Sunday, February 12, 2012

Donegal beaten at their own game....

Donegal were served a dose of their own medicine today as they ran into a blue and white Laois wall at O’Donnell Park. For the majority of the game they could find little or no way through the O’Moore rearguard while at the same time leaving plenty of room for the visitors at the back and they took full advantage. If ever a scoreline gave a false impression of proceedings the 2-9 to 2-6 total at the end did just that. It was flattering on Donegal who were never in the game at any stage.

Laois popped over some fine early scores, capitalising on a lethargic Donegal start, in what was a similar pattern to that of last year’s encounter in Portlaoise. On that day MJ Tierney led the way in the point scoring stakes, today though it was Ross Munnelly who produced some memorable points to set his team on their way.

A reshuffle before throw-in saw Neil Gallagher positioned on the edge of the square as Jim McGuinness set out his stall early. Long ball after long ball was pumped in on top of the Glenswilly man and while this had worked to good effect on many occasions during his club’s wonderful Championship campaign last year, it didn’t bear fruit today. Laois had a sweeper in front of him and unfortunately he saw more of the ball than Gallagher. At the other end though Laois’ midfielder-cum-full forward Padraig Clancy had an excellent day, scoring 1-1 and leaving his fingerprints over many of the visitors’ scores.

Parallels can certainly be drawn with last year when both these sides plied their trade in the second tier; then, as now, Laois looked to be flying at this time of year, beating Donegal and Derry among others on their way to promotion. However they flattered to deceive in the Championship and you’d certainly have to wonder about the training regimes of both teams at present.

Rory Gallagher spoke afterwards about how far behind Donegal are on other teams in relation to sharpness and fitness and the evidence was in plentiful supply today. The lads are still likely to be undergoing tough training sessions with emphasis on conditioning for the summer ahead rather than on attaining a certain level of sharpness and improving touch and control. Some of the heavy legs and rustiness that we saw during the McKenna Cup are still evident in some of the players.

As Down showed last week, the half back line dictates most of the play in modern Gaelic Games and while the Mournemen got a large number of scores from this unit, Donegal today couldn’t repeat the trick. The absence of Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden is being keenly felt at present; it was hoped that others amongst the forwards would be able to step up and fill the gap this hasn’t happened yet.

When the dynamic duo are in the side the whole focus of Donegal play is to stop the opposition scoring, turn over possession and get the ball into the inside line and they will do the rest. The ideas employed to cope with their absence aren’t quite coming off right now and the onus is on the half back line of Karl Lacey, Anthony Thompson and Leo McLoone to get forward and support. Today we saw this but it led to large gaps at the back and Laois were able to pick off scores at ease any time a Donegal move broke down.

Aside from the condition of the teams though and also the non-availablility of key players, overall today there were just too many unforced errors and too much sloppiness and this led to the huge eleven point lead that Laois enjoyed at one stage. The team stuck at it though and kept the effort up and were eventually rewarded with a couple of goals, even though the first appeared to have stayed on the line rather than rolling over it.

Young Martin Reilly did well throughout as did the energizer bunny that is Mark McHugh. These two, along with Paddy McGrath and Ryan Bradley, put in a Trojan amount of work but unfortunately too many of their team mates did not reach the required level of performance.

While the league position we find ourselves in and the general level of display is disappointing, the most worrying aspect of today’s game was the sight of Lacey hobbling off with what could be a reoccurrence of the knee injury he sustained at Croke Park last August. There’s been no update as of yet on what the injury is but he is certainly in the indispensable category and it would be a huge blow if he were to spend some time on the treatment table.

The mini break that now takes place in the league should allow Donegal to ease down on the heavy training and get back to achieving a better level of performance. That will most definitely be needed as we face into a daunting set of fixtures against Cork, Kerry, Mayo and Dublin. The next three weeks will be critical in the team’s 2012 development and will have a big baring on what division we’ll be playing our league football in next year. The Messiah has work to do.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Donegal Downed in Newry

A frustrating evening for the Donegal contingent at Pairc Esler in Newry, a one point defeat when a draw was certainly within reach. In an entertaining encounter under lights, both teams played some excellent football and both deserved a share of the spoils. The home fans left happier though and next week’s home tie with Laois is now in the must-win category for Donegal.

