Sunday, August 7, 2016

Donegal Bow Out as Dubs March On

All over for another year then and in truth yesterday’s game played out as expected. Dublin were good without being great; Donegal were competitive without ever threatening to hit top gear.

The reservations and doubts that have been simmering on the surface right throughout the year were still evident against The Dubs – slow kick outs, a reluctance or inability to shoot from distance and a more-porous-than-usual defence were factors in both Championship defeats suffered this Summer.

Add in vastly reduced energy levels following a typically bruising Ulster campaign and Donegal were facing an uphill battle once the ball was thrown in.

Dublin threatened to run riot early on. Diarmuid Connolly had two glorious goal chances but took neither. The first was brilliantly saved by Mark Anthony McGinley in a moment reminiscent of his predecessor’s stop against the same player two years ago.

The Dubs’ long range efforts were fantastic with Connolly, Philly McMahon and Dean Rock all splitting the posts in front of The Hill in the first half.

Most of the Dublin forwards were winning their individual battles although Neil McGee was outstanding from start to finish, not giving Bernard Brogan so much as a shot at the posts.

Donegal were living off scraps. Frees from Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty just about kept them in the contest.

Much was made of the perceived vulnerability of Dublin’s full back line in the lead in to the game and sure enough Murphy spent much of the first half alongside McBrearty in the full forward line, hoping to exploit it.

Its one thing however having a plan to hit Michael with long ball, another executing that plan correctly. Time and again the delivery into the big man was atrocious. Most of it was over-hit, some was too close to the two men marking him.

If a forward is out in front of his marker then he wants a ball played a few yards ahead of him so that he can attack it. No defender is going to beat a man of Murphy’s size coming from behind.

The most iconic pass in Donegal GAA history is Karl Lacey's ball into Michael at the start of the 2012 All-Ireland Final. Yesterday’s passes were anything but iconic.

Meanwhile, Paddy couldn’t repeat his heroics from last week. He was well marshalled throughout and whenever he did get possession he was pushed wide and forced to shoot from ever narrowing angles.

The five point half time margin became seven early in the second half but Ryan McHugh’s goal provided a glimmer of hope and the score was a reminder of what this team is capable of. Eoin McHugh pounced on a loose pass and after a beautiful sequence of intricate hand passes, including a sensational scooped pass from Leo McLoone, the move ended up with Ryan palming the ball into an empty net.

The team sensed the chance was there for them but the fizz wasn’t. There was no kick in the legs. Even with an extra man for half an hour, the requisite vigour could not be summoned. To a man they all battled but despite a proud effort, there would be no famous comeback.

One prominant feature of both games at Croke Park was the targeting of key players. There are many ills in the modern game at present but this is one of the most worrying. It happens now in every big game and every team is guilty. The main opposition player (or players) are selected in the lead up to the game and is then targeted during the match – they’re pushed, shoved, wrestled, pulled, hassled, harried, sledged, abused. All of this takes place off the ball, out of sight of the referee and with little help coming from the rest of his officials it carries on.

Yesterday it was Lee Keegan on Sean Cavanagh, McMahon on Murphy. Previously we’ve seen Aidan O'Mahony and Justin McMahon on Murphy; Eamonn McGee on Cavanagh; Neil on Conor McManus. There are plenty other examples. Is it right that big players can have their influence reduced simply by a nasty opponent bullying them? It's becoming too easy, a team decides 'we need to take him out of the game' and it's done.

As for things closer to home, what now for Donegal? Questions will surround the futures of players and management, as always happens with every county after Croke Park losses.

One thing that is certain is that the blooding of youngsters needs to carry on. The natural evolution of the team will continue as many of our All-Ireland heroes move on and the talent from recent successful minor and U21 teams take their place.

The hardest thing for a successful team to do is to move on those lads that made you successful. Its illogical in a sense but it's necessary.

Those who step aside will of course make that job easier for management and the most recent retiree was Colm McFadden, who broke the news in Croke Park last night. A classy, elegant forward who soldiered for the cause for fourteen years, Colm got the rewards his talent warranted in 2012 with a precious Celtic Cross, an All Star and he also finished that season on top of the scoring charts.

Colm will now join the rest of us in the stands at MacCumhaill Park, Clones and Croke Park and while there is acute disappoint today after exiting the Championship, it wont be long until it all starts again. 

In the meantime we have a minor All-Ireland Semi-Final to look forward to – we might get to see a Donegal team at Headquarters on the third Sunday in September yet.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

McBrearty Breaks Rebel Resistance

Donegal have cleared the qualifier hurdle once again and are back in an All-Ireland quarter final. Its probably taken for granted a bit now, it being our sixth on the spin but its an important milestone nonetheless. The fact that Dublin lie in wait frames the magnitude of it.

