Monday, March 30, 2015

Donegal Dominate As Tyrone Forget Their Lines in Championship Dress Rehearsal

Was that the greatest and most shrewd example of shadow boxing ever or have Tyrone really suffered such a fall from grace? The Red Hands were awful yesterday and for a county which such an esteemed recent tradition it was somewhat alarming.

What, if any, effect it has on the Championship joust in seven weeks’ time remains to be seen but surely Tyrone won’t be as bad again.

The last league meeting between the teams two years ago ended up in a four-point win for Tyrone, yet Donegal turned the tables and ended up with a six point victory in the Championship opener two months later.

For Rory Gallagher it was probably the most complete performance the team have delivered under his tenure, leading and dominating from start to finish. In the opening minutes, the home side just seemed that bit sharper, more powerful in the tackle and in general more in tune with each other. The two week break was well utilised by the management team.

The new Tyrone are a more basic re-incarnation of their former selves – plenty of skilful and willing ball carriers sprinkled throughout the team, tough and talented defenders and a couple of decent forwards. It’s all at a much lower level though than what we're used to seeing from Mickey Harte’s team and his younger charges were taught some harsh lessons.

Padraig McNulty has been impressive in the league this year, particularly against Dublin in Croke Park but on numerous occasions he was stripped of possession when he tried to break Donegal tackles. It is one thing galloping up the field in training but it’s an entirely different story when hungry, vulture-like defenders have their eye on you in an inter-county match.

One of those ravenous raiders was Karl Lacey who gave a vintage display of hassling, harrying, dispossessing opponents without fouling and surging up the field to help his colleagues in attack. It is often overlooked last year that after an injury-ravaged 2013 season, Lacey was back to something approaching his best, most notably in his Championship shackling performances against Derry’s Mark Lynch and Kevin Dyas of Armagh.

Yesterday he spent time marking Mattie Donnelly, who is fast becoming Tyrone’s go-to man as Sean Cavanagh’s influence begins to wane. Cavanagh didn’t make the starting line-up in what may have possibly been another example of his side holding fire until May. The Moy legend cut a frustrated figure when he was introduced in the second half, becoming involved in separate altercations with Michael Murphy and Christy Toye and getting very little ball in open play.

Overall Tyrone’s setup was nowhere near as defensive as it had been in recent matches against Dublin and Mayo and they were quite open at times and vulnerable to the counter attack. Anyone watching football these days knows that the counter-attack is a team’s most potent weapon so for an astute mind like Harte to be caught out by it would suggest he was simply keeping his cards close to his chest.

Gallagher, conversely, now has so many options at his disposal that he can show a certain amount of his hand yet still hold an ace or two up his sleeve. A key part of Donegal’s run to the All-Ireland Final last year was the injection of youth and fresh options in the form of Ryan McHugh, Odhran MacNiallais and Darach O’Connor; this year Hugh McFadden, Martin O’Reilly and Eamonn Doherty are providing the same impetus.

Names missing from the starting line-up in Ballybofey included Paddy McGrath, Paul Durcan, Colm McFadden, Mark McHugh and Anthony Thompson – regardless of what the perception may be, Donegal currently have a very strong match day panel. McFadden did enter the fray in the second half to become his county's record appearance holder.

Last year’s young guns, McHugh and MacNiallais, appear to be relishing their more senior roles in the setup and have consistently delivered so far this year. The Gaoth Dobhair stylist gave a wonderful display of high fielding while his exemplary ball-carrying and control were of the usual high standard.

Meanwhile McHugh added another goal to his tally, following on from his major in Tralee a fortnight ago and that last gasp strike in the Cavan U-21 encounter. The underage captain is a nightmare for opposing players to face, his raw speed and comfort off either foot make him very difficult to read and he makes beating players look so easy.

