Monday, March 27, 2017

A Point a Piece in Ballyshannon Battle

Donegal only have themselves to blame after seeing a three point lead evaporate with Conor McManus’ coolly taken stoppage-time penalty in Fr Tierney Park yesterday.

The home team were in control for most of the second half, repelling the Farney attacks with relative ease while giving the umpire with the white flag enough to do at the other end.

The breeze played a big part in proceedings, as it usually does at the venue perched high above Ballyshannon below. Both team’s shooting was erratic with neither able to judge the wind with any degree of confidence.

Even taking the elements into consideration, there was no excuse for some of the poor striking technique on show. Donegal’s first half waywardness was in stark contrast to the economical nature of the returns garnered last week by the banks of The Finn.

Micheal Carroll’s early goal set the hosts on their way and it was a vital score to have in the bank such was the amount of subsequent chances squandered during the remainder of the half.

Carroll's effort and work rate off the ball has been encouraging in the games so far but in most games his finishing has let him down; he made no mistake this time, drilling the ball under Rory Beggan despite being fouled as he struck the ball.

Michael Murphy has mucked in at midfield alongside Carroll, doing plenty of selfless work but he was back in the familiar role of chief scorer. The big man finished up with 0-7 which included three delightful scores from play, his first from open country in 2017.

Monaghan didn’t let the early goal concession affect them though and with Jack McCarron on song they didn’t take long to wrestle the lead from their familiar foes.

McCarron gained the upper hand on Neil McGee and with the Gaoth Dobhair man picking up a yellow card before half-time a change was needed. McGee’s clubmate Ciaran Gillespie was introduced for his first taste of league action this year and made a terrific impact. He’s a tigerish defender, mad to attack the ball and now that he appears to be over his recent hamstring trouble, could prove to be an important player over the summer months.

Another man making his return from injury was Paddy McBrearty and he was gleefully greeted by the 6,000+ crowd on his introduction in the second half. This was the Kilcar sharpshooter’s first appearance since coming off with a groin problem in Hyde Park and he made up for lost time, stroking over two fine points.

McBrearty initially played quite deep which didn’t help the Donegal attack as it allowed Monaghan to push out and clog up the middle of the pitch. Time and again runners were turned over, with Eoin McHugh in particular losing possession several times. When McBrearty moved closer to goal he took a couple of defenders with him and Donegal built a decent lead in this period which should have been enough to see them home.

With McCarron’s influence waning and Paddy McGrath keeping tabs on McManus, the two league points looked a safe bet.

Holding a three point margin, Donegal became a wee bit lackadaisical in their shooting. A few shots drifted to the wrong sides of the uprights, many of them lazy efforts lacking in conviction.

There was nothing absent from McManus’ penalty, awarded following a Martin McElhinney foul on Kieran Hughes. Out of nowhere, Monaghan suddenly secured a point they scarcely merited. It meant Donegal GAA ended the week on somewhat of a downer following brilliant senior and U21 wins over Tyrone.

By that stage, the team had lost Ryan McHugh to an ankle problem and it’s unlikely he’ll be seeing any action in Castlebar next week. Once he’s fit and well for June, that’s all that matters. McHugh had a frustrating afternoon getting constantly dragged and fouled off the ball; he’s probably getting used to it at this stage but it still doesn’t make it any less infuriating.

McHugh was the second player carried off after a worrying incident early on when Ryan McAnespie collided with Hugh McFadden. McAnespie was taken to hospital with suspected concussion.

The wellbeing of sporting stars in the North West has been brought into sharp focus this week of course. There was an uneasy hush around Lansdowne Road on Friday night as the medics treated Seamus Coleman and the messages of goodwill that he has received since shows his standing in the game. Captain, leader and legend.

At the complete other end of the spectrum of tragedy was the passing of Derry’s Ryan McBride. A young man in the prime of his life taken away.

It makes no sense. Life often doesn’t.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Dominant Donegal Trample Tyrone

Donegal saved their best performance of the campaign for their fiercest rivals and were full value for a comfortable six point win in Ballybofey last night.

The hosts’ display was controlled and composed and despite re-awakening a little regret over the past and the Ulster Final defeat, ultimately the game provided confidence for the future.

In producing their spring best they laid down a marker with summer in mind.

The home support left Mac Cumhaill Park with a warm glow inside despite the biblical elements rendering them soaked from head to toe.

The conditions were awful but Donegal seemed to relish the challenge of facing into the wind and rain as well as the Tyrone defence.

Both teams play similar styles and set up in almost a mirror image of each other; you would think then a stalemate would ensue but after trading a few early points, the home side surged clear in the second quarter.

