMahon even gave Murphy a pat on his backside – this was up close and personal man marking like we’d never seen before. You wouldn’t have blamed Michael if he checked outside his front door in Glenswilly last night just to make sure the big man from Omagh hadn’t followed him home.

Despite the vexation amongst the Donegal support and the borderline nature of the intimidation, you have to begrudgingly admire McMahon’s concentration, discipline and doggedness to stick to his task. It is an extremely difficult thing to do on a football field, to completely ignore the ball and all that is happening around you. Michael deserves huge credit too as it would have been very easy to simply lash out in frustration but he kept his cool and bided his time before making a match winning contribution.

With the sides deadlocked entering the final act, Michael stepped up and landed the game’s final three points to seal the win. The last of this trio, an incredible 45 from the wrong side of the field for a right footed kicker, was a thing of beauty.

Even aside from his late flourish, Michael played a big part in the game’s vital score, McElhinney’s goal. Moments before, Rory gave the signal for Murphy to move into the square and such was McMahon and the rest of the Tyrone defence’s preoccupation with the Donegal captain, they left Odhran MacNiallais totally unmarked in front of goal. A great save from Tyrone debutant Mickey O’Neill followed but man of the match McElhinney was on hand to drill the loose ball to the corner of the net.

One more score was to follow before the short whistle with the evergreen Colm McFadden slotting over to secure a two-point lead. McFadden was asked to play a deeper role than usual yesterday and he did it wonderfully well. We had seen glimpses of this during the league but it was a surprise to see him undertake such a specialised duty in a big game. It worked and Rory deserves credit for making the call. It meant that Patrick McBrearty often played the lone target man and while he didn’t see as much ball as he would have liked, whenever it did come his way he made it count.

Tyrone, while putting up what Rory described as a massive performance, are obviously short a few players in order to be able to challenge for honours like they were able to a few years ago. This was highlighted with the inclusion of Cathal McShane and Ruairí Brennan from the start. Both had played starring roles in their county’s U21 All Ireland triumph at the start of the month but making the step up to senior is a different story.

McShane had featured in some of the league ties but he was thrown in at the deep end being pitted against a three-time All Star in the shape of Neil McGee and the Gaoth Dobhair man simply gobbled him up. There may have been more than a hint of relief for McShane when he saw his number come up on the board to indicate he was being withdrawn shortly after half-time.

The second half became more of an arm wrestle than the first, scores were at a premium and less risks taken by the teams. Another goal from either team would have been a huge score in that environment and Paul Durcan came up with a big save towards the end with the ball bobbling around the square in front of him. Durcan’s kick outs were solid throughout as well and it was an important day for the Four Masters net minder after his last Championship outing in September ended in such disappointment.

The bear pit that is Ulster football meant that yesterday was about winning and nothing else. It was encouraging though that the team put in an excellent display even without some lads playing to potential. Ryan McHugh and Paddy McGrath on the left side of the defence had relatively quiet games as did Martin O’Reilly and the elder McHugh, Mark, when he was introduced. 

So there’s plenty more in the team and in watching the substitutes warming up under the stand yesterday it shows the strength in the panel – Anthony Thompson was only introduced in the closing minutes while didn’t Hugh McFadden or Darach O'Connor didn’t see any action.

Donegal are in a good place right now. Rory is up and running as a Championship boss and most of his teams’ key men are in good form. Karl Lacey was outstanding, Christy Toye is aging like a fine wine while Neil Gallagher’s fetching is still one the game’s great sights.

It doesn’t get any easier with a trip to the Athletic Grounds in Armagh next up in four weeks but such is the nature of Ulster’s showpiece competition. It is as tough as it gets and it makes our recent record all the more impressive. Not since 2010 have Donegal been beaten in the Championship at Ballybofey and that day against Down was also the last time the team lost an opening round match in the province. The proud record of only losing one match in Ulster in four years will be severely tested by the Orchard men on June 14th.