At times it was a struggle and the inevitable Ulster Final hangover was evident early on. Once the line was breached with Paul Kerrigan’s goal, the Donegal players upped the ante and dipped into their vast reservoirs of experience, grit and determination to haul themselves back into the game. And of course, there was a certain man by the name of Patrick McBrearty to play a leading role.

From the first ball that Paddy got into his hands, he was in the zone. Regardless of distance or angle, he fancied everything he hit to sail over the bar. A case in point was his second half strike when he shot with his back to goal, instinctively guiding the ball over his right shoulder and splitting the posts. It was a sensational display to witness.

Part of the reason for the space McBrearty was able to find was due to Michael Murphy having two Cork players for company. Their sweeper sat in front of Murphy, leaving swathes of open country elsewhere in the forward line.

Usually when the team reaches Headquarters, Murphy gets freed from the claustrophobic marking of Ulster and flourishes in more space and more direct ball from his team mates. His displays against Galway and Mayo this time last year were vintage Murphy. Yesterday though, in the opening quarter, the lads out the field seemed over anxious to get the ball into him and ended up playing a lot of poor passes. Michael found the going tough thereafter and one party piece aside – a delightful point with the outside of his boot – he didn’t have a major impact on proceedings. Hopefully he’s saving something special for next week.

McBrearty’s brilliance kept Donegal in the match in the first half as the team found it difficult to win possession such was Alan O’Connor’s dominance at midfield. An obvious height advantage over Odhran MacNiallais allowed O’Connor to win ample ball when Cork went long with their restarts. MacNiallais did manage to break some ball but Cork’s runners were more alert and picked up most of these.

Donegal couldn’t cope with the second wave of runners coming from deep and Cork racked up some handy scores in a period of ascendancy. They found it extremely easy to cut through Donegal’s defence and this aspect of play will be Rory’s main worry as Dublin loom large on the horizon.

Cork simply ran up the middle with those in front of the ball carrier making made runs out to the wings, leaving the man in possession with ample space to drive in to. Straight forward enough ploy but it took Donegal quite a while to figure it out.

When Cork were forced to go short on their own kickouts, Donegal had a bit more joy and that led to a change of tact after half time. The instruction was clear – let them have it. Donegal retreated to midfield leaving several defenders free and this negated the Rebels’ aerial supremacy. It would be no surprise to see similar tactics employed next week.

Parity was slowly gained in midfield with Martin McElhinney coming to the fore, justifying his recall with an industrious shift in the engine room.

As the McBrearty show continued into the second half, it looked as if Kilcar was going to do it all on its own with Ryan and Eoin McHugh taking the game to Cork. The pair ended up five points between them, leaving the club’s total at a whopping 0-16.

As mentioned with Murphy earlier, some players generally up their game when they reach Jones Rd and, despite already hitting some impressive heights in this year’s Championship, Paddy McGrath did just that. He was fantastic tearing up and down the wing and also got his hands to some important clearances and interceptions in his full back line. His performance culminated in a courageous block towards the end of the game, flinging himself in front of a goal bound shot.

Incidentally, Neil McGee also came up with a crucial block to save a certain goal in the 1st half; his early departure from the field was hopefully just an exercise in breaking up play rather than anything more serious ahead of Saturday.  

One man whose introduction was greeted with huge cheers was that of Leo McLoone. Rory came under a bit of fire for not introducing Leo in the Ulster Final and certainly the support was delighted to see the Glenties man make such a positive impact on the game.

Donegal closed out the contest reasonably well and while there were some worrying moments, overall they always seemed to have that little bit more than Cork.

Little bits of anything wont do next week as it will take a full performance at full throttle to take on the Dubs. Croke Park will be heaving next week, in stark contrast to the early stages of yesterday’s game where the shouts and calls of the players could be heard in a library-like atmosphere.

Donegal famously delivered a masterclass to beat Dublin two years, in a result that surprised many across the land. It wasn’t a huge surprise to a lot of Donegal support though, who were quite happy to take the 8/1 and better on offer from the bookmakers.

The key then was belief. Donegal players and spectators believed they could do it whereas right now the overriding emotion is that of hope. That is what it looks like six days out.

Come 6pm Saturday though, Croke Park will be teeming with optimism and defiance from those in green and gold and that wee voice inside will whisper, ‘you know, we might just be able to pull this off’.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Tyrone Stand Tall in Ulster as Donegal Wilt

Donegal’s bid for a fourth Ulster title in six years ended in disappointment and of the three recent final defeats, this one hurt the most.

In a frenetic period of stoppage time, Peter Harte sent over a sensational point to put his side ahead after Donegal had led for almost the entire game. 

The previous decider losses to Monaghan had seen Donegal playing catch up throughout but it was roles reversed today as Rory Gallagher’s team looked accomplished for long spells and led by four at one stage.

