Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Donegal Crash Out As Only One Tribe Goes To War

Shambles. Embarrassing. Flat. Stale. Capitulation.
All these words and more have been used to describe what happened at Markievicz Park and in scrutinising the game on its own they’re pretty accurate.
The year as a whole also has to be looked at though and while it may seem that the team is hurtling towards rock bottom, there are some signs for hope.
None of these signs are based on what we saw on Saturday obviously.

The lack of intensity, particularly in defence, was the most striking take away from the match. Tomas O’Se mentioned during The Sunday Game, that there was no divilment or menace in Donegal’s defending and he was spot on.
The opening goal was a case in point. Sean Armstrong collected the ball in the corner with Kieran Gillespie for company. Armstrong showed strength and power to work his way in along the end-line and a couple of hand passes later the ball was in the net. In years gone by, with a spiteful Donegal defence at its peak, the Galway forward would have been unceremoniously hauled down or else would have been put out over the line.

Donegal, as they have had in most games in the Championship, had plenty of bodies back but most were chasing shadows, marking space, not effecting the play. A blanket defence is meant to suffocate the opposition; when it’s not utilised correctly it is useless.
While Gaelic Football has changed almost irrevocably in the last decade there's only so much it can change - the pitch is still the same size and the number of players on the field hasn't changed. And old adages remain too – if you’re not up for it and your opponent is, there’s only going to be one winner.

There has been much talk about how Rory Gallagher has gone about changing Donegal’s style of play. There have been tweaks but nothing radical. The team, as was abundantly evident in Sligo, are more open than before but the large numbers behind the ball remain. So that is not a change of tactic but rather a change of attitude or more pertinently – a lack of experience.
Our players don’t yet have the know-how or the competency to play with the manic aggression needed at this level. They also don’t yet have the physicality. The important word here is yet. We’ve seen these players at underage level, there is talent there but when moving from underage to senior that talent is only potential. It takes time to nurture and develop it.
The main tweak Rory has made to the team’s shape is that he has committed more men to the middle third and sacrificed a player or two at either end of the field. As a result, Paddy McGrath and Neil McGee at one end and Paddy McBrearty at the other are at times isolated.
As the conditioning of the debutants introduced this year improves over the winter the gaps between midfield and either end of the pitch will reduce.

Management must become more definitive in their gameplan though. Panic substitutions have been the order of the day in both big reversals this summer, while at other times, against Antrim for example, the team’s defence has started without a sweeper before one has been introduced.
If Donegal are to be a compact, aggressive defensive team then fine. If they are to be a bit more expansive and pacey then fine. But the objective must be clear.

While all these aspects in relation to the younger players can and will improve, there is one component that will be difficult to alter and will be the biggest task facing Gallagher and his management team – expectation.
As a county, Donegal has not recovered from double whammy of All-Ireland Final day in 2014. Between the senior and minor matches that day, a large number of the current squad were involved and on the big days since they’ve got to know even better that greatest of imposters, defeat.
Two Senior Ulster Finals, a Minor All-Ireland Semi-Final and an U21 All-Ireland Semi-Final have all seen opportunities passed up in bringing silverware to the Hills.
Granted underage Ulster titles have been annexed in amongst all those and they’re the reason why there is still optimism that the likes of Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Jason McGee and Ciaran Thompson can grow into top level inter-county operators.
Saturday was reminiscent of that awful September day three years ago because the general feeling going in on both occasions was that Donegal would win. Drawing Galway was seen as favourable and there was an outside chance of reaching the last four. Whatever about supporters getting carried away and looking ahead players have to focus on the game in front of them. It’s the tough reality but that’s how it works.

