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.