After that lead was established though, Tyrone racked up a tally of 0-9 to their opponents 0-3. They were composed and patient in this spell and a far cry from what they were in the first half – erratic and ill-disciplined.

Donegal on the other hand had total belief in what they were doing early on. Chances were carefully created and taken. Ryan McHugh’s performance was simply stunning. He terrifies defenders with his pace so Tyrone stood off him to ensure he couldn’t run at or around them. With this space offered to him, the Kilcar man was quite happy to take on his shots and he made hay while they sun shone high in the Clones sky. It’s a sign of a footballer of the highest intelligence when he can read what’s going on around him and take decisive action in reacting.

Odhran MacNiallais had brought his shooting boots too and he helped his team into a three point half time, which was a fair reflection of how things had transpired.

Tyrone’s inside forwards hadn’t posed much of a threat and generally most of their scores would be expected to come from the counter attack. That left the Donegal full back line with the task of starting attacks rather than shutting down Tyrone’s. Neil McGee got on a huge amount of ball and carried with purpose into the opposition half of the field.

Donegal had kept their heads while Tyrone seemed to be losing theirs. Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane went off on black cards while player after player hacked woeful shots into the clouds. In the claustrophobic setting, it was Donegal who were finding room to breathe.

Then came the half time whistle. After that it seemed to be a clich̩-strewn disaster for Donegal. Half time came at the wrong time; a game of two halves; whatever was said in the Tyrone dressing room worked Рtake your pick.

Michael Murphy brilliantly created a point for Paddy McBrearty straight from the throw in but then Tyrone proceeded to wring the life out of the men in green and gold jerseys. They waited and waited, content to let Donegal have the ball. They waited some more and once the slightest error came they pounced.

Donegal just could not get through their defence and rather than take on pot-shots against the breeze they pressed and probed, hoping an opening would come. When it didn’t they were turned over and hit by waves of Tyrone attackers.

There will no doubt be frustration amongst Donegal supporters at how insistent the team were in holding onto possession in the second half. Certainly there was a case to be made for more shooting, even if it resulted in more wides than points, but such was the reluctance to offer Tyrone chances to counter, they felt it was simply a case of ‘when we have the ball, they can’t score’.

It is likely though that the only way that the retaining the ball plan would have worked would have been to keep possession much deeper, retreating back and in doing so force Tyrone to come out. Or would it have been better to simply give Tyrone the ball and set up the defensive screen as they had done?

Despite being behind, Tyrone’s tactics were that of a team defending a lead – sit back, wait for a mistake and then swarm forward. Donegal meanwhile were ahead but played the match as high up the pitch as they could.

Interestingly, it was the victorious minor team who managed to hit on the right gameplan. They defended their lead deep and with magnificent ball players and runners like Niall O’Donnell and Aidan McLaughlin they tagged on the extra scores they needed to win.

As frustration grew, Donegal resorted to running at the Tyrone defence in the hope of drawing frees but none were forthcoming from David Coldrick. This reinvigorated the Red Hand men and their leaders came to the fore with Sean Cavanagh in particular producing an immense second half. The gloriously decorated Moy man proved again that he is one of the game’s greats; his two points off his right boot were nothing short of spectacular.

With Tyrone pushing up on Mark Anthony McGinley’s restarts, thus forcing him to go long, Donegal were then ironically starved of the possession that they had almost sole control of for so long. Cavanagh junior, Colm, lorded the midfield battle and what Donegal would have given for Paul Durcan and Neil Gallagher to be on the field for those closing minutes.

Instead it was thousands of Tyrone fans who raced onto St Tiernach’s Park to celebrate at the full time whistle and they can now dream big for 2016. They have placed themselves in the hot seat as Dublin’s main challengers and should those two sides meet further down the line, it will make for a fascinating encounter.

For Donegal it’s the back door again and the record of beaten provincial finalists over the past few years wouldn’t fill anyone with too much optimism. We’ll be heading back to Croke Park in a couple of weeks but not via the planned route.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Six of the Best as Donegal Reach Final

“Donegal are back!” So uttered Dessie Dolan on RTE Radio after last night’s encounter at Breffni Park. 

Well Dessie, we hadn’t gone anywhere ya know!

Donegal have qualified for a sixth successive Ulster Final and that is a terrific achievement. Four of those of course were under Jim so for that streak to carry on as it has, Rory deserves huge credit. This was also his first time beating Monaghan since he became manager, at the fifth time of asking.

As one point wins go, this was a fairly comprehensive one; Donegal led inside a minute and bar a brief period where the sides were level after Conor McManus’ penalty, they led throughout.