Perhaps the most distressing part of Saturday’s loss was the sense of déjà vu. For many years in a time before Jim, we went along to games in trepidation because anything was possible – and not in a good way. Anything often meant heavy beatings.
Those days were often defined by ill-discipline and as each black card was brandished at the weekend, it felt like we were going back in time.
No one wants to go back and for now it’s best to look forward. All we can hope for is that in years to come we can look back on 2017 as a year that formed many of these players’ characters and where lessons were learned.
Jim used to say ‘every day is a school day’ and we’ve had a fair few of late.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Donegal Survive Battle Royal to Beat Meath

That was more like it. Donegal were still a long way short of their best in edging out Meath on Saturday night but there were pointers of improvement from their two previous outings.
Many of the traits associated with this team showed signs of reappearing – committing numbers to attack, intensity in defence, quick transfer of the ball in tight spaces – and while this was far from a blemish-free display, they left with what they came for, the win.
After the dull football witnessed by the masses in Ballybofey a week previously, this felt much more like a Championship encounter; a sun drenched Summer Saturday evening in the glorious setting of Pairc Tailteann.

The game was tight and claustrophobic to being with. The teams were feeling each other out. Slowly but surely it was the visitors who took control and the scores started to come.
Mark Anthony McGinley had success early on in finding his players with his short restarts. Meath attempted to push up but there was often a man free on the edge of the D. Anytime the hosts managed to cover all options and McGinley was forced to go long, the Meath midfield, led superbly by Bryan Menton, were winning the middle third battle.
The dependency on going short was illustrated with Meath’s first point from play. As the ball hung in the air on its way goalwards, McGinley rushed around his right hand post to grab a ball and his kicking tee, getting ready for the impending kick-out.
Unbeknownst to the St  Michael’s netminder, the ball was to strike the upright and could have easily landed in front of his unguarded goal. Fortunately the ball went over after the bar after striking the post.
It provides an insight into the ongoing problems facing Donegal – if they’re forced to kick long they’re vulnerable.
As usual though in purely goalkeeping terms, McGinley was excellent. One crucial moment in the game happened in the first half; as a Meath shot looked to be dropping over the bar, McGinley rose high to claw the effort away and prevented what seemed a certain point. In a game of such tight margins it was a magnificent piece of play.

Meath rallied before half time to grab the last two points of the opening exchanges, the sides going in level after Donegal had probably been the better side.
Youngsters Jason McGee and Caolán Ward had been Donegal’s best performers in that first half with McGee helping himself to two well taken points in the process.
Another plus was Kieran Gillespie’s contribution. He’s had a frustrating time with injuries but everyone is well aware of the quality and ruggedness he brings to the table and getting the full seventy minutes under his belt bodes well.
In the second half, it was the established brigade who made the difference. Michael Murphy was immense around the middle and despite having an off day with his free taking, the captain played a huge role in the win.
In the congested centrefield area, when plenty Donegal players were happy to pass the ball on, Murphy on a few occasions drove through the Meath rearguard and either scored or setup up opportunities for his team mates.

Others like Ryan McHugh and match winner Paddy McBrearty were outstanding. The Kilcar duo seemed to thrive in the high pressure environment, delivering when it mattered most.
McHugh hasnt been his normal stunning self in the last few matches, somewhat understandable given that he’s barely put a foot wrong since his breakthrough young player of the year winning season in 2014. A dip at some stage was perhaps inevitable but he produced a massive final quarter in Navan, starting and finishing the move for the crucial goal.
While form can be a fickle thing with footballers, it doesn’t seem to apply to one man – Paddy McGrath. Once again, he had a fantastic match, this time charged with keeping tabs on one of the country’s most accomplished finishers, Graham Reilly.
In the second half, Reilly simply could not break free from McGrath’s shackles. The one and only time the Meath captain managed to get into a half yard of space for an attempt on goal, McGrath flung himself at the shot, the ball flying high into the evening sky and not even reaching the endline such was the pressure applied.
McGrath knew that he was inside Reilly’s head by this stage. When the psychological battle has been won by a defender, a forward will almost always snatch at the chance when it comes his way.

