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’.