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.