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.