Donegal made hard work of the victory in a contest where they were always the better team. The first goal was a crazy one to concede as everyone fell asleep once a free-in was awarded. Some of the players even went over to the sideline to get instructions from Rory as if there was a break in play but with the ball in his hands McManus was the most alert man on the field.

The second goal was certainly contentious – inside or outside the box? Black card or not? Anthony Thompson or Eoin McHugh? The black card was surely the harshest out of all the calls; there was no doubt that a foul was committed but a deliberate act of cynical play? It was guesswork from Maurice Deegan and his guess went against Thompson, who appeared to do his best in trying to get a hand on the ball.

Aside from the goals, the first half belonged to Donegal. It was as good a thirty-five minutes of football as we’ve seen in the Championship since the famous win over the Dubs.

They ran incessantly at the Farney defence, finding plenty of gaps and crucially took their chances through the likes of Rory Kavanagh, Thompson and Martin McElhinney.

There could have been even more joy on the scoreboard as on numerous occasions, Donegal attacked down the left wing but usually ended up with a right footed player on the end of the run, unprepared to take a punt off his weaker left.

The middle sector of the field, where most of Donegal’s surges came from, was dominated by McElhinney, McGlynn and Martin O’Reilly. The latter has improved steadily since Rory took charge but he managed to find another level of performance, finishing the game with 0-3 and was the outstanding player on the field. O’Reilly also played a vital role in negating the effect of Karl O’Connell and his subdued evening was a major factor in his team’s demise.

McGlynn gave yet another masterclass in how to play against modern defences. He has the innate ability to know when to hold onto the ball and when to slow the game down. Then suddenly in an instant, he can inject some pace, change the angle of attack, move up a gear or two and pierce a hole in a defensive line. His intelligence in possession makes him such a valuable player and he is reminiscent of the great Denis Irwin – Mr Consistent. McGlynn rarely, if ever, dips below a seven out of ten rating and very often goes beyond that.

One man who did as much moving as anyone, when he was let, was Maxi Curran. It was a bit like Paddy McGrath’s battle with McManus as the linesman played the role of the back, not letting Maxi out of his sight. 

The sideline official didn’t fare as well as McGrath though as several lapses in concentration let the Downings man run free across the Breffni pitch, much to the angst of the Monaghan crowd in the stands.  

A particularly pleasing aspect of the win was that the team was able to produce such an accomplished performance despite a number of frontline men being kept reasonably quiet in open play. Michael Murphy, Paddy McBrearty, Odhran MacNiallais and Ryan McHugh were all well marked but the supporting cast stepped up to the plate.

Ryan was shadowed throughout by Ryan McAnespie, who generally ignored the ball and instead eyeballed McHugh and did everything he could to block his runs and time on the ball.

Eoin was also stifled to a degree and indeed it was the elder statesman of the McHugh clan, Mark, who made the biggest impact on proceedings following his introduction when replacing Thompson. He scored a fine long range point early in the second half and put in a huge shift of running up and down the field.

In spite of all this, there was a sense that Donegal could not shake Monaghan off and some fantastic scores from distance kept Malachy O’Rourke’s team right on the coat tails of their rivals.

For the closing stages, as the pressure was ratcheted up, Mark Anthony McGinley sent nearly all his restarts down on top of Murphy and Vinny Corey and it was the Glenswilly man who got his hands to most. A few fumbles and dispossessions though from his teammates and Monaghan were able to attack from deep and with five minutes of added time announced it made for a tense finale. Five minutes this week and six last week – another example of the GAA making a mess of something they try to improve, the idea being that each substitution now leads to time added on but with twelve replacements permitted it will lead to every game having four of five minutes added, which is too many.

It would have been daylight robbery had Donegal not come away with the win and they now deservedly take their place in the provincial showpiece in a fortnight’s time. Murphy commented afterwards that this display wont count for much unless they can repeat it in the final.

It will be an early start for the faithful on July 17th with the minors pencilled in for a high noon start against Derry. Its a great problem to have though, two teams in Clones on Ulster Final Day.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Battle Ends Level, War Resumes Next Week

Honours even then in Cavan but the performances of both teams were closer to a pass level. Neither team played to their potential, though in a contest between two bitter rivals perhaps that was to be expected. There was never going to be free flowing football on show and tactics would always dominate the narrative but even accounting for all that, both teams will know they can deliver much more.

Donegal probably produced their best display against Monaghan since the Ulster Final of 2014 and seemed to have a much better handle on how to hurt their opponents offensively than in previous games. The fact that the game was played on the wider expanses of Breffni Park rather than St Tiernach's in Clones is certainly to Donegal’s benefit in this regard.

On a number of occasions in the first half, they were close to breaking through the Farney defensive shield and looked to be in on goal but sloppy final passes or inopportune slips proved detrimental.