McHugh’s goal seemed to have finally broken the home team’s resistance but the Royals to their credit refused to lie down and responded almost immediately. The two goals were similar in the creation, both teams running the ball through traffic before finding the opening.
It was encouraging to see three Donegal players getting in behind the Meath defence and in a position to finish the chance; a sign that the energy and drive were back after being absent in the last two games.
Meath got the next point after their equalising major and the outcome was in doubt to the end as the embers began to fade on what was a stirring championship bout.

Karl Lacey was brought on to steady the ship and in being a complete and utter nuisance in slowing Meath down in the dying seconds, he played his part. When the final whistle is blown on Donegal’s season, presumably it will also signal the end of Lacey’s illustrious county career.
The Four Masters legend obviously didn’t want it to end in the qualifiers and so he stood in front of Paddy O’Rourke’s kickout following McBrearty’s winner and then promptly dragged back a Meath defender when the kick was taken to earn himself a yellow card. Dark arts indeed.

The final shrill of the referee’s whistle sounded soon after and Donegal were through. Galway await in Round 4 and despite a tough, sobering summer one win is all that’s required for a place in the Quarter Finals.

If the same rate of improvement that occurred from Longford to Meath, can accrue from Meath to Galway then Rory Gallagher will be confident his charges can seal their place in Croke Park.

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.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Donegal Apprentices Mastered by Tyrone

The game nobody had envisaged unfolded in front of our eyes in Clones yesterday. Scores aplenty, barely a dirty stroke and anything but a tight, tense finish.
If Rory Gallagher had have been told yesterday morning that his team would post a score of 1-12, he would have expected an enjoyable return to the market town. It was anything but.

Gallagher and his backroom team would have been working on their masterplan for this game since the draw was made in October. Sometimes though the best laid plans come a cropper. Remember what boxer Mike Tyson famously said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Donegal woke up this morning having been punched in the face, having taking a beating.

While the obvious excuse for the loss is to suggest that the team are too inexperienced, in truth the tactical failures played as much of a role.
Tyrone managed to strike upon that state of being which every team strives for - your own half of the field is crowded and claustrophobic, the other end is an open prairie. How did they do it?

Unfortunately it is a recurring theme with this side but once again kick outs had a huge bearing on a Donegal match.
Rory's risk reward ploy on Tyrone’s restarts didn't work. Donegal pushed up on Niall Morgan’s kicks in the hope of gaining possession and using the energetic legs in the team to carry the ball towards goal.
This move appeared to have been anticipated by Mickey Harte and he instructed Morgan to go as long as he could with the Cavanaghs, Colm and Sean, waiting for the ball over the top of the Donegal press. This is hardly an unfamiliar tactic to us, having been a key weapon in the McGuinness playbook in beating Dublin three years ago.
The dividends this brought Tyrone was clear to see when the elder Cavanagh, Sean, tore through the middle into swathes of space not seen in a Donegal defence in years.
Ironically the game’s big turning point came from Donegal doing what Tyrone had been; a long kick out was played towards Michael Murphy, who claimed possession one handed before offloading to the onrushing Eoin McHugh. McHugh breezed past Mattie Donnelly, gave Morgan the eyes and sent him the wrong way but somehow put the ball wide of the post.

It wasnt only on Tyrone's kick outs that Donegal struggled as they were starved of possession on their own restarts, McHugh's chance apart. Tyrone mirrored Donegal’s strategy of pushing up on the kick out and it put pressure on Mark Anthony McGinley.
The netminder's first option is generally to go short with his kicks but with Tyrone blocking this off with their press he was forced long. A bit of hesitancy on his part didn’t help along with the lobbing trajectory of his restarts. The length of time the ball was in the air allowed Tyrone to swarm the break and Donegal struggled to breathe in the middle sector during the pivotal second quarter.
It was at this time that McGinley needed to change tack. Short and long are two options but there is a third. A mid-range kick to the wing dropping around the 45 with a player running onto it can give teams valuable possession; Stephen Cluxton has built a career out of perfecting this type of kick. This is where the players around the middle needed to help their goalkeeper out. For him to avail of this type of pass, someone has to make the run.

