Sunday, February 8, 2015

Dubs Defeat Donegal in Pulsating Encounter

It wasn’t a championship encounter last night at Headquarters but for February fare it was as good as it gets for intensity. There was plenty of quality on show too with some fine scores on either side but ultimately it was Donegal’s profligacy and indiscipline that led to a five-point defeat.

Above the steps leading up to the Cusack Stand, there’s a huge banner featuring the great and the good of the GAA and for the last few years Bernard Brogan has been the centrepiece; now though there’s a new banner for 2015 and our own Michael Murphy is the main man. It’s a reminder of Donegal’s place in Gaelic Football right now - we’re at the top table and despite almost every pundit in the land tipping a two horse race for honours this season between Kerry and Dublin, they would be unwise to write off last year’s runners-up.

Murphy lived up to his main man billing with a wonderful display of point taking, vision, awareness and selfless work ethic. Within thirty seconds of both the first half and second half starting, he split the posts – the first a beautiful effort off his less favoured left side.

The usual debate was raised during the week about where Michael should be stationed after he played around midfield for the opening half in Ballybofey; he spent the majority of last night inside at full forward but if he sees a run to be tracked or a tackle to be made he doesn’t wait for someone else to do the job, he does it himself. During the first half, Christy Toye was down injured in front of the Hill goal having taken a hefty bang; as he lay prone on the ground, he was out of position as Dublin counter attacked up the field. His captain didn’t need anyone to tell him what was needed - immediately Murphy sprinted seventy yards back to midfield to take his team mate’s place.

That’s captaincy, that’s leadership and that’s why he is the country’s best player.

The full forward versus deeper argument in itself gives Rory Gallagher a trump card in that opposition teams have to have two plans to combat Murphy. If he’s left on the edge of the square all the time, he will invariably be double teamed and while that might leave space for others, the others aren’t Michael Murphy.

When Jack McCaffrey burst through to score the match winning goal with a stunning finish, it was Michael who was beside him trying to get a tackle in; in truth that was when he should have taken a black card for the team and stopped McCaffrey in his tracks. He lasted about another five minutes before the inevitable card came; Michael had played close to the edge throughout the game and it was no surprise that he didn’t make it to the final whistle.

All over the field there were fierce battles being fought and the sheer spite and dislike the two teams have for one another was very evident. There were late hits, dirty strokes and huge physicality from both sides and referee Maurice Deegan seemed to lose control in the last quarter.

There weren’t too many changes from the joust with Derry last week; Eamonn Doherty came in from the start and had a solid enough outing while Karl Lacey was re-directed to wing forward. The imperious Four Masters man saw plenty of ball and looks to be in tip-top shape which is a huge plus and aside from a few mis-cues with the boot he performed well and was a constant thorn in Dublin’s side. Martin O’Reilly played a deeper role this week, reverting back to his more customary half forward spot; he put in another good shift and, along with midfielder Hugh McFadden, has forced his way into the manager’s thinking for when the bigger challenges come around.

Paul Durcan’s woes continued with a loose kick out leading to the opening goal for the Dubs; a clatter from Karl Lacey in then trying to prevent the goal-bound shot from Cormac Costello led to a knock on the head and Michael Boyle coming in to replace him. The Termon net-minder did well for the most part on his kick-outs; one late effort that didn’t clear the twenty-one yard line led to a throw ball, as well as a bollocking from Mark McHugh. Mark and younger brother Ryan were excellent, both constantly offered themselves as ball carriers and gave support to others; they seemed to be well fired up for the game and carried the fight to Dublin, never taking a backward step.

The kick out strategy was interesting with Donegal again, as they did last week, trying to cut out the short variety as much as possible. Dublin on the other hand refused to go long as Donegal made sure the wings were covered and hence cut off their usual wide receivers.

McFadden came on a lot from last week’s encounter and was a much greater presence around the middle third. He got through plenty of ball last week but this time around he got more involved in tackling and breaking and indeed came in for quite amount of attention from blue jerseys as they set upon some new blood. McFadden handled it well and can be delighted with his night’s work. It was the Killybegs man’s withdrawal, with his namesake Colm joining the action, that actually led to Donegal’s downfall.