The skill that the Kilcar youngster possesses is similar to that of Frank McGlynn and one score in particular yesterday showcased an important facet of Donegal’s play. With the Tyrone wall having formed across their own 45’, Donegal patiently transferred the ball from one wing to the other and back again. You often see teams doing this but with little or no clue as to where they’re going. In an instant, McGlynn moved up a gear, accelerated past one defender and broke the first line of backs. Suddenly Tyrone defenders are unsure of their role and who they should mark and within three passes McGlynn had got the ball back in front of the posts and had plenty of time to pop over a point. That transition from near walking pace to slick movement is one way to break down modern defences and another example of how Donegal are working hard preparing for the challenge of facing their own game plan.

A lot of work has also been done on tackling technique and it goes back to the point on counter attacking being perhaps the most important ploy in football today. If a side can get their tackling right and dispossess a team who have committed bodies forward it gives them the best possible chance of scoring themselves. Mayo, under manager James Horan and coach Cian O’Neill, worked tirelessly on their tackling method and Rory seems to have improved his team’s ability in the tackle this year.

In recent years, the ‘choke’ tackle has been in vogue in rugby; the fact that it slows the player in possession but doesn’t bring him to ground the key benefit to a defending team. Similarly Donegal’s tackling, indeed most teams’, attempts to slow the man with the initial impact before trying to rid him of the ball - a bit of a variation on the traditional near-hand tackle.

For example, initially a player running with the ball is being chased from behind by a defender. The runner is tackled with an arm coming from behind his right shoulder; he is slowed down slightly but crucially he also instinctively transfers the ball away from the tackler, i.e. from the right side of his body to the left - the defender’s other arm then comes around aiming a direct hit on the ball. So it’s essentially the classic one-two from boxing circles - the player with the ball braces himself for the first hit, leaving himself ever so slightly susceptible to the second.  Lacey demonstrated this wonderfully against both Derry and Monaghan in last year’s Ulster campaign but others such as MacNiallais and Martin McElhinney are now becoming more au fait with the technique.

Captain Murphy is widely regarded, much to the chagrin of many commentators, as one of the team’s best tacklers though it could be said that his black card was as a result of this technique. In essence he tackled too well, dispossessing Cavanagh with his initial hit rather than the second. As his second arm followed to wrap around the player, both went to ground Joe McQuillan deemed it worthy of an early shower. The actual wording of this particular black card offence is a ‘deliberate pull down’ so Michael could probably count himself unlucky but with a one game ban to follow and a clean slate for the summer he won’t be too bothered about missing next week’s trip to Castlebar.

St Michael's man McElhinney also received a black card and he too could feel hard done by as he could claim that his tackle wasn’t a deliberate pull down but rather a jersey pull with the attacker then going to ground. They’re small details but the rule is framed in such a way that it makes every call ambiguous; even referee chief Pat McEnaney has admitted that his men haven’t got to grips with the implementation of the pull down rule as of yet.

Black card apart, Murphy gave an outstanding display - his free taking in particular was breath-taking at times. Three of his first half efforts were from the ground and from sixty yards plus while in the second half he nailed a stunning strike from his hands – fifty yards out, against the wind, with the outside of his boot - it didn’t make any sense to see the ball sailing over the river end crossbar but over it went.

Seven weeks out from another championship battle with Tyrone, it’s difficult to gauge just where the teams are at such was the non-contest nature of yesterday’s game. You’d find it hard to believe that Harte’s troops will be as poor again and there’ll surely be a lot more in the tank on May 17th.

Then again when this Donegal side clicks they can be unstoppable, was that what happened? It was certainly reminiscent of our better performances over the last few years.

The bumper partisan home crowd certainly enjoyed handing out a beating to a local rival; the decibel levels rising with every hit and turnover while each player being substituted was given a thunderous reception coming off the field. With the clocks going forward and that date in May etched in everyone’s mind, the appetite has certainly been whetted for high summer.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Tralee Tussle Sees Kerry Pip Donegal

The cut throat nature of Division One football was illustrated yesterday as two of the country’s top teams crossed swords in Tralee. Despite a relatively good performance from Donegal they left the South empty handed. That has been the way in a lot of games this year - good displays but with no points to show for the effort.
Rory Gallagher wont be too despondent though as his side were well in the game until a costly five minute period in the closing stages put paid to their chances. Three bad wides in succession from Colm McFadden, Mark McHugh and Christy Toye left the team two points in arrears instead of potentially being one to the good; the next Kerry attack led to David Moran’s expertly dispatched penalty and that was game over.
Up until then, the teams played out an entertaining contest, sprinkled with wonderful point taking and some tough tackling as was anticipated with feelings from the All-Ireland Final still lingering. These teams served up what was possibly the worst ever September showpiece yet with the stakes a lot less this weekend they showed what they’re capable of.