Overall Donegal’s finishing was very poor throughout and will be a source of huge frustration for the lads; management of course have to look at the positives and as such will be pleased that so many opportunities were created – making them count is objective number one next weekend.

Defensively, Donegal were content to setup extremely narrowly, giving Monaghan free rein on the flanks. This worked well in the first half but it did allow Monaghan’s players ample space to run into when collecting Rory Beggan’s kickouts and meant the full court press employed by Donegal became somewhat redundant.

At the other end, the vast majority of Mark Anthony McGinley’s restarts went long and while his team-mates got their hands to a lot of these, for long stretches it was Monaghan players picking up the breaks from any knock downs. McGinley performed well and commanded his own box whenever danger threatened; his play-acting antics towards the end of the game though we can do without.

Just before that incident, confusion reigned as Christy Toye supposedly entered the fray for the excellent Rory Kavanagh. Kavanagh was on his goal line defending a free kick at the time and remained on the pitch along with Toye so Donegal were briefly restored to their full complement of fifteen for one passage of play, following Martin McElhinney’s earlier dismissal.

Regardless of what game plan is employed, it is clear that Monaghan are a nuisance for these Donegal players. They don’t like playing against these fellas. From early on, the players were in the ears of the umpires, linesmen and referee Joe McQuillan himself about what they were being subjected to off the ball but their claims fell on deaf ears. It is no more than every team puts up with but their grate at Monaghan having an edge over them is clear. There is one way to fix that of course – win the replay.

Michael Murphy is the prime example of this; no matter what he tries against those blue and white jerseys, nothing seems to go right for him. The harder he tries the unluckier he gets.

He is usually bottled up in Ulster matches and tends to spend his time roaming in the middle third but in a clever move by Rory Gallagher, he was stationed on the edge of the square for long periods and did plenty of damage from open play.

At one stage in the first half, the captain did brilliantly to control and collect a long ball one-handed; he followed it up with a fabulous dummy to create space for a shot but his footing gave way at the vital second and the chance was gone. Typical.

Surprisingly it was with his dead ball striking that Michael did struggle but that can happen to even very the best and is one of those things. If the team has an important, pressure free, he’s still the man you’d want standing over it.

One man who didn’t have a problem with his free taking was Conor McManus. The ace finisher was lethal from frees, racking up seven over the course of the match along with one trademark effort from play. Seven scoreable frees, plus another couple that he missed, is far too many to be giving away and the defensive discipline must improve.

What makes his points haul even more infuriating is that he was otherwise having a relatively quiet game. Paddy McGrath didn’t let him out of his sight for the entire match.

McGrath was certainly one of Rory's better match-ups but he has to yet to find a solution in stopping Karl O'Connell. The wing-back turned midfielder was immense again yesterday, as he was in last year's provincial decider.

McManus’ kicks kept his team ticking over on the scoreboard and in a matter of second half minutes the game went from a tight, inseparable battle to Monaghan suddenly opening up a three point lead.

McElhinney’s expulsion made matters even worse for Donegal and a result almost looked beyond the team at that stage. They persevered though and huge credit has to go to the players for getting back into the game and it was the goal machine himself, Odhran MacNiallais, who got the pivotal score to haul his side back into the mix.

In a frantic finish, both teams might have thought that the game was both won and lost at different times but in the end ice-cool McManus ensured the shares were spoiled.

The Ulster Championship is a tough slog at the best of times. Replays will now take place next weekend on both sides of the draw and the eventual winners will certainly have earned the title the hard way. For the three other teams, it means a futile battle fought in trying to claim the Anglo Celt and will make it very difficult for them to make a serious impression on the All-Ireland series. That is looking fairly far ahead though, for now there’s no need to look past the weekend, when both teams will once again go to war.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Semi Final Showdown Beckons After Super Donegal Second Half

Here we go then - Championship! Regardless of expectations or form, the first Summer day out is always a bit special. There’s a tingle of excitement in the air and the large crowd milling around Ballybofey long before throw-in illustrated this.

As you get parked up, make your way down through the busy main street and hear the grate of the turnstiles upon entering the ground, plenty of memories come to mind of big knockout days gone by. Not long after getting settled in your seat, you hear familiar voices; you may or may not know these people by name, you may or may not know from what club they hail but it doesn't matter - you've sat with them at previous games, heard them roar criticism and dispense encouragement. You’ve been through it all with them before and now you’re ready for another shot at glory.

As is now the norm, the obligatory pre-match changes were announced as the teams warmed up. There was never really any doubt that Eoin McHugh would start after his fantastic league campaign. He and cousin Ryan play a central role in one of Donegal’s prime scoring plans, namely hitting teams on the counter attack.