After Kevin McManamon got a second yellow card, which in truth could have been a red following a forearm smash on the elder McHugh, the manager decided to go for broke somewhat. With an extra man, his deep lying midfielder was replaced by a forward in the hope that more scores would follow. In response Jim Gavin brought on fresh legs, McCaffrey amongst them, to run at the newly exposed rearguard. The goal put paid to any chance of salvaging league points from this encounter and just like the battle last August, the team that got the goals, got the win.

Up until then Dublin remained in front largely due to the free taking of Dean Rock; time and again a lazy Donegal hand went into a tackle and conceded a free and worse was the number of times the referee brought the ball forward into score able positions following too much chat from the visitors. Granted, Deegan’s decision making was frustrating both sides but at the highest level discipline is a vital component in winning games and the players should know better. The hosts went almost half an hour without scoring from play and yet were never behind – that statistic tells its own story.

Overall, Rory and his management team will be fairly satisfied with the opening fortnight of league action. What was clear from last night is that the teams do not like each other very much and that Donegal have got inside Dublin’s heads. The Dubs are still shocked that they were so roundly beaten in that last four contest and it is eating away at them. The stall they set out with last night was entirely a reaction to that game.  John Small sat in the centre back pocket and tried to block the middle channel. They crowded the middle third. They daren’t kick long from restarts. They’re spooked.

Donegal kicked numerous bad wides into the Canal End goal in the second half but when Dublin were shooting that way in the opening period they constantly snatched at chances, rushed their kicks for fear of a gold jersey closing them down. In the semi-final they needed a series of wonder points from Diarmuid Connolly and Paul Flynn to get ahead but last night they had many simpler opportunities yet were anxious and took bad decisions when they could have worked the ball into better positions.

So as we head into a short break in league action, it is tempting to peek ahead to the Summer; if these two giants cross swords again there won’t be a bookmaker on the planet who’d be offering 8/1 on a Donegal win. We know that we’re one of the main players, the bookies know it and most importantly – Dublin know it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Rory Roars His Charges to Opening League Win

So here we go again - after the shadow boxing of the McKenna Cup, the football fare moved up a notch this weekend with competitive action getting underway beneath the lights of MacCumhaill Park. A local derby led to a bumper crowd coming through the turnstiles and the cracking atmosphere made for a fantastic’s night entertainment.

It'’s certainly a great boost getting off to a winning start and Rory Gallagher will be fairly pleased with how his new charges performed. Donegal’s recent Division One campaigns have been stop-start by their nature, culminating in two final day shoot outs – one going our way in 2012, the other resulting in relegation from the top tier the following year. A more consistent run this time around with no demotion threat would be on the new manager's wishlist.

There was a feeling of new era about last night with Rory donning his florescent Bainisiteoir bib although we were all transported into the past and back to last September after only a few minutes with Paul Durcan’s very first kick-out going straight to the opposition full forward. Thankfully there was no resulting goal but the collective intake of breath around the ground was one we could have done without. Durcan tried another short kick to Mark McHugh and both Rory and his assistant Jack Cooney went onto the field to speak to the big Four Masters netminder – we’re going long.

Gallagher could be heard shouting ‘tight field’ to his wing backs and wing forwards as Durcan stood over his restarts; the idea being that they are to stay narrow and leave space on the wings before making what they will hope will be an unopposed run towards the ball.

That wasn’t the only shout coming from the Donegal touchline and anyone who hadn’t seen the Belleek native’s management style in action up until now were given the full treatment last night. He is constantly onto his players, both encouraging and chastising but always wanting more. Gallagher has a presence about him on the sideline and appears to be totally focused on whats in front of him and very confident in his own abilities – a fascinating character to observe.