The Donegal team took to the field only a short time before throw in and its notable in recent weeks that the warm-up routine directly before the match has been cut much shorter than what it would have been in previous seasons. The side has started games well for the most part and they did so again yesterday with Ryan McHugh timing his run perfectly before collecting Martin O’Reilly’s pass and finishing with aplomb.
Bryan Sheehan then took control of proceedings via his exemplary dead ball ability, notching four first half frees as well as a 45’ from the floor. He also sent over an arching point from play, finishing with a personal tally of 0-6 before injury brought about a premature end to his day.
Michael Murphy wasn’t to be outdone in the placed ball stakes as the Donegal captain stroked over two monsters from fifty metres and another from a 45’ in the second half.

The wind has played a pivotal role in Donegal’s last two games, often to the detriment of good football. It wasn’t as pronounced yesterday in the shadow of the Stacks mountains but both teams did have difficulty in finding their target men full forwards.
Donegal had the wind at their backs in the first half but failed on a number of occasions to find Murphy. He cut a frustrated figure at times due to the ball coming into him, as well as the excellent spoiling display of his marker Mark Griffin.
Most observers in the crowd felt Michael was lucky to stay on the field following is over eager attempt to win a Kerry kickout ahead of Jonathan Lynne. The ball was there to be won but he knew there was every chance he’d take the man at the same time. They might not admit to it but every manager in the country would be disappointed if their player didn't go in 100% for such a challenge. Clare referee Rory Hickey, gave the visitors the benefit of the doubt.
The half time whistle sounded soon after and despite the belt he took, Lynne didn't feel as bad the local youngster who took an O'Neills in the face during the kids match.

After the change of ends it was Kerry who had problems finding their No 14 with numerous long balls going over Kieran Donaghy’s head and out for Donegal restarts.
Paul Durcan again found the going tough against Kerry, as their twin tower midfield of David Moran and Anthony Maher produced a dominant platform for their team. Durcan looked for short options whenever he could in an attempt to keep the ball away from the duo. His very first kickout of the game was a fluffed effort that went straight to the opposition corner forward, Barry John Keane and unfortunately it has happened on a few occasions in this league campaign. The ghosts of Croke Park in September are beneath the surface and haven’t yet gone away.
One man who didn’t feature last September but is improving every week is Hugh McFadden. Noticeable shy in possession in the early weeks of the year, he is becoming more vocal and authorative with each passing week and capped a fine display with a great score from distance. McFadden is playing a role that Donegal haven’t employed anyone to do in the last number of years, a stationary sweeper around his own 45m line. The elder McHugh, Frank McGlynn and others have undertaken varying sweeping functions in recent years with more emphasis on all action box-to-box play but the Kilybegs is a more specific link between defence and attack.

