Monday, August 10, 2015

Donegal in Meek Surrender as Mayo March On

Despite plenty of faith and optimism amongst Donegal supporters prior to Saturday’s match, in the end it was a somewhat meek surrender by their team on the field. Rory Gallagher’s charges weren’t playing all that well in the opening half but they were still actively in the contest and after previous strong second half showings they would have been satisfied with that.

Aidan O’Shea’s goal just before the half time whistle was the killer blow; the difference between a one point deficit and a four point one as regards the manager’s team talk is massive.

O’Shea would have been talked about quite a bit at training sessions during the week so for Donegal to concede a goal via something they would have worked specifically on stopping is disappointing. Neil McGee had a good battle with the towering Breaffy man and won his fair share of ball. For the goal itself though he needed help and his sweeper riding shotgun with him, Mark McHugh, was pushed off the ball far too easily. To tackle a bigger man, it makes more sense to go low rather than high so trying to push him back at chest or shoulder height isn’t going to work.

The sweeper system employed by the two teams offered an interesting contrast – McHugh is a small player but one who reads the game wonderfully and hoovers up a huge amount of ball. Mayo on the other hand had the giant figure of Barry Moran standing sentry in front of Michael Murphy meaning that even when the Donegal captain did claim ball that came his way he would be met with the imposing figure of Moran – fighting fire with fire.

Goals generally decide the big Croke Park games these days; such is the claustrophobic nature of matches over the past few years, green flags are attached with even more importance.

Criminally another one followed soon after the change of ends, with Lee Keegan’s effort settling in Paul Durcan’s net as opposed to going over the bar. Just like we saw with Fionn Fitzgerald’s equaliser in the Munster Final - when the corner back was aiming to hit a long ball into Kieran Donaghy but it instead split the posts - these are the breaks that big teams get in the course of a championship campaign.

Keegan had a fine match and even though his defensive tendencies are questionable and he can be vulnerable, when he’s in the mood and allowed to attack he’s lethal.

That goal ended any semblance of thought about a Donegal comeback and the game petered out with mistakes aplenty on both sides. A more clinical outfit may have clocked up a bigger tally but while Mayo failed to post a big number when the chance was there, they certainly illustrated their intent to score goals. Earlier in the first half they took a quick free when there was just a sniff of a chance of getting a shot at Durcan and it was this type of quick thinking, even devilment that was lacking from Donegal’s display.

One of the key tactical calls Rory made before the game was the decision to concede the kick outs to Mayo. There was certainly merit in the idea, as Mayo’s bulk and physical advantage around the middle make them favourites to win their own restarts. If Donegal had pushed up and still lost possession they would be leaving themselves open at the back. With Mayo looking to play high ball into O’Shea though, the tactic allowed them to work the ball past midfield following an uncontested kick out and then start the aerial bombardment. Two teams that have successfully overcome Mayo’s dominance in this midfield area are Kerry last year, through matching their physicality and Dublin in the 2013 final, who used pacey midfielders to run their less mobile opponents out of position.

Martin McElhinney made a big difference when he entered the fray, winning the first four restarts that came his way. Three of these were balls that he broke but typical of Donegal on the day none of his team mates were there to collect. It is fairly basic stuff that half forwards and half backs need to be under their midfielders to win breaking ball; the midfielder has done his job when he gets something on the kick out or if he ensures his opponent doesn’t.

There were plenty of other schoolboy errors that plagued the Donegal performance – seeing such an accomplished footballer as Karl Lacey playing a hand pass across his own penalty area in the second half defied belief.

Lacey and the rest tried their hardest in the closing stages and there was no sense of the utter collapse that we witnessed against the same opposition two years ago. Hugh McFadden worked tirelessly throughout and despite his lack of confidence on the ball and reluctance to go forward when in possession he will have learned from this year and his game will improve.

As usual it was Murphy who led from the front with an exceptional performance culminating in a total of eight points. It is the great conundrum for his managers – forward or midfield? Michael produced a fantastic display yet if he were at midfield could he have brought that presence that could have tipped the scales and made for a different strategy on kick outs? It is a tricky one but at the same time it’s a great problem for a manager to have, having to pick where to play the game’s best player.