Ciaran Thompson was once again the leading light and right now he is as good a striker of the ball as there is in the country. His wand of a left foot can register points from any angle and any distance and the Glenties man added 0-3 more to his league tally.

While Thompson splitting the posts from anywhere isn’t that big a surprise, possibly the biggest roar of the night came when Paddy McGrath launched a missile from under the stand to score the point of his life.

McGrath is a cult hero for Donegal supporters, emptying the tank every single day he goes out to represent his county. He doesn’t do bad matches and he was once again a vital component of his team’s defensive effort.

Another of the stalwarts at the back, Frank McGlynn, had a brilliant opening half and hopefully his half time substitution doesnt lead to any major injury concern. While the young bucks have thrived this year, the likes of McGlynn and McGrath are still as important as ever.

The job of the defenders was made that bit easier by the unrelenting pressure applied by those out the field to the Tyrone ball-carriers. Michael Murphy, Micheal Carroll and Thompson got through a trojan amount of work around the middle and set the tone for everyone else.

Mickey Harte opted to station Sean Cavanagh and Mattie Donnelly, two of the finest footballers in the land, inside in the full forward line and in truth it proved a wasteful decision. Very little ball came their way and as a result both were out of the game for much of the opening half.

Any ball that did come their way was dealt with by Neil McGee and Eamon Doherty. McGee was at his brutal, brilliant, bullying best.

With Donegal fashioning a lead, they found themselves in the perfect scenario – ahead against Tyrone, in control, the game in their own hands – a carbon copy of the circumstances they found themselves in during the provincial showpiece last July. Would Rory’s charges relinquish another lead or keep their foot on Tyrone’s throat and see it home?

The lead was stretched out as half time approached, eventually becoming five at the short whistle and six in the second half. At no stage did Tyrone really look like they were going to close the gap.

Donegal led with an assuredness. There were no wonder scores from Cavanagh or Peter Harte, indeed McGrath’s black card came from an unforgiving drag down on the latter. It showed that he and his teammates were intent on holding onto their lead, by fair means or foul.

In that decider in Clones, Tyrone were patient in the second half despite being behind and waited on their own 45m line for Donegal to make a mistake with the ball before pouncing. Donegal were ponderous and unsure. This time around, Tyrone were forced out towards the opposite 45 to try and win the ball back such was Donegal’s calmness and confidence with the ball; they were happy to keep it and move it around looking for an opening.

The mindset was the difference. There is a big contrast between knowingly wanting to hold the ball and being hesitant with it.

The U21 joust between these two teams last week was similar. Declan Bonner’s team looked for fast breaks when they were on but they weren’t in any rush to commit men if they felt there wasn’t a high percentage chance of a score. When an attack had to be slowed down and the ball retained that’s what they did.

Teams are so consumed with getting in behind a team before the defensive shape is set that they often mess up scoring chances by displaying too much eagerness and not enough composure.

Cian Mulligan produced an impressive cameo off the bench in that U21 match in Omagh and he did so again in Ballybofey, capping off a productive spell on the field with a well taken point. He’ll certainly be in the mix for a starting jersey for the replay on Wednesday night.

One man who never has to worry about getting a jersey is Ryan McHugh, who was magnificent once again. His intelligence in possession is wonderful and is a player that Tyrone simply cannot cope with. Both teams have set man markers that are generally used when the sides meet – we saw the latest instalment of Justin McMahon’s staring contest on Murphy – but Tyrone have yet to figure McHugh out.

There were more rows than scores in the second half but the outcome was decided long before the final whistle sounded. After securing their place in next year's Division One against Cavan, this win suddenly puts Donegal in with a chance of reaching a league final.

Who knows, maybe there could be a repeat of this fixture next month? Either way, they will meet again.

That can wait as the battles keep on coming – Monaghan next up.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Donegal Impress in Cavan Coast

Donegal secured a win away to Cavan on Saturday night in an extremely efficient, no-fuss manner and in the process took a huge step in cementing their place among the elite of Division One for next year.

Barring the period before half-time, when Cavan closed the deficit after being outplayed up until then, Rory Gallagher’s team were utterly professional in their display and swatted aside their opponents.

Donegal’s dominance emerged from a superior midfield platform and it was evident that much work has been done on the training ground this week on claiming possession.

For every kick-out there were several Donegal men on high alert in anticipation of any impending breaks. Noticeably, there were no clean catches with players electing to bat the ball down to the waiting posse rather than claiming it themselves or driving a fist through the ball. They stuck to the plan and reaped the rewards although there were a couple of instances where a ball could have been caught and a mark claimed.

