Monday, February 29, 2016

Donegal Land Crucial Psychological Blow

It may be late February but with a fierce edge on the field and a crowd of over 11,000 in the stands, yesterday’s scuffle could easily have passed for high Summer.

Donegal and Mayo have shared a tempestuous recent history and there was certainly no love lost between those in battle. This Donegal team’s finest hour came at the expense of Mayo but since then it is the men from Davitt country who’ve bossed the meetings. Going into the game with two league wins from two, Donegal generally might not have been majorly bothered about getting a third win but the opposition dictated their mood – they wanted this one.

It was tight and claustrophobic for long spells and the hosts took longer to settle with many of their main men struggling to put a stamp on proceedings.

Martin O’Reilly and Patrick McBrearty didn’t see much of the ball early on with Donegal finding it difficult to escape Mayo’s clutches around the middle third.

Most of Peter Boyle’s kick outs were won by the visitors and it is in these situations where Paul Durcan’s absence, in particular the big man’s laser like ability to find his teammates with short to mid range kicks, is most keenly felt. In the opening quarter, Donegal just needed an outlet ball to stem the tide but Mayo’s high press made it very difficult.

With so many switches around the middle third, Rory Kavanagh and Micheal Carroll were late additions to the starting line-up, Donegal seemed a bit at sea and this gave Mayo’s half back line licence and room to get forward. Shane Nally, Lee Keegan, and Brendan Harrison all got on the score sheet after running from deep.

Martin McElhinney’s introduction added some much needed ball-winning and ball-carrying finesse to the equation and he helped his side stay in contention at a time when they were clearly second best.

A majestic point from Ryan McHugh along with the free-taking of McBrearty and Michael Murphy meant Mayo were never more than a couple of scores ahead and the half finished with just the minimum between the sides.

Louis Van Gaal recently complained that the ‘Law of Murphy’ was afflicting his Manchester United team but we’ve no such objections in Donegal - Michael’s antenna was firmly back in tune, striking some crucial frees throughout.

Mayo impressed for long spells but there doesn’t seem to have been any major shift in their style of play since the appointment of Stephen Rochford. Granted, as a top tier team, it could be argued that they don’t need to alter things too much; to finally get their hands on the Holy Grail though they need to add another couple of strings to their bow.

Their game plan over the past few years has certainly caused plenty of trouble for Donegal, who can't quite seem to figure out how best to play against Mayo; a spell of three and a half years without a Donegal victory in the fixture tells its own story.

However, Donegal know if they can break Mayo’s first high line of defence then their pace and skill can reap rewards and that is why they persist in attempting to go through that green and red wall; easier said than done of course.

It's a high risk strategy that Mayo consistently employ and ultimately forms a large part of the testimony as to why this group haven’t got their All-Ireland – when it works it suffocates teams but when it doesn’t, they’re woefully exposed at the back.

And so it came to pass. Leo McLoone was the beneficiary, raising a green flag after a move which could have seen any of four Donegal players apply the finishing touch such was the overlap created. 

It was a trademark ice-cool strike from McLoone, who was bizarrely described by James McCartan on RTE’s highlights programme as ‘not being noted for his finishing’. One of Leo’s more important Donegal goals came in the 2012 Ulster Final against Down.....any guesses on who was patrolling the side line at Clones that day? It was of course none other than, Mr McCartan!

Christy Toye played a vital role in setting up the goal, a key moment in the midst of what was an impressive cameo, similar to what he did against the same opposition in the 2012 All-Ireland Final.

That score finally gave Donegal a strong foothold in the game and they closed out proceedings efficiently in the remaining minutes.

As well another decent score line posted, the most striking number on Donegal’s side of the ledger was the seven yellow cards issued to them. Those cards, along with the black issued to Neil Gallagher, didn’t have a bearing on the final outcome and Barry Cassidy might well be a relieved man because of that. He undoubtedly would have come in for some stinging criticism had the home side been on the wrong side of the result such was his shortcomings.

Mayo’s first citizen recently called his people whingers but both sides were united in their moaning as the man in the middle was close to losing control of the game.

You can generally tell early on in a match how a referee will perform and whether or not they have a feel for the game; from the off, Cassidy’s decisions suggested he and the players were on different wavelengths. Mayo won two frees in the opening minutes following minimal contact in the tackle but their tactic of going to ground quickly earned dividends.

Donegal on the other hand appeared to be punished for their honesty; in their attempts to break that Mayo line of pressure, they kept pumping the legs looking to break tackles despite often being fouled in doing so. When the frees didn’t come, turnovers and a Mayo counter-attack was the usual consequence.