Allied to the differences in opposing sweepers, another contrast between the sides that doesn’t reflect well on the Donegal players and management, is the quality of ball played into their respective dangermen. Throughout the match, Mayo played excellent ball into O'Shea; ball that often gives him the advantage over his marker – a few yards in front of him, good height and supplied from an angle. At the other end of the field, Murphy deals with good ball, bad ball, high ball, low ball and every kind of Hail Mary ball in between. It often is 50-50 at best at makes Michael’s job extremely difficult and of course this gives great encouragement to opposing teams. While Michael isn’t far off being Superman, he still needs more care and precision to be taken by those delivering the ball to him.

Murphy was needed to carry the scoring burden with Patrick McBrearty and Colm McFadden both misfiring. The huge promise shown by McBrearty all year had us all thinking that he was about to make the step up from good to great but when it came to Croke Park he just wasn’t able to do the business. Granted he has been troubled by numerous niggles since the Armagh game and like many Donegal players it has hampered both his preparation and his performance.

Others like the McGees, McElhinney, Lacey and Murphy suffered injuries in the past few weeks and it is another example of a wee bit of luck that has eluded Donegal this season.

So where does this leave the team for 2016 and beyond? The easy synopsis is that Donegal were a tired team after travelling such an arduous route to get to the quarter finals whereas others like Mayo and Dublin have had it much easier. Monaghan suffering defeat as well at the weekend against a Tyrone team who have had a straight forward run through the qualifiers adds credence to that claim - is it that simple though? Mayo impressed in many aspects of their game but still didn't seem a vastly superior outfit; basic errors from Donegal and killer goals were the difference. Is that directly correlated to tiredness versus freshness? If the answer is yes then an incursion through the back door seems to be more beneficial for any Ulster county - the fact that both finalists bowed out of the championship within hours of each other doesn't say much for the provincial competition but such is the folly of the system.

There will no doubt now be talk of retirements and of eras ending. These conversations follow any championship exit but the future is bright for Donegal football. Even if some of the elder statesmen on the panel decide to call it a day there will remain an outstanding bunch of young, talented players like Odhran MacNiallais, Ryan McHugh, Darach O’Connor, Martin O'Reilly and of course Murphy. Others such as Eamon Doherty, Eoin McHugh and Ciaran Thompson will don the Donegal jersey with distinction in the years ahead.

As has oft been the case in recent times, there is a lot to be learnt from our neighbours in Tyrone, their play-acting antics apart. After their opening day league defeat to Monaghan there was talk of a crisis and the same chat started again after their capitulation in Ballybofey in March. On each occasion they went back to basics and worked their way back to form and now find themselves facing a clash they will relish – Kerry at Croke Park. In the games following the defeat to the Farney men, against Mayo and Dublin, they made themselves hard to beat and ground out league points. In the qualifiers they were efficient without ever really moving through the gears.

Since 2011, when this Donegal team began to realise its potential, they were hard to beat. Donegal were horrible to play against. They were feared. Everyone knew what they were going to do but few knew how to counteract it. They have moved away somewhat from what made them successful. That stubbornness, that thou shalt not pass mentality needs to be rediscovered. Be hard to beat and then the attacking play, slickness and confidence will follow. Time to go back to basics.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Donegal Tame Tribesmen as Familiar Foe Awaits

A familiar foe awaits Donegal in Croke Park next Saturday and the team go into that game feeling good about themselves and knowing they have the wherewithal to beat Mayo.

The only issue is whether Donegal have enough left in the tank after five tough matches; because there is no doubting the ability is there with the second half blitz on Galway providing ample evidence.

As now seems the norm, the team stormed out of the blocks but then faded just as quickly. The second quarter appears to be a form of downtime, it happens so often that it is no longer a surprise. On the big days when the team has managed to put together a consistent display across most or all of a match, including a big second quarter, the performance has been amongst their best – think of the semi final victories over Cork and Dublin.

Donegal certainly reached a different level after the break with a devastating counter attacking salvo that floored Galway. A central figure, particularly to the fore when the game was still close, was Odhran MacNiallais.

The stylish midfield operator was outstanding in everything he did. He caught some superb ball in the engine room and scored three glorious points from play; there aren’t many players in the country who could convert the chances the young sharp shooter was knocking over.

His fielding was wonderful to watch and it is especially impressive considering he rarely gives away frees when contesting for kick outs. So often you see referees penalising players for a slight nudge in the back or an arm over the shoulder of an opponent but Odhran’s spring off the ground means he can out jump most without resorting to fouling.

