An important two points were secured by Donegal yesterday in a frantic match; just how much importance is attached to their worth will be known in the weeks to come. Certainly had the team been nought from four ahead of facing the All-Ireland Champions, signs would not have been good.
This was a strange game containing as many mistakes as moments of brilliance, exceptional scores allied to shocking finishes.
There was much talk about the new pitch at Hyde Park, relaid after infamously being deemed unplayable last year before Roscommon’s match versus Dublin. It looked the part before throw-in but wasn’t necessarily conducive for good football as almost every player on the field seemed to lose their footing at one stage or another. A fairly sparse covering of grass made the sod quite bare and players on both sides were never sure of their footing.
Following a summer of growth it will no doubt be a fantastic surface and the costs that have gone into it will reap dividends. Those costs have may have forced the County Board to tighten the belt elsewhere – thirsty Donegal folk in the clubhouse before the match were served cans of beer seven months past their sell-by date.
No matter, they were still consumed and anything was welcome in order to steel ourselves for the bitterly cold conditions that awaited once seats were taken in the stand. Rory Gallagher has brought manys a thing to Donegal – expert coaching, management ability both in the football and retail sectors but perhaps his greatest gift is the advent of the bobble hat. You rarely go to any match now, club or county, without a sea of yellow bobbles swaying in the breeze and they were almost as precious yesterday as the two points gained.
Roscommon elected to play with the substantial wind at their backs in the first half but Donegal seemed to adapt better to the elements and were quickly into their stride.
Ciaran Thompson looked a class apart in all aspects of his play and he was on the scoresheet early with an incredible effort into the teeth of the wind – the first of three points he’d kick over the course of the seventy minutes.
Michael Murphy meanwhile looked at his powerful best, driving from deep at will with the home side having very little in the way of answers as to how to stop him. His display was all the more remarkable given that he may have picked up a knock early in the game – the first score of the day was a Murphy free off the ground from distance but for every subsequent effort he opted to go short, a sign that all was not right with the big man? Thankfully for Donegal, all not right usually still results in a top class performance from the captain.
When Roscommon did settle they showed how adept they were in breaching the Donegal defensive barrier by jinking, weaving and sidestepping their way through, coping well in tight spaces.
The game soon developed into an end to end struggle though with so many turnovers at both ends of the field; it was an energy sapping affair.
Some intelligent work was witnessed from both teams carrying the ball forward but a slip, a misplaced pass or a lone foray without support led to a counter attack and so this continued up and down the field for long spells. Neither side seemed capable of holding the ball but it was definitely the visitors who were inferior in this sense.
Donegal, for many years, have produced fast, small players with low centres of gravity. They’re difficult to mark, hard to get near to stop and the direct running they bring to the table has long been a feature of our play.
At times yesterday though, players were dispossessed too easily and the scoring chances that were given up as a result made the match closer than it may have needed to be.
When this aspect of play works though, Donegal look incredibly dangerous.
Martin O’Reilly, so far Donegal’s form player, epitomises this. Another three points racked up, his finishing was excellent, his runs piercing and with so many newcomers in the side he has really stepped up to become one of the team’s go-to men.
It is not too long ago that the Mac Cumhaills clubman was a bit hesitant in possession, reluctant to take on his chances – just like those coming into the team this year. Its natural to play in a safety-first mode but the sooner these lads take on responsibility the greater the pace at which their inter-county careers will progress.
Jamie Brennan missed a gilt-edged goal chance in the second half but moments later he nailed a difficult shot off his left to split the posts, showing great character in the process. That’s what they need to do, forget about the misses and keep looking for the ball, keep wanting to be main men.
With O’Reilly and Eoin McHugh decked out in lime green boots, it’s sometimes tricky to tell them apart as they glide over the turf and eat up ground, leaving defenders trailing in their wake.
McHugh was the man to take the onus on at the end to kick the winning point and in doing so he also brought his tally to 0-3. All told, the trio in the half-forward line contributed a hattrick of points each. McHugh could have potentially had even more as he was stripped of the ball quite a few times and things didn’t seem to be going his way which makes his closing winner all the more admirable.
It was goals rather than points that kept the Rossies in the contest, raising two green flags and in truth they could have had a few more. One effort flashed past the post in the closing stages while at the death, on the cusp of winning the game, Ronan Stack inexplicably went for goal instead of taking his point with Mark Anthony McGinley smartly smothering his effort.
McGinley had another shaky afternoon from the kicking tee but when called upon to defend his goal he’s up to the task.
Even with the goal chances, the rearguard had a more serene look to it in the second half, thanks mainly to the introduction of Frank McGlynn. The Glenfin man looked out of sorts last week and was possibly not even due to see any action, only doing so because of Neil McGee’s illness on the morning of the game. McGlynn though was back to his usual self when introduced at half-time, bringing his renowned calmness and serenity to the Donegal back-line.
Donegal conceded just 1-2 in the second half and in the end it was enough to hold out for a win.
In the grand scheme of things, victory against Roscommon would have been anticipated. Not many will give Rory’s charges a chance next time out against the all-conquering Dubs, particularly if Paddy McBrearty is ruled out after coming off injured yesterday. The fixture in a fortnight is effectively a free hit; give it a lash and see what happens. It might be closer than expected.