In isolation, each of the referee’s interpretations at either end of the field were legitimate but there was no consistency evident between one and the other and that’s what infuriates players and supporters alike. 

Eventually Donegal’s frustrations came to a head after the award of the penalty but they subsequently used their narkiness to good effect to change the picture on the scoreboard.

Much of Donegal’s fine play in the opening two matches was attributed to the young guns but yesterday some of the old warriors were key to dragging their side over the line. As well as Toye, the introduction of Anthony Thompson at half-time proved crucial. A steadying influence in defence, he also powered forward and carried the ball with purpose and intent.

Kavanagh in midfield produced a massive display and showed what a coup it is to have him back in the fold.

One man stood out clearly from the rest though and that was Paddy McGrath. As might be obvious at this stage, the standard of punditry on national media, particularly from state broadcaster, is somewhat of a pet hate with this writer. So it was a pleasant surprise that TG4 managed to restore some faith in the art of analysis by selecting Paddy McGrath as their man of the match yesterday.

In truth it was par for the course from the ever reliable Ardara dynamo; he’s one of those players, much like Denis Irwin in his pomp, who consistently performs well and often plays brilliantly. Paddy displayed his usual terrier-like instinct as a marker, carried the ball wonderfully and injected pace into countless Donegal attacks.

Unfortunately he wasn’t able to register a first ever league point despite his endeavour getting him into some scoreable positions. It is McGrath’s default setting to make the piercing run before laying off to a team-mate, as he did for Murphy’s glorious late point, but a bit of work on the training field with Karl Lacey and we might see the marauding corner-back adding the finishing touch to his own good work.

There was immense satisfaction around MacCumhaill Park at the final whistle, perhaps even a sense of 
smugness from the home contingent. It was an absorbing contest, you couldn’t take your eyes off it – quite literally for many a parent in attendance judging by the number of missing children announced over the loud speaker.

The net effect from yesterday in league terms is that Donegal have no worries about dropping to Division Two and barring a surprise will qualify for the semi-finals. More importantly though, the team laid down a psychological marker for the year by beating a fellow member of top the four.

Donegal sit on top of the table and what happens now is up to Rory Gallagher. Does he push on and challenge for a league title? Does he experiment with team selection and/or his game plan? Does he get the older panellists up to speed? Maybe it will be a case of all of the above. Either way, it’s a great position for the manager to be in as he prepares to pit his wits against the Kingdom next week in the land of Healy-Rae.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Rebels Offer Little Resistance to Deadly Donegal

After last week’s cakewalk in Pairc Esler, Rory Gallagher would have been anticipating a much tougher test from Cork in Ballyshannon yesterday. Instead it was more of the same from his charges – blistering speed, wonderful link-play, rugged defence and some fantastic scores.

There seemed to be a sense of surprise amongst the crowd at how easy it all was in the opening exchanges. Cork kept a plethora of bodies back in an attempt to stifle Donegal but it had the reverse effect. The visitors were pinned back and couldn’t escape from their own half of the field in the first quarter.

They struggled from their own restarts, with newcomer Brendan O’Connell in goal finding it almost impossible to retain primary possession with neither long nor short options working.

Aside from the ease with which Donegal scythed through the Rebel rear-guard, the Fr Tierney Park crowd bore witness to another surprise, a collector’s item even – two successive wides in as many minutes from Michael Murphy, including one that was the wrong side of the net rigging behind the goals. If his free taking was befitting something from the Gods last week, Michael was in a more mortal state yesterday. He did include one party piece, a stunning fifty metre strike from the floor but in any case, there were plenty others who had brought their shooting boots, giving The Maestro a well earned break from scoring duty.

Despite incessant rain throughout, it was an unusually placid day in South Donegal (certainly compared to the prevailing conditions in the same fixture last year) with the slight breeze playing no significant part in proceedings. This provided the perfect platform for Patrick McBrearty and Odhran MacNiallais to wow the crowd with their sumptuous shooting.

McBrearty was in outstanding form in last year’s league but niggling injuries kept him from reaching his best in the Summer. If he can stay fit he will torment many a corner back over the coming months. There are few better in the country at getting shots away in limited space; once he wriggles free from his marker and sees a half a yard of daylight, his radar-like left peg usually finds the target.

There’s something different yet very special about seeing a player firing a booming point over the bar off his ciotog. From our own Colm McFadden to past figures like Jarlath Fallon or Stephen O’Neill, the technique of these greats is wonderful to witness. McBrearty and MacNiallais are certainly keeping up the trend with aplomb.