The long range efforts along with those of Colm McFadden and others were in stark contrast to the shooting against Monaghan last time out – those that were shanked wide in the Ulster Final were finding their target this time around.

McFadden ran MacNiallais close for the man of the match gong after he produced a brilliant display around the middle. Whether he’s spraying passes, making tackles or kicking over booming points, the Creeslough marksman is revelling as a deep lying link man and it was important he got back on track following an abject display in Clones.

Colm has always been a talented finisher but he has added a significant string to his bow by committing to taking on his marker much more and ruthlessly driving at goal. His first instinct nowadays when close to goal is to beat his man and he displayed this with his assist for Patrick McBrearty’s early goal. In years gone by his first option would be to find a yard of space in which to swing that trusty left peg but now he is direct and sniffing for goals – a feature of his and Donegal’s game that will be crucial next week. Mayo’s Achilles heel over the past few years has been the number of goals they concede in big matches, as Donegal know all too well from 2012.

Another man who will be central to the assault on Mayo’s rearguard will be Michael Murphy. He spent much of his Saturday evening inside at full forward and produced some majestic moments like only he can.

His outrageous catch and subsequent point was a stunning piece of action; it was Aussie Rules-esque and even had a hint of a basketball slam dunk with Michael managing to hang in the air for that split second before he got his paws on the O’Neills. It was an important moment in the overall context of the match too as it lifted the crowd and Ryan McHugh’s goal followed soon after. The Maestro was again central to that score, the deftness of his touch vital in ensuring McHugh didn’t have to break stride before finishing beautifully to the corner of the net.

Of course after any full-forward magic from Murphy, the usual cries of ‘why doesn't he play there all the time?’ grow ever louder. Galway were very accommodating in their defensive setup and effectively laid out a welcome mat for Murphy unlike Monaghan or indeed any Ulster team who suffocate him with anything up to four markers at times. The good news is that Mayo may well be just as obliging – if so, expect to see quite a bit of Michael on the edge of the square again.

While Donegal had a few standout performers, there were plenty others who went about their business quietly and efficiently. Neil Gallagher got through his usual mountain of work while surprise starter Hugh McFadden handled his first championship outing at Headquarters admirably. The Killybegs man put in a great shift and notably made some big hits when the ball was being scrapped for in the middle third.

Half time substitute Anthony Thompson also went about his task with the minimum of fuss and with doubts over Karl Lacey’s availability next weekend Thompson will surely be needed again. Eamonn Doherty is another option at half back and he will be pleased with his calm and assured time on the field, a couple of potentially costly slips apart.

Overall though the defence looked a little bit loose and open in the first half and while Donegal will be intent on plundering Mayo for goals, it is just as imperative that Paul Durcan’s goal is kept under lock and key.

As well as the injury concern over Lacey, Eamon McGee and McBrearty are unlikely to be fully fit but in the case of the latter he will certainly be expected to start even though that knock to the knee suffered against Derry continues to be a problem.

The health and wellbeing of the team is Rory Gallagher’s biggest concern this week but in mixing things up a bit against the Tribesmen, the boss will hope that Martin McElhinney and Christy Toye amongst others are fresh and ready for big impacts. Toye only made a brief cameo but still managed to add another goal to his Croke Park tally; his wonderfully struck shot the latest in a long line of HQ goals that started way back in 2002 with a major against Meath.

One week doesn’t allow much time to prepare for such a huge game but the team appear in much better shape than at the same stage two years ago. After the 2013 Ulster Final defeat to Monaghan, Donegal made seriously hard work of their qualifier against Laois. It was sheer will that got them that victory, even though it was clear there was very little left in the legs that night in Carrick on Shannon. Now though there seems to be confidence within the players that they can still achieve the ultimate goal this year and they know that one defeat doesn’t suddenly make them a bad team.

There are plenty arguments that can be made for a win for either side next week so whether Donegal or Mayo win, neither outcome would be a surprise. The margins are so very fine.

At half time of the earlier game on Saturday between Tyrone and Sligo, the Artane Band provided the musical entertainment. One particular tune that got an airing will strike a chord with Donegal supporters as they converge onto Jones Road next week in their droves – Don’t Stop Believin’. Bring it on.