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.