Some other norms came to pass at the throw-in as well including Michael Murphy heading straight for midfield as is now customary in Ulster jousts. He was quick to demonstrate the benefits of this with a beautifully played pass into Paddy McBrearty, who fired over the game’s opening score. Murphy has a wonderful range of passing and while his presence in front of goal is missed when he plays deeper, it does allow him to use other weapons in his considerable arsenal.

The main advantage for a manager in preparing for the season’s first game is that the opponents are known since the previous October. That gave Rory Gallagher plenty of time to devise a plan to overcome his native county which primarily centred on pushing up on the Fermanagh kickout, stationing Anthony Thompson as a sweeper in front of the twin scoring threat of Tomas Corrigan and Sean Quigley and finally to be patient with the ball in hand.

It can still be a little bewildering to hear the Donegal support’s indifferent reaction to the team holding possession when faced with a blanket defence. Like it or not Donegal, more than any other team, have played a part in developing this style of play so they know exactly what the other team are doing.

Fermanagh had a green and white cordon across their 45m line but Donegal didn’t try to play risky long passes or attempt difficult long range scores. That is exactly what the defending team wants you to do because even if a few long range scores go over, that tactic alone will never win a match. 

So instead the hosts were quite happy to keep the ball moving and put into practice what they have rehearsed over and over on the training field – players running at different angles to receive passes, taking on a man when one on one with a defender and playing little one twos around static defenders in order to break that defensive barricade.

The opening goal came from this, a delicious give and go instigated by the ever impressive Frank McGlynn created the crack in the defensive line and Odhran MacNiallais made no mistake when presented with the opportunity.

Fermanagh had no joy in breaking down Donegal and were forced into going for some long range efforts. A couple of exceptional points got them back into the mix but when the big chance came their way after Neil McGee’s red card they were unable to take it.

McGee was trying to burst out of defence and shrug off any would-be tacklers after claiming a ball from Quigley but in doing so raised his arm; once that happens it is an easy decision for a referee to make.

Quigley’s penalty wasn’t particularly well placed but Mark Anthony McGinley in goal did brilliantly to not only save but crucially palm it well away from goal and not leave any chance for onrushing Fermanagh men to tap home a rebound.

Despite his penalty miss, Quigley seemed to enjoy his afternoon in the company of Eamon McGee. The two were engaging in plenty of chat as soon as the contest started and in a modern game where the line between harmless mick-taking and disgusting sledging is a thin one, it was nice to see two lads who looked to be genuinely having a bit of craic with each other.

The McGee brothers were part of the cohort of Donegal players who were traditional in their choice of footwear but as for the rest, the multi-coloured offerings on display shows that it is all about the look these days. The eclectic mixes of pink, yellow and orange boots certainly didn’t do MacNiallais or the McHughs any harm – the trio were amongst the standout players on show (literally!).

Goalkeeper McGinley, equally as standout with his resplendant tights, had a few erratic kickouts throughout the game but made amends with not only the penalty save but another point blank stop earlier in the half.

With the incentive of playing with an extra man, Fermanagh had a decision to make at half-time – stick with the plan or change tack and go for it. They chose the latter, pushing much further forward in the second half, defending with a higher line but all it did was leave space in behind which Donegal were able to exploit. The Ernemen would have been better off keeping the game tight, wearing down the team with fourteen men and making their numerical advantage count in the closing stages.

Donegal’s re-jig on the other hand worked a treat. Thompson was released from sweeper duty, a move that invigorated the team. Hugh McFadden took Thompson’s place and for the most part kept the Donegal goal under lock and key, allowing Thompson to charge forward in that unfussy manner of his.

Once the first couple of white flags were raised at the town end of MacCumhaill Park after the change of ends, Donegal smelt blood. MacNiallais was again on the end of a composed, poised passage of keep-ball and he had the simplest of tasks to finish to the net.

Plenty more keep-ball followed in the last strecth of the game, Donegal never really looking troubled thereafter.

All in all it was the ideal performance for a Championship opener – a good test provided by the opposition, an excellent riposte by Donegal but still plenty to work on ahead of tougher tests.

The main dampener of course will be the sending off of McGee as Monaghan lie in wait. One of the enduring images of last year’s championship was Conor McManus’ tap on McGee’s chest after scoring a point in the provincial showpiece. There’ll now be no duel between those two in the semi final in a fortnight and its an unwanted tactical headache for Rory as he plots his first win as Donegal supremo over the Farney county.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Donegal Bow Out With A Whimper As Championship Awaits

The main bullet points for Donegal to take from yesterday’s glib encounter against Dublin are also the primary lessons they will take from their entire eight match league programme – kick outs were too slow, midfield was destroyed and Ryan McHugh is an exceptional player.

We knew all of these things already of course but having those first two highlighted again so starkly is a reminder of the work that needs to be done ahead of the Championship.