McFadden’s presence and Kerry’s ploy of playing three defenders on two Donegal forwards and allowing the rest of their team to press high up the field let Donegal play more of a counter attacking game; in stark contrast to last week they had space to attack into.
The purists from the Kingdom may not like to see Peter Crowley manning the zone in front of Murphy and Patrick McBrearty although in truth many of them may not have even noticed. Standing amongst Kerry fans, affectionately referred to as ‘animals’ by the late Paidi O’Se, is certainly an education. You wont learn much about football but you’ll learn plenty about the Kerry mindset and how each and every one of them think they should be wearing Eammonn Fitzmaurice’s Bainisteoir jacket.
“Let it in will ya?!” is the most common cry from the terraces, whether or not anyone is inside to receive the ball seems irrelevant! At one stage yesterday the crowd were aghast when they realised Johnny Buckley played a ball into the square yet Donaghy was out on the wing on the far side of the field – long ball is no good to Kerry folk without a big man to catch it.
The best of the lot was the man who thought that half time was up with thirty minutes on the clock; his embarrassed comrade then informing him that senior inter-county matches are seventy minute affairs these days (and have been since the mid-1970’s!).
The crowd weren’t too happy with the home side’s last play of the day either – after getting into Donegal’s half they were pressed and harried and ended up being pushed back, just like the Welsh did to us in Cardiff on Saturday, with the ball ending up back with goalkeeper Brendan Kealy. That Kerry retained possession for a number of minutes and created a scoring chance at the end of it all was lost on some supporters.
BBC’s John Inverdale got in trouble last week during his channel’s Cheltenham coverage with his rose-tinted remark, in Austin Stacks Park yesterday everything was seen through Kerry-tinted spectacles.
Despite their aversion to anything other than kicking the ball into the big man, Kerry’s most impressive scores were those they got through running from deep with Moran and defender Paul Murphy registering excellent points on the run in the first half.
Buckley took most of the plaudits yesterday but in giant midfielder Moran, Kerry have a real classy operator. Comfortable off both feet, great in the air and covers the ground well its great to see him in full flow after suffering so many injury problems early in his career.

In the end a two point margin of victory was probably just about right; a five or six point defeat would have been hard on Donegal and Murphy’s late penalty put a fairer complexion on the scoreboard.
Those three crucial wides played a big part in the defeat for Rory’s men, as well as Neil McGee’s error before Keane’s fisted goal. The normally economical Donegal haven’t been at their efficient best in front of the posts lately; yesterday’s defeat along with the reversal against the Dubs in Croke Park have seen possible points left behind.
While the football on show conveyed the class and quality that both teams possess, Donegal are now in a relegation dogfight and there’s every chance that an ugly shoot out with Tyrone awaits in Ballbofey in two weeks time. On that day points will most certainly override performance.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Dreadful Donegal Succumb to Mundane Monaghan

The infamous All-Ireland Semi-Final of 2011 was a seminal moment for Gaelic football and is regarded by many as a turning point for the sport; today’s encounter in Letterkenny was possibly the closest we’ve seen to a re-run of it. That occasion in Croke Park, just like today, produced fourteen scores and Donegal suffered the same fate on both days, two-point defeats.

Since Kerry plundered Sam last September, the challenge for Donegal has been to try to learn how to cope with teams who reflect their own gameplan back through the mirror. Monaghan set up as expected today and for a while at least it seemed as if the hosts had a defined plan to deal with it – keep possession no matter what, entice the opposing rearguard to move forward and create space behind them. Malachy O’Rourke’s team on the other hand were under orders to retain their shape, mark their zone and forget about pressing the ball. It is a game of chess and it’s little wonder that there’s no Sky Sports Chess channel as part of our TV packages - it does not make for good viewing.

Monaghan’s discipline in not edging out to oncoming attackers was in contrast to Donegal’s players, who hassled and harried the ball when defending. Playing at home they felt as if they had to take the initiative and show some urgency, yet in doing this they left tiny pockets of space and that was all the visitors needed to get a couple of vital scores in the closing quarter.

The players were steadfast in their commitment to keep the ball and in a way it is encouraging that they are so keen to heed the message of their management – after all that is exactly why this group has been so successful. They’re a selfless bunch, are prepared to do what is asked of them and are not afraid of being unpopular. Despite the constant cries of derision from the O’Donnell Park crowd they kept moving the ball patiently hoping for an opening.

There’s the problem though – hoping. As the first half wore on, there didn’t seem to be any conviction or anywhere near enough drive in the movements and most attacks petered out. Twice the players succumbed to the spectators’ wishes and kicked the ball in long after sustained periods of futile probing – one went straight out over the end line, the other was a bad ball that Frank McGlynn tried to make the best of but with two defenders around him it came to nothing. The kicks were at least greeted with some sarcastic cheering.

As in Ballyshannon last week, the wind again played a huge role in the game. Blowing across the field as well as down towards the river end of the ground, it made shooting from any distance extremely hard to judge and made some of the players look very ordinary. Michael Murphy, Rory Beggan and Odhran MacNiallais all missed frees that they would normally expect to score as all day players struggled to get their angles right. Paul Finlay fared the best out of all the free takers and Beggan did nail a marvellous free near the end to nudge his side in front but that was the exception rather than the rule today with some woeful shooting on view from both sides.

