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.