Alarm bells might be ringing in some quarters after suffering five straight reversals but the amount of games won and performances in general have mirrored all recent league campaigns over the past few years (aside from Donegal’s more straight forward sojourns in Division Two in 2011 and 2014).

Indeed, Donegal were close to being relegated in that year of years in 2012. A drilled shot from Jamie Clarke coming off the post instead of nestling in the net in MacCumhaill Park was what kept the team in the top flight that Spring and we all know the story’s happy ending five months later.

The average league ratio has usually been three wins from seven but what makes this year look much worse is that all those came at the beginning with nothing but defeats since.

So were Donegal right to essentially take a ‘harmless enough’ approach as Rory Gallagher put it in the aftermath? The sides’ championship record would suggest yes, although those who travelled to the capital would be well within their rights to feel a little short-changed.

The absurd amount of errors by Donegal smacked of a team that weren’t too fussed and were not totally tuned in. How many times did we see Donegal players dispossessed by a blue jersey that snuck up behind them or came in from the side unnoticed? Awareness, intensity, focus – all traits that would never be absent in a Donegal team going at full tilt.

As was famously witnessed in 2014, in order to beat this Dublin team, there has to be manic aggression and complete commitment in every facet of play. A league semi-final couldn’t be further from an All-Ireland last four battle played in front of a heaving Croke Park.

Dublin, while not outclassing Donegal or approaching anything like their best form, were much superior in their basic skills execution. They converted straight forward chances in front of the posts, the kind that all inter-county teams would be expected to take.

There was a chasm between the teams but more to do with attitude and application rather than footballing ability. We’ve all seen this Donegal team and these players perform to the highest standard imaginable so we know it's there; it must and will return for championship.

As for the league as a whole, after yesterday’s matches it is probably a welcome rule change that will see the semi-finals scrapped from now on. There was no bite or tempo in either game, both resembled training games.

There were at least some positives for Rory to take from the game. McHugh’s tireless efforts to break down the Dublin defence couldn’t be faulted and he’s up there with any player in the country right now regarding the impact and influence he exerts every time he takes to the field of play.

The McGee brothers were excellent throughout, aside for a momentary lapse which allowed Bernard Brogan to nip in for the game’s only goal. Both Eamon and Neil took it upon themselves early on to instigate almost every Donegal attack as they marauded forward at every opportunity.

Their club colleague in defence, Ciaran Gillespie, produced another hugely encouraging display after making his first start against the same opposition on Easter weekend. Gillespie was given the tough task of marking one of the country’s finest, Paul Flynn, but more than held his own.

While Flynn was kept relatively quiet, there were plenty others who had the run of Jones Rd. With Stephen Cluxton producing his usual masterclass from his kicking tee, he picked out team-mates at will and Donegal were totally wiped out around the middle. That was also the case with the restarts from the other end of the field and it led to Dublin dominating possession.

If a team can't win their own kick-outs then the opposition is dictating proceedings and controlling the terms of engagement. Often when netminder Mark Anthony McGinley looked out the field, everyone was marked; on the occasions when they were free he was much too slow in his delivery.

If there was some sort of grand plan to hide dead-ball strategies from a championship rival then it worked perfectly – Donegal looked a shambles when trying to kick the ball out.

So that raises another question - is the poor league / big championship combo the right way to go about things? It is certainly a risky ploy in switching from being not bothered to bothered in the space of a couple of months.

Kerry and Dublin contested last year’s All-Ireland final and will now lock horns in the league final. They've shown that it is possible to compete in all competitions without having a detrimental effect on their chances in another. Many would feel that every team should go out to try to win every game no matter what is at stake. Perhaps so but we certainly do things differently in Donegal. That’s why the county won an All-Ireland in 2012, that’s why the team has been dining at the top table of Gaelic football in the intervening period.

Rory is no mug. He has a plan and it is strictly geared towards June 12th. The next time we see the lads take to the field, phase one of that plan will be unveiled. Until then nothing matters. 

The next time the team runs out to a crescendo of noise and a green and gold wall of colour in the stands, things will be different. That is in the master plan, league semi-finals in April are not.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Donegal Into Last Four Despite Fourth Defeat

The packed stand at St Mary’s Park roared their approval at the final whistle yesterday as their Monaghan team managed to cling onto their Division One status. Donegal on the other hand weren’t sure how to react - a fourth successive defeat but such was the fantastic form shown in the early weeks of the competition, their score difference comfortably saw them into the semi finals.

Those who travelled to Castleblayney were treated to a rip-roaring battle played in a beautiful setting; the massive field crouched below the main stand gives spectators a great view of the action. Monaghan have honed their game plan specifically to the tighter environs of Clones over the past few years - that is partly to blame for their failure to win big games once they reach Croker – and despite the logistical reason provided for the switch in venue a few weeks ago, perhaps they didn’t want to give Donegal any unnecessary practice at St Tiernach’s Park in case it might stage a potential Ulster Semi-Final in the offing in June.

