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.

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