Odhran grabbed all the headlines yesterday with his 1-4 tally from his roving midfield/half forward role. Time and again he drifted in and out of moves, taking and giving hand passes, keeping the ball in transit and then whenever he arrives at the end of a move in space he lets fly with that languid motion.

While the aforementioned duo led the scoring stats, the man who had the most influence on proceedings was Eoin McHugh. He had an excellent match last week but lifted his game to another level yesterday. He was involved in so many of Donegal’s scores, often initiating attacks with his direct running. Despite the modern game being analysed to the nth degree, there is one thing that can never be coached – pace. At times the Cork defence simply could not keep up with McHugh. One example was McBrearty’s point that started at the other end of the pitch with a brilliant goal-saving touch from Neil McGee. The ball was fed to McHugh on the touchline who accelerated away, leaving two Cork defenders trailing in his wake trying in vain to catch him.

McHugh has great maturity and awareness of what is around him at any given time and an innate understanding of the game. As he surveyed his options in the lead up to the second goal yesterday, he was well within his rights to tap over a simple point. Instead he sensed a goal opportunity and worked the ball across to McGee who fed MacNiallais to drill to the net. Goals are more important than ever before in Gaelic football; a breach of a well organised defence is worth as much in the psychological stakes as the green flag that follows.

There is no let-up for defenders against this current Donegal setup; anytime Eoin needs a breather, up steps his cousin Ryan. With a McHugh stationed on either wing, Donegal’s running threat never ceases and if the lads are in full flow, it is close to being undefendable.

Eoin played a big part in the game’s opening goal, finding space on the 21 before returning Martin O’Reilly’s pass and the Mac Cumhaills man did the rest. Following his sojourn at half back against Down, O’Reilly returned to an inside attacking role this week and displayed all his killer instincts in finishing low past O’Connell.

It was another flowing, short passing move much like two of the majors plundered in Newry. These types of precise attacks replete with one-twos, give and go’s and quick hands are much easier to execute since the advent of the black card and in particular the penalty for the illegal block after a player has played a pass.

The other black card category offences remain contentious, Ciaran Thompson was the latest to fall foul of the ambiguity of implementation. He was sent to the line for a late shoulder on an opponent yet despite being floored with an even later hit after delivering his pass in the build up to the second goal, McHugh’s aggressor stayed on the field. These aren’t majorly defining match incidents when the margin of victory reaches double figures but come Championship these could be the difference between winning and losing.

Up until then Thompson was having another good outing, although he was outdone by his brother in the scoring stakes. As is now customary, like Scholes or Lampard in their pomp, Anthony can run the length of the field unnoticed and suddenly appear, stealth-like, in yards of space to pop over the simplest of scores. Twice he managed the trick in the first half and the remainder of his work was carried out with the minimum of fuss but the greatest efficiency.

Even towards the end of the game, with stoppage time approaching, Thompson was covering his defence, doing his job in his unassuming way before throwing himself in front of a goal bound Cork shot.

Paddy McGrath is another who rarely seems too concerned about his own personal safety if it’s for the good of the team. He epitomises the collective effort of the team and in one instance in the first half was quite happy to get a belt in the face knowing that a free was on its way. He took the hit, put the ball down and jogged back to his wing back spot – no fuss, just business.

That was the mantra for everyone yesterday. Even though the lead was increasing throughout the second half, there was no slacking off in concentration or exertion. Hugh McFadden was among the most vocal on the field, constantly barking out orders, reminding those in front of him who to pick up and cajoling them to expend the last drops of energy they had left in the tank.

McGrath did a number on one of Cork’s most influential operators, Paul Kerrigan, who was such a threat against Mayo last week. His trademarks runs were missing yesterday as the terrier from Ardara completely nullified his contribution.

Another of the star performers in Cork’s win over Mayo last week, Daniel Goulding, had a similarly frustrating afternoon. With Eamonn Doherty keeping him company, he found it almost impossible to break free from the shackles of the Eunan’s defender, who appeared to be in cruise control. Indeed, Goulding only managed to score from play after Doherty had been removed from the action before the hour mark.

So as the lads escape whatever storms are heading our way next, they head for sunnier climes in fine fettle. Five goals scored in two games and only fifteen scores conceded means a healthy points difference and top spot in the Division One standings.

Another win will secure safety and anything after that will be deemed bonus territory. Our old friends Mayo are up next and with Stephen Rochford experiencing somewhat of a baptism of fire in the manager’s hotseat, the joust in Ballybofey in three weeks has all the makings of a feisty encounter.