Donegal’s performance initially was patchy to say the least, looking sluggish and lethargic in the second quarter. Whether there was a method to the madness it’s hard to know but Donegal were setup very conservatively in the first half and didn’t run at the Oakleaf defence too often. Patrick McBrearty was the lone attacker with Michael Murphy stationed at midfield. Hugh McFadden was a late change to the named line-up and he was perched between the full back line and midfield and carried a huge amount of ball in the opening period. A comfortable footballer with plenty of ability, the Kilybegs man doesn’t yet have the raw power in his legs and with Odhran MacNiallais struggling somewhat to get into the game in the first half, Donegal were stuck in second gear for spells.

Derry on the other hand ran incessantly at their opponents’ rearguard and got plenty of joy in taking scores and drawing frees, with Mark Lynch punishing any misdemeanours. The visitors were deservedly in front at the change of ends and it was going to need a response from Donegal after the break to turn around a three-point deficit.

The response duly came and the catalyst was Martin McElhinney; on his introduction he reduced the deficit almost immediately with a well taken point but it was his overall directness and the injection of pace he provided, in contrast to McFadden’s calm and languid style that turned the tide his team’s way. His Creeslough colleague in midfield, Christy Toye, came into the game much more and with MacNiallais and Neil Gallagher getting through trojan work around the middle, Donegal moved through the gears.

Perhaps, similarly to last year’s championship, that will be the template; get parity or close to it around the middle sector to begin with before unleashing fresh runners in the second half and consequently redeploying Murphy to the edge of the square. Derry’s first half performance helped the script as they put so much effort in they appeared to have little left in the tank for the final quarter.

With Derry on the rack and Donegal hitting the front, a goal would have ended the contest; the opportunity arrived with Murphy being tugged back by Niall Holly in the box. We were again brought back to a past All Ireland disappointment as Michael’s kick thundered off the crossbar, just like in Breffni Park almost five years ago. He followed that misfortune up with another a minute later, as an attempt at a point came back off the upright and you started to wonder if it was going to be one of those nights. The penalty was soft to a certain extent so maybe it was poetic justice although any logical thinking regards referring decisions has to be tempered with the fact that the man in the middle was our old friend from Sligo, Mr Marty Duffy.

It was time for MacNiallais to put his mark on proceedings and when he was put in the clear by Toye he fired the ball low into the net, a strike that had a fair bit of frustration behind it. That made up for the spot kick miss and from then on Donegal hit for home. Despite an opening or two for Brian McIver’s side, they were unable to get within striking distance and scores from Martin Reilly and McBrearty put a seal on a hugely impressive second half display.

McBrearty took home the man of the match award from Setanta television and it could, indeed should, be the start of a big year for the Kilcar man. Having been a teenage prodigy for so long, the time has come for Patrick to become one of Donegal’s main men. He has all the ability and while he is already a highly rated inter-county performer, he can get to another level. Some of his finishing last night was out of the top drawer while his ball-winning was excellent.

The fine scores from distance that McBrearty, Reilly and Toye registered showed that Donegal are well able to score from distance but it is still a source of frustration for many that the team remains a bit shot-shy at times and this has been the case for a number of years. We’re used to seeing patient build-up with an emphasis on waiting for the right opportunity but at times last night players just had a go when they found a yard of space and the results was some wonderful point taking – let’s hope we see more of that.

Whenever a new manager comes in, those players that were previously on the fringes often stake a claim for a more central role. Martin Reilly is a case in point and he did his chances no harm with an excellent shift of work last night and capped his display with two points from play. Reilly and late substitute Darach O’Connor are fast, nippy alternatives in the full forward line compared to the brute ball-winning power of McBrearty, Murphy and Colm McFadden; it will be interesting to see how Rory assimilates his forward line over the coming league games.

Next up its The Dubs and a first return to Headquarters since that day of devastation in September. Our last meeting with the cosmopolitans of course brings to mind much more joyous memories and despite a defeat to Cork today, expect a tough battle this coming Saturday night. Dublin will surely include some more of their front line players than what took the field at Pairc Ui Rinn this afternoon and it has all the makings of another exciting encounter.