Whenever Cavan did manage to pick up any scraps around the middle they found it difficult to translate that possession into scores; frees from Seanie Johnston just about kept them in touch such was the meanness of the visitors’ rearguard.

One recurring theme with Donegal over recent years is the oft-seen failure to put teams away when on top. A gap of two points at the break did not reflect Donegal’s complete supremacy; the lead should have been closer to double figures. It took Cavan twenty-two minutes to register their first score and they shouldn't have been anywhere their opponents at the short whistle.

This wrong was righted in the second half but it is a facet of the game that must improve, particularly against more illustrious foes. If you are in the ascendancy against one of the big guns then it must show where it matters – on the scoreboard.

Caolán Ward rightly received plenty of plaudits nationally for his performance against Dublin last week and he followed it up with another polished display. Twice in the first half, he thwarted Cavan point-scoring attempts by putting the shooter in question under pressure, causing their kicks to skew off target. Ward is an accomplished defender who does the basics well but his main strength at present is his ball carrying. He formed a dynamic half-back line along with the outstanding Frank McGlynn and livewire Eoghan Ban Gallagher.

Killybegs’ Gallagher was involved in the red card incident and that moment provided possibly the greatest insight from the night.

Michael Murphy has been county captain for six years now but with so many of the old guard exiting the stage his leadership is even more vital. He provides it in his play and attitude every day but last night when he felt one of his men had been recklessly scythed down he wasn't taking it; his new found friends in Clermont would approve of his actions.

Murphy, followed by his men, piled in to engage in some handbags, pushing, shoving and all the rest; he was making a very clear point that despite the inexperience of some of his players, they are not to be taken lightly and will not be taking a backward step.

While these incidents are usually described as ‘unsavoury’ and ‘not what we want to see in the game’, they do get spectators off their seats and also tell a lot about a team’s psyche. We’re fascinated at looking at new players, formations and tactical nuances but just as important is the state of a team’s spirit and togetherness behind the scenes.

Regardless of what level you play at, you want your mates to back you up and thats exactly what Murphy did.

Jason McGee encouragingly got stuck into the mini-melee as well but didn’t last too much longer after coming out second best in a 50-50 shoulder charge. Hopefully there is no serious damage although early indications suggest that Declan Bonner will have to plan without the Cloich Cheann Fhaola giant for the upcoming U21 Championship opener against Tyrone – the last ever U21 championship, with the U20 version coming in for 2018.

Once Cavan had lost Killian Clarke to a red card for that challenge on Gallagher, they were left behind in Donegal’s slipstream as the points were added to their tally with more regularity. Ciaran Thompson kept the score keepers busy with an exceptional display of shooting.

A green flag was raised through Eoin McHugh, the major coming about after a blistering raid involving six players from halfway and into goal scoring territory.

That score showed how the manager's tactics in creating space worked a treat.

Barcelona famously adopted what became known as a ‘false 9’ system under Pep Guardiola’s stewardship, which essentially meant their striker dropped into midfield leaving their forward line empty; all attacks and therefore scoring threats came from deep. Opposing defenders didn’t know whether to hold their position or follow their nominal marker. Guardiola became Gallagher in Breffni Park, with Rory adding his own slant to the tactic.

In the continued absence of Paddy McBrearty, Donegal are lacking a killer forward inside so the majority of scores are going to come from runners entering the opposition attacking third. Playing with no forwards though would leave a lot of traffic to be negotiated in the middle third.

Hugh McFadden and Darach O’Connor were left with the tough job of making runs that were rarely, if ever, going to be used. Their job was to occupy Cavan’s full back line, make them mark the forwards even though the damage was being done out the field.

Rory employed a similar scheme to great effect in the first half of last year’s Ulster Final. Then it was McBrearty and Murphy who occupied Tyrone’s defenders and their accompanying sweepers, allowing Ryan McHugh to run riot further out the field, scoring three stunning first half points.

Last night, after the hard yards had been run by McFadden and O’Connor, and Cavan’s defenders energy had all but dissipated, Jamie Brennan was able to capitalise and helped himself to 0-3 upon his introduction. The Bundoran youngster has found it difficult to find space in his outings thus far but coming off the bench suited him and he showed his finishing abilities.

All in all, this latest league outing for the team was a good one. Many had predicted a relegation battle before the league got underway but with five points on the board the side are in good shape. There is plenty more to learn for this young team and with Tyrone up next they will learn what a real bruising Ulster derby is all about.