Down were lively early on, determined to run at Donegal and were quick to register points on the board. The battle around the middle made for interesting viewing with Neil Gallagher and Dan Gordon having a great contest. The impish Conor Laverty, named at full forward, played a deep playmaking role to good effect and was involved in much of the good work from Down early on. The home side found themselves five points clear after a goal from Liam Doyle but Donegal responded well and began to take control around the middle.

Donegal played a pressing game high up the field and it led to a couple of scores as they clawed their way back into the game. Mark McHugh was prominent throughout this period, getting his name on the score sheet twice in a matter of minutes following the concession of the goal. McHugh, a surprise starter following a muscle injury sustained last week, is widely regarded as a hard worker and skilful ball carrier after his sweeper role last year but he’s also a fine half forward and is well able to take his scores.

His club, Kilcar, will be hoping he can keep doing that as himself and Patrick McBrearty are in Ulster U21 club action tomorrow; with both on song you wouldn’t bet against them. The younger of the duo McBrearty, showed well for the ball over the course of the game and looked dangerous when running at defenders, something we will hopefully see more of during the league.

The pressing game is just another layer of the McGuinness defensive system and it was employed tonight in a similar way to last year’s championship game with Cavan. Despite what the national media would have you believe its not as simple as putting everyone behind the ball; Jim is an astute manager and not a one trick defensive pony of a coach.

One consequence of the modern game of packed defences is the accuracy with which passes have to be made in the opposition‘s half of the field. The little dink pass over one line of defence, a drilled pass into a man in the full forward line - they’re fantastic skills to see when executed well and Ryan Bradley, Martin McElhinney and Leo McLoone all gave us fine examples as indeed did the Mourne men.

Stephen Griffin had another frustrating night in a Donegal jersey - he did almost everything right but things just don’t seem to fall for the Nauls man. On four or five occasions he positioned himself well to receive the high ball coming in but each time the ball managed to squirm from his grasp. He backs into defenders correctly, uses his strength, gets his hands up but the ball just always finds a way to escape from his hands.

With Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden on the sidelines at present, the free taking duties were rotated with Griffin, McBrearty and substitute Dermot Molloy all having a go. So too did goalkeeper Paul Durcan but the Cluxton experiment didn’t quite work tonight with the big Four Masters man seeing both his attempts go wide. He’s been known to be a regular scorer for his club, even playing outfield on occasion, so we may see more of this as the year goes on.

One huge positive from a Donegal point of view was the return to competitive action of Karl Lacey. The man is just a joy to watch, an incredible footballer. At the peak of his powers right now he invariably takes the right option, rarely if ever gives the ball away and has that brilliant knack of being in the right place at the right time. There’s always that ‘what if’ in the back of our minds in relation to his departure early in the second half of last year’s tussle with Dublin.

Leo came more into the game in the second half, driving forward from half back along with Lacey and Anthony Thompson. Paddy McGrath was excellent on the night, both in his defensive duties and in his support play on the right flank.

The last ten minutes were set up for a grandstand finish when Martin McElhinney finished off an intricate move to finish to the net. Down edged in front with a couple of quick points, including one particularly dubious effort with Laverty clearly picking the ball up off the ground before offloading. Brick had a great chance to level it but his effort floated wide and soon after he had a placed ball to square things up but unfortunately the result was the same.

Its never good to start your league campaign with a defeat but Donegal have the perfect fixture next week, with Laois visiting O’Donnell Park, to get off the mark and get two points on the board. There were a lot of good aspects of our play tonight and considering we were short of our main attacking options overall the display was good. A similar display next week should lead to a win.