Monday, July 3, 2017

Donegal Stumble Over First Qualifier Hurdle

Sometimes being a GAA supporter is a joyous experience filled with incredible, unforgettable moments. Some matches give you goosebumps when you’re there watching in the flesh.
Others are a penance. Saturday was one such occasion.
A huge crowd had gathered by The Finn to see if Donegal could get back on the horse after their implosion against Tyrone but for many there what unfolded in front of their eyes would have ranked as one of the worst games of football they’d ever seen.
It was reminiscent of the Laois game in Carrick on Shannon in 2013 - everything a struggle, everything an effort.

Both teams were lethargic, both committed basic errors while the shooting was simply atrocious.
However, if Donegal can navigate their way through the back door to reach Croke Park, few will care about the weekend’s fare.
Who remembers the Longford game in 2003? What about Carlow at home in 2009? The end points of those years are more important – an All-Ireland semi-final and quarter-final respectively.

As often happens with a team after a bad defeat, management decide to start again, to go back to basics and that’s exactly what Rory Gallagher did with his troops.
Donegal went defensive, they got numbers back and they made sure that the gaps that appeared ad nauseam in Clones would not be seen again, regardless of the inferiority of the opponents this time around.
The building blocks were constructed at the back, with the aim of keeping the score down. That was achieved but the zip on the counter attack and quality score-taking were marked absent.

Overall a bad display can be put down to the scar tissue that remains from the Ulster semi-final. After building up to the game since the draw was made last October, being on the receiving end of a pasting takes time to get over.
It hasn’t cleared yet and may not anytime soon but at least the healing has started.

Keeping the score down was one part of the rebuilding process but how the team attacks must also improve and develop.
Gallagher has generally persisted with an attack they depends on support coming from behind the ball carrier. When it works it can be devastating such is the pace that the team possesses and the intricate lines of running the players are so adept at fashioning.
When it doesn’t work though there has to be an alternative.

Donegal attacked Longford up the middle and when the visitors blocked that channel, there was nowhere to go -  there seemed to be a deliberate ploy to go through the centre and avoid the wings, which were lying vacant for much of the proceedings.
On several occasions, particularly in the first half, the ball was fed over and back in front of the D before a questionable shot option was selected which invariably led to a wide or a block down. The defensive cordon wasn’t being broken so a constant cycle of recycling was the outcome.
All the while Michael Langan was inside and could have done damage had he got some ball. The other inside man, Patrick McBrearty, was receiving the ball around the 45 – too far out for a marksman of his quality.
The wrong player was usually on the end of moves as well, leading to defenders like Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Paddy McGrath and Caolan Ward turning back for support as they weren’t comfortable or confident enough to shoot.
In yesterday’s Munster Final, Kerry almost always managed to work the ball to either Paul Geaney or James O’Donoghue. They’re their main men, the lads who will score the bulk for them so they work at getting them on the end of moves.

In a tight, turgid game like we saw, usually one man has to stand up and it was Martin McElhinney who delivered. Martin has always been a direct footballer and he can break tackles. With a young team, this is often the key variance missing from their play – they are not sufficiently physically developed to take the hits on the run and keep going. So they either turn back for support before the hit or they take it and get turned over.
McElhinney also made a hugely positive impact against Tyrone so he’s surely now in the running for a starting jersey for next weekend.

The pairings this morning provided Donegal a good draw, on paper at least. Their performance levels must increase though by a few notches in order to get over Meath in Pairc Tailteann.
We're told that qualifiers are about getting back on the wagon, to get up and running after a loss and to create the magic word – momentum.
Taking the first step is the hardest part and Donegal certainly did all they could to prove that idiom true.
Having avoided Mayo in Round 3, a path has now opened up to HQ on Quarter Final day at the end of the month.
The open expanses of Croke Park seemed light years away as wide after wide sailed past the Mac Cumhaill Park posts on Saturday evening.

The opportunity is there though.
Donegal are still alive and while not yet kicking, there’s still time for that.

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