Many Donegal folk would have passed the pitch on the old Dublin road over the years, before the town was bypassed. The Glencarn always provided a welcome break and a mighty breakfast for the convoy of buses transporting the faithful on those all too seldom journeys to Croke Park.

Donegal got to grips with the new surroundings very quickly, racing into a seven point lead in the first quarter. Martin McElhinney powered home the all-important goal, finishing an incisive move, one of many that troubled the hosts’ rear-guard.

The old adage of being vulnerable after scoring unfortunately proved true and despite the best efforts of the Donegal defence moments later, Daniel McKenna eventually finished to the net after his initial shot was blocked.

For the most part, certainly in that first half, Donegal performed well at midfield. It has been a problem area throughout the spring but with both teams pushing up on the others kick out, we saw a lot of old fashioned, up the middle restarts and the visitors were the ones who profited.

Patrick McBrearty and his forward colleagues did brilliantly in splitting defenders to ensure that Rory Beggan’s short options were cut out and he was forced to go long.

At times there was a fairly similar shape to the Donegal defence as was seen against The Dubs last week but there was an obvious intent in committing more players to attack. After going back to basics, it is a case of step by step and we’d expect much more endeavour to be on display in Croke Park next week than was shown on Easter Saturday.

1-7 was a decent return from the first half but in truth it could have and should have been more. Despite numerous turnovers and counter-attacking opportunities, there was a hesitant element to Donegal’s play when arriving inside Monaghan’s 45m line. That continued throughout the second half and played a big role in the end result.

Donegal’s profligacy coupled with the impressive McKenna at full forward kept Monaghan within touching distance and that was all they needed to do - their final point of the game saw them hit the front for the one and only time all day.

McKenna was being marked by Neil McGee and it was interesting to note that he wasn’t giving the task of shackling Conor McManus – possibly another example of one eye on the Summer and keeping bird and prey apart until then.

Frank McGlynn’s return was a big plus for Rory Gallagher with the Glenfin man making such a difference to his team’s general play. His composure, pace and assuredness on the ball are vital to initiating attacks.

All of those important traits deserted Donegal in the closing stages however as Monaghan produced a huge late surge to preserve their Division One status. Decision-making of any standard disappeared as time and again the wrong option was taken – ball taken into contact, hand passes delayed unnecessarily, bad shot selection – all gifting possession back to a ravenous Monaghan back line.

Michael Murphy was stripped of the ball in the tackle several times in the final minutes – when have we ever seen that? Murphy generally struggles against Monaghan and sure enough before throw-in his old buddy Vinny Corey was a late addition to the starting line-up with a brief to keep him company for the afternoon. Colm McFadden is another who has struggled against this opposition and his wild strike from the wing in stoppage time summed up his team’s approach in the final quarter.

One man who didn't struggle was Ryan McHugh, who put in yet another exceptional performance. Worryingly, his cousin Eoin went off with what looked like a bad hamstring injury; he had also produced a fine display and has become such an integral part of the team that any doubts over his fitness for next week will surely see him excused so as not to aggravate anything further before Championship.

Donegal were punished for their waywardness and when McManus drew the sides level, the visitors would have certainly taken a point having gone over twenty five minutes without scoring. The Faughs branch of the Farney Army demanded more though and Colin Walshe was the man to deliver the point that kept his side up.
Kieran Hughes became more of a threat in that frantic closing stanza, pushing up on the excellent Hugh McFadden, Donegal’s designated sweeper, and having a much bigger impact than he had in the previous hour.

While that point from Walshe was crucial for Monaghan, had Donegal held on for a draw or managed a win the outcome would have been the same regardless of the final score – fourth place in the table and a last four date with Dublin. Granted a positive result would have relegated our fierce rivals, always a satisfying prize but Monaghan are without doubt a top tier team so it is only right that they keep their place amongst the elite.

Despite the negative criticism that both of these teams can often receive due to their style of play, today was a real traditional bruising encounter and a thoroughly enjoyable Sunday afternoon for those present. Referee, Rory Hickey, deserves credit for letting most things go for most of the game, which added to the contests’ pace and physicality, although he did seem a bit more whistle-happy as the game reached its conclusion.

It all means that both teams play Division One football next year and that Donegal will make a trip back to Headquarters for another crack at the league and All-Ireland holders. It also means that in three league and championship attempts, Rory has yet to get the better of his fellow Fermanagh man Malachy O’Rourke. That is a statistic that will need to change in the coming months if his charges are to regain the Anglo-Celt.