Reports of an illness afflicting Jason McGee in the lead up to the game didn't help the midfield battle; the Falcarrach giant had started the game well and was his side’s best competitor around the middle. Ciaran Thompson found the going tough and when he was handed an ice pack when substituted, it may have been an indication that all was not right there either.
At times Donegal had four or five players congregated at midfield, staying narrow, almost ignoring McGinley - presumably to leave space on the flanks for him to kick into. What good though is space on the flanks if no one runs into it?

This is where the basis for defeat moves from tactics to inexperience. Were players hiding? Did nerves take over? A few points down against a rival in the cauldron of Clones, its easy to pretend to make a run but not really make a run. We’ve all been there at varying levels of football; there are times when you’re praying for the ball to go to the other side of the field, for someone else to take responsibility.
Whatever about on-field responsibility, this part of Donegal’s play must get remedied by the management or it will be a short summer.

The result of all this was Tyrone dominating possession around centrefield and in response Donegal trying risky short kick outs and being penned in by white jerseys. They forced numerous turnovers as Donegal were overwhelmed during that devastating spell before half time.
Donegal flooded men back to try to stem the tide such was the monopoly of possession their opponents enjoyed but while they were back, they did not apply pressure to the ball. With ample space afforded to the Tyrone shooters, the Red Hands floated over one glorious point after another. They would have expected to be met with that signature Donegal ravenous defensive intensity but it simply wasn't there.

While Donegal’s overall kick out strategy was their ultimate undoing, McGinley's performance from open play saved the team from suffering an outright massacre. Twice he brilliantly saved from point blank range, rushing from his line to take command of the situation on each occasion.
Even for Tiernan McCann’s scruffy goal, the keeper could be seen intimating to Ryan McHugh to guard the far post and to cover that side of the goal; unfortunately McHugh gambled on McCann going to the other side and the ball trickled past him.
McGinley’s willingness to get out to meet the oncoming player was in marked contrast to his defenders. How many times did Tyrone bare down on goal with no defender going towards the man? Instead most of the defenders stayed on their designated men.
It’s another sign, like not making the runs to receive the kick out, of nerves and of not wanting to make a mistake - I’ll watch my man and if anyone else scores at least I did my job.

So all in all tactics and inexperience both played an overwhelming part in the loss; which came first is debatable. When tactics aren’t working, experience should take over and Donegal simply don’t have as much of that as they had in previous years. It will come of course, and it might not feel like it now but the players will take a lot from yesterday.
In order for them to develop as top class inter-county players over the coming years, plying their trade in Division One of the league is imperative and that’s why there was such a big emphasis on the early part of the year.
They still have plenty to learn and the qualifiers will give them a chance to do that, starting with a home fixture against Longford on Saturday week.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Donegal Surge Out of the Blocks but Tougher Tests Lie Ahead

Championship Sunday in May. First day out of the summer. Nothing like it.
Every county feels expectation and optimism at this time of year and there’s a sense that anything is possible. Reality kicks in for many teams pretty quickly of course but while that sentiment lasts it’s a level playing field for all.
Travelling from the North of the county to Donegal’s footballing Mecca by the banks of the Finn, the length of the tailback at the T-junction a couple of miles out from town tells you the significance of the match you’re about to attend. Half an hour before the curtain raiser's 2pm throw-in time, the sizeable row of cars ahead and behind made it clear that the Championship had arrived.

The minor match added to the atmosphere as a cracking tussle broke out amongst the mistakes and nerves on show from the young lads playing in the last ever minor championship.
Once the ball was thrown up for the senior game however the buzz died somewhat. Mac Cumhaill Park was as quiet as it’s been for some time; the primal, box office jousts against Dublin and Tyrone in the league a distant memory. There were plenty of scores early on but there was an inescapable mood that Donegal were simply going through the motions.

