“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.