So essentially Donegal were doing the right thing because kicking, whether shooting or passing, meant giving the ball immediately back to Monaghan – that’s the way it would be viewed from a coaching perspective. If the wind is stopping you from shooting from distance, if you can’t create a scoring chance from kicking to the forwards and you’re faced with a wall of thirteen or fourteen men that is preventing you from running or hand passing your way to goal then what do you do?  Few of us in the crowd had the answer and it was grim viewing trying to figure it out. Who’d be a manager?!

Tyrone played the same way in Croker last night and created a huge amount of chances and scoring opportunities, mainly because Dublin were flummoxed and fell into their trap; had Mickey Harte’s charges brought their shooting boots they would have won at a canter. The Red Hand men are the original architects of this style of play and are good at it – yet their sole defeat thus far was against Monaghan. It’s no coincidence that the Oriel’s two league wins have come against fellow Ulster opposition – while Tyrone and Donegal can mix it with the likes of Dublin, Cork or Mayo, Monaghan revel in battles against those they know best.

With the strong breeze at Donegal’s backs in the second half there was a change of tack as Neil Gallagher began driving the ball long into Murphy. It paid dividends with the goal – astonishingly our only score of the second half – yet time and again when Michael collected near-impossible passes launched his way, he was mauled to the ground by defenders with little or no sign of his own team mates in support. What appeared a good tactic didn’t work all that well either and that must be a concern as it is one of the team’s primary weapons.

Rory Gallagher introduced runners off the bench in the shape of Martin McElhinney, Anthony Thompson, Daniel McLaughlin and Eoin McHugh in an effort to make a quicker and slicker transition from defence to attack but with Monaghan retreating and conceding almost all of Paul Durcan’s kick outs they ensured that there was no chance of a quick Donegal restart catching them off-guard at the back. Thompson did have a late chance to level the game but the breeze again made it difficult and his shot was dragged wide.

Prior to that it looked as though the game may have been heading for a draw and it would have been a case of neither team deserving to win but Monaghan got their noses in front and with a game to come against another provincial rival in Derry, they will have their eye on retaining their spot in the top tier.

As for Donegal, is this where we hit the panic button? Are we finished? Has The System had its day? On today’s evidence the answer would be yes all around but today is just that – one day.

Any rash judgements need to be put in context. Granted the seventy minutes this afternoon were as poor as we’ve seen from green and gold jerseys for quite a long time but it was just one game. This time last year, Derry were being viewed as world beaters as they lit up Division One yet now they are propping up the table. At the same time Donegal got wake up calls in the shape of a last gasp draw with Meath followed by a loss against Down in Newry.

Also, after many defeats stories often emerge about heavy training undertaken in the preceding days which have a big effect on performances – reversals against Laois and Kerry in 2012 and last year’s league final against today’s opponents spring to mind.

Rory was conspicuous by his absence on the airwaves in the hour following the game with none of Highland, RTE or Newstalk managing to get a hold of him. It’s quite possible that the door to the home dressing room was firmly shut as the players were read the riot act and individuals asked a lot of searching questions of themselves.

One manager who did make it onto the radio was Clare boss Davy Fitzgerald. His team are nought from three so far in the league yet he was calm and contented as he was asked the tough questions. It’s all about Summer for him and he isn’t getting too upset about a few defeats at this early stage of the year – maybe there’s a lesson there.

On most other occasions a trip south to the Kingdom would be a daunting one but right now they could be the ideal opponents for these players to face as they seek to redeem themselves after today’s no show. Kerry are the one team that this Donegal panel will not need any extra motivation for.

That is the challenge for next Sunday; as for this week the best thing to do is forget about it - because it was very forgettable.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Donegal Dismiss Rebel Resistance

Home fixture, home win – that’s generally how things go for Donegal when it comes to league football and so it proved today. It was just a one point win in the end which would suggest a close game but in truth Donegal were a notch above their visitors from the Rebel County.