That particular phrase isn’t in the lexicon of one Michael Murphy though. Murphy continued his superb league form, putting in a man of the match display.
For the entire afternoon he had Sean McVeigh by his side and while the big Antrim man was game and did his best to nullify Donegal’s leader, it was an impossible task. It will be a different story of course if Donegal end up facing Tyrone next time out – that will give Michael and Justin McMahon a chance to renew their rancorous friendship.
From the off The Maestro bulldozed his way through the Antrim defence, winning frees and creating gaps from which others could profit.
Murphy's ability to break tackles around midfield is especially crucial in the opening stages of a game; when an opponent’s blanket screen is at its most stubborn and defenders’ minds are at their sharpest. As the game goes on more space appears, tiredness infests the limbs and runs aren’t tracked as they were. So early on is the most difficult time to breach a defence and the captain consistently leads the charge.

As we saw in second half yesterday, Donegal had the run of the place at the river end goal and picked off points and goals at their leisure. In this light, Donegal's porousness in their own backline in the first half was all the more unusual.
Paddy McGrath and Neil McGee were a wee bit more lackadaisical than normal, letting Antrim forwards get goal chances that, judging by their attempted finishes, they seemed shocked to have got. The inside duo of Tomas McCann and CJ McGourty caused problems with their movement but once Frank McGlynn got the call from Maxi Curran to drop back in front of the full back line, things tightened up considerably.
Jamie Brennan’s goal before half-time ended the contest and it was a great finish from a man making his debut at this level. His point soon after displayed his best characteristics – quick feet to get around his man in order to create space for a composed shot at the posts. There were other times when the Bundoran sharp shooter had chances to take his man on but opted to turn back and look for support. If he can add a bit more directness to his game not many corner backs will relish pitting their wits against his raw speed.

Six others joined Brennan in making full Championship debuts and all acquitted themselves well. Granted the nature of the game, with the hosts pulling away comfortably after half-time, made things easier and didn’t give a true measure of the white heat of Ulster fare.
Jason McGee made a welcome return after missing several weeks of training due to concussion picked up in the U21 match with Dublin but he showed no ill-effects and produced an accomplished performance in the engine room alongside Murphy.
With that duo stationed at centrefield, there’s big men aplenty around the middle, which allows Hugh McFadden to provide the bulk in front of goal. McFadden spent most of his time in a county jersey up until this year in a defensive role but looking lean and fit he is relishing the chance to show what he can do in attack. He is much more inclined to take his shots on nowadays rather than pass on responsibility and his booming score in first half illustrated his ability in front of the posts.

There was plenty of other fine marksmen on show with the second half turning into shooting practice for the likes of substitutes Michael Langan and Karl Lacey.
When corner back McGrath pops up for his first ever goal, you know things are going your way. Paddy has been making that run for many years now yet he still seemed surprised to arrive in front of goal with ball in hand. A typical defender, the first instinct was to look for contact with the goalkeeper; after he bounced off Chris Kerr he had the wherewithal to get his foot to the ball before running straight through the goal line.

McGrath’s hit prior to his goal was one of the few incidences of physicality we saw in the closing stages such was the lack of intensity in the match by then. Things will definitely be different the next day – an expected Tyrone win over Derry at the weekend will lead to an Ulster Final rematch in Clones on June 18th.
If that comes to pass, we'll see more hefty belts in the opening five minutes than we saw over the entire 70 yesterday. Throughout the league, the displays of Rory's young guns have suggested that they have what it takes to represent the green and gold jersey - in four weeks we'll know for sure.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Donegal Lose the Heads and the Points in Castlebar

For the second week running Donegal dropped league points from a winning position and the campaign has ended on a little bit of a downer after the promise of recent weeks.

The report card still looks fairly healthy and Rory Gallagher’s charges certainly finish up in credit but the closing stages of the contests in Ballyshannon and Castlebar will grate with the boss.