It was a typical Spring encounter in Ballyshannon – bitterly cold, a biting wind and even a hail shower or two thrown in. It all made for very tough conditions for the players and also for the Aodh Ruadh club volunteers manning the tea-stand – a gust of wind just after the half time whistle almost sent their takings into orbit but quick hands from everyone in the queue managed to keep the club accounts in the black.

Despite the slim margin at the final whistle, it was in the early stages that the battle was decided. With the wind at their backs, Cork went back to their old habits of lateral passing and slow build up play which suited Donegal’s massed defence. It was the wrong approach to take with a stiff breeze behind them and five points was a paltry return at the break - Donegal managed seven in the second half but with fourteen men for much of it. 

The Rebels failed to get quick ball into their lethal inside line of Donnacha O’Connor, Brian Hurley and Colm O’Neill although the latter’s failure to score from play can also be attributed to the strong display of Neil McGee, who made his first start of the year.

At the other end of the field, the hosts were methodical in their attack construction as they faced the elements as well as Cork’s own blanket defence.

It was a tough combination to break down but going in level at the break was a decent return and it was primarily down to the finishing of Martin O’Reilly. The diminutive forward has a knack of popping up towards the end of moves in a yard of space and is prepared to try his luck with efforts on the target. His endeavour is being rewarded thus far in Division One and an impressive return of 0-4 from play was etched beside his name in the final totting up, a marvellous scoring feat considering the conditions.

For the second game in succession, Michael Murphy didn’t see out the full seventy minutes – a deserved black card against Dublin three weeks ago was followed today by a harsh second yellow caution. Up until that dismissal around the fifty minute mark, his side were in complete control having gone on a five point, unanswered scoring rampage at the start of the second half.

Such is Michael’s tackling style that he sails dangerously close to the wind at times yet he could have been given some leniency by Joe McQuillan today for what seemed an honest enough attempt at a challenge. The Cavan official seemed to be of the opinion that any subsequent foul to the initial yellow card results in an automatic second, which should not be the case.

In any event, Donegal needed to weather the storm that was thrown at them following the discharge of their captain and it was in the closing stages that Patrick McBrearty and Odhran MacNiallais showed great leadership and took on scoring responsibility. McBrearty scored the winner with a lovely finish after wriggling free of two red jerseys and it continued his fine run of form.

MacNiallais had a superb game from start to finish and it’s hugely encouraging to see that he’s not resting on his laurels after a sterling breakthrough season in 2014. The Gaoth Dobhair clubman is looking to push on and become a mainstay of this team and his maturity and intelligence develops with every outing.

Others to impress included Mark McHugh and Frank McGlynn with the phenomenal stamina that both players possess being utilised to the maximum today such was the amount of running required on the heavy pitch.

Neil Gallagher put in his customary effortless performance of fielding, defending and initiating attacks. While all around him, lads are straining every sinew to make and track runs, the big Glenswilly man does everything at his own pace and makes midfield play look so easy. He bossed the middle third today and at one stage in the second half, Cork used their numerical advantage to double team him on Paul Durcan’s restarts.

Durcan had a big bearing on the first half, illustrating how a goalkeeper should deal with kicking into a strong breeze. The low trajectory of his kicks gained both possession and distance for his side and allowed his team to start attacks from further up the pitch. Conversely Ken O’Halloran made a mess of his kick-outs at the start of the second period and the subsequent surrender of possession played a part in Donegal gaining such a foothold at that time in the contest; after the sending off, the Cork No 1 had a spare player to find and this made the retention of the ball much easier.

The manager’s main gripe after the Dublin match was his team’s lack of composure and failure to put away their chances. He won’t have been too happy with today’s closing quarter in that regard as his side should have been much further ahead before Tomas Clancy’s goal made for an unnecessarily nervy finish. Substitute Colm McFadden and the lively Ryan McHugh managed to spurn an excellent goal chance by over-playing the ball while shooting chances were ignored and the extra pass played a little too often.

The team’s economy in front of goal has a lot of room for improvement and next week in O’Donnell Park would be a good place to start.