There was plenty of talk during the week about the appointment of Cormac Reilly as the match referee due to his storied past with Mayo. He would have been hoping for a quiet afternoon’s work and probably wouldn’t have said no to a chance to give some hometown decisions in order to make friends with the green and red army again. He got his opportunity very early on and there was an amusing sense of inevitability around the ground as he awarded the hosts a penalty.

Mark Anthony McGinley’s stupid challenge on Cillian O’Connor was totally unnecessary as the ball played in had evaded the Ballintubber man. Their coming together seemed to take place outside the box but regardless O’Connor dusted himself down and found the net with ease.

Donegal had made a promising start prior to the goal with smart points from Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Cian Mulligan but Mayo found their rhythm quickly and added some fine points to O’Connor’s major.

They were quite direct in their play and seemed keen to exploit a perceived weakness in Donegal’s full back line. Long, cross-field passes rained down on Neil McGee and co and caused some unease but the storm was weathered.

The Donegal defence regained their composure and forced their opponents to shoot from distance. Shane Nally nailed the best of a few cracking points that Mayo managed but plenty more efforts drifted wide.

Stephen Rochford’s team persevered with their risk and reward high press tactic of recent years but it suited Donegal as they gained control of the game by getting in behind Mayo thanks to the likes of Eoghan Ban, Mulligan and Jamie Brennan. That trio all upped their performance levels above what they had shown in previous outings and if they can reproduce something similar for the U21s on Wednesday night an Ulster Final will beckon.

Brennan was more involved in the physical stakes than usual, steaming into tackles and tracking back diligently. He kicked a brilliant point off his left and it was just reward after winning the ball himself before beating a couple of men and slotting over.

Much of Donegal’s good work came from the right side of the attack with the returning Jason McGee foraging well around the middle to keep the supply lines open.

Alongside him, Michael Murphy was a colossus. Mayo were powerless to stop his surging drives forward from deep and his sleight of feet saw him twice twinkletoe beautifully around oncoming tacklers.

The visitors looked in good shape at the break, three points to the good having played into the wind but it all fell apart in a messy closing quarter of an hour.

Mulligan kicked two sensational points after the half time cup of tae but inexplicably not one of his team mates would join him on the second half score sheet.

Donegal - and the man in the middle Reilly – lost their heads thereafter and contributed to their own downfall during a frantic spell where Mayo obliterated the gap on the scoreboard.

The first half sight of green and gold jerseys swarming forward was now replaced with seeing them penned in with nowhere to go. Passes suddenly were being played under far more pressure than before and a malaise of apprehension spread amongst the team.

This is where Mayo’s high press tactic works so well; it is the ideal way to chase down a lead. Their problems have arisen in big games when they concede too many goals and persist with the press, even when leading games leaving themselves exposed.

One of Mayo’s great strengths is their attacking half backs but they remained largely anonymous for much of the game. Micheal Carroll was tasked with keeping Lee Keegan company for the day and had been doing a very good job on the current Footballer of the Year. Upon Eoin McHugh’s introduction the marking setup changed with Carroll being sent further forward. 

Almost immediately, Keegan boomed over a rousing point off his left and it could be argued this was the game’s pivotal score as it drew Mayo level and they sensed blood.

They didn’t let up on their way to the finish line with the excellent Tom Parsons and substitute Aidan O’Shea leading the charge. Much has been made of Donegal’s young guns and the vigour and energy they have brought to the team; Mayo countered that with old fashioned bulk and with 14 men, following Eamonn Doherty’s dismissal, Donegal found the going tough.

Since impressively holding onto a lead against Tyrone in Ballybofey, Donegal have now let two wins slip from their grasp, leaving three league points behind them in the process.

With Dublin and Kerry taking up the top spots in the final Division One standings Donegal remain, as one man said to me out the way out MacHale Park, in the long grass ahead of the summer.

Even though a day out at Headquarters for a league final and a crack at the Dubs would be appealing for a lot of supporters, as usual the players and management have eyes only for the bearpit that is the Ulster Championship.

Perhaps the long grass is the best place for us right now.

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.