Monday, July 23, 2012

Back to Back Joy for Tir Chonaill

History was achieved in the most emphatic fashion imaginable in Clones yesterday – Donegal obliterated Down in the closing stages to put the gloss on back to back Ulster titles.

The game followed a pattern which we’ve become accustomed to now with this side – let the opposition run themselves into the ground, let them tire themselves out and when the time is right go in for the kill.

Down found some joy running at us in the first half and opened us up for a couple of half goal chances. The Mourne men are a classy outfit with ball in hand and showed their skill and verve with some dashing raids down the barrel of the gun. The thing with playing against ultra-fit Donegal though is that it is nigh on impossible to keep that kind of play going. We appear to be quite comfortable in letting teams have a go in the first half and then turn the screw in the second with our superior fitness and power. The Tyrone game worked out like that, as did the games in the league against Mayo and Armagh.

Donegal appear to be able to up the ante and move through the gears whenever they feel like it. With Down on a good run coming up to half time the lads collectively just seemed to decide that we needed some scores and in six devastating minutes we registered 1-3. Declan Walsh’s two points were crucial as a decent lead for the underdogs would have given them plenty of confidence for the second half. Instead the Malin man burst forward for two coolly taken points.

Allied to running directly at Donegal, many believe that the way to beat the system is to kick long range scores – this is a common myth amongst teams and press alike but no one has actually done it yet. Tyrone in last year’s semi-final had chances but kicked a lot of wides in the first half, just as they did this year. Derry had chances in the first half of last year’s Ulster decider, as had Down yesterday, but again kicked some wayward wides – all a coincidence? No.

Kicking from distance is a good ploy and the scores registered can be a huge boost to the crowd and to a team’s confidence but such is the difficulty in the technique it will not win a game and certainly not against this Donegal team. The pressure that forwards are put under is so intense that when a player finally finds himself in a couple of yards of space he will invariably rush his shot and hence his technique lets him down. The only big game this team has lost was last year’s All Ireland semi and that was primarily due to Dublin running hard at the defence as the Tir Chonaill legs started to feel the strain. Long ball is another option against us but again few teams have tried this, although Tyrone did create a few chances when long ball went into Stephen O’Neill in the semi final a few weeks back.

Ryan Bradley had another stormer yesterday, epitomised by his wonderful point just before his withdrawal, due to concussion, in the second half. Rising highest to claim a Down kick-out, he took the ball on himself and hoisted a huge score to the delight of the crowd.

Bradley, along with Paul Durcan, Colm McFadden and goalscorer Frank McGlynn, are in All Star form at the minute and regardless of what happens for the rest of the summer, Donegal will no doubt be represented again when the team of the year is announced in November.

With Neil Gallagher missing yesterday we could have expected to see Michael Murphy stationed at midfield but he spent most of his afternoon at full forward. The psychological hold that Jim McGuinness has over his opponents is such a huge weapon right now. Down had Dan Gordon looking after Michael with Brendan McArdle close by to double-team him. Yet doing that just leaves more space for the other forwards, perfectly demonstrated by Leo McLoone’s goal when he was completely unmarked. Teams come up with plans to hold Donegal but Jim will have something else to counteract that and give them something further to worry about.

Teams are spending so much time in trying to figure out how to beat us, their own successful traits aren’t being seen. Darren O’Hagan, Aidan Carr and Conor Laverty for example have all been in great form in 2012 (particularly the latter in the league encounter in Newry in February) yet there is such an emphasis on stopping Donegal that their talents weren’t seen to the full yesterday.

Oisin McConville, in his role as BBC pundit after the Tyrone game, waxed lyrical about Paddy McBrearty’s effect on the game and in particular his ability to always take the right option – the Kilcar youngster illustrated this again yesterday. Whether in near goal or out the field, every time the ball came his way he seemed to have that extra half second and used it to decide the best option whether it be shooting, kick passing or hand passing. Even in the space of a year his game has come on so much and training and playing alongside the Murphy maestro has brought his game to a new level.

One of the most satisfying aspects of last year’s win over Derry was the fact that we were able to truly savour the occasion such was our lead going into the final few minutes. The same happened again yesterday with the final ten minutes turning into a procession and yet at no stage did the players take their foot off the pedal; they kept tracking back, working hard to win possession and took their scores with real aplomb.

One slight worry going into the All Ireland series is our tendency to depend on our second half displays to finish a team off – what if it doesn’t happen for us some day? This can all be tracked back to last year’s joust with Dublin where we wilted in the Sky Blue onslaught, scoring just two points after the break. McGuinness has obviously put a major emphasis and focus on ensuring that that doesn’t happen again. In 2011 we tried to hold onto leads whereas this year we’re simply staying in the game early on before pulverising teams. We scored an incredible 1-13 in the second half yesterday; 2-16 in the last 40 minutes compared to 0-2 in the opening 30 minutes.

Of course this gameplan will be more severely tested when Donegal meet one of the big hitters in Croke Park but we’re certainly primed for an assault on Sam and next Monday we’ll find out who’s next to feel the full force of The Messiah’s men.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Dún na nGall March On...

A statement of intent was delivered to the rest of the country at Clones yesterday; Donegal are now firmly amongst the All Ireland contenders and in beating a Tyrone team without hitting top gear the team illustrated the assurance and maturity that they’re operating off.

A large green and gold contingent made their way to Clones yesterday and it was clear that there was a level of supreme confidence amongst the fans around the town. All the pundits had tipped us to win and while there was no way that the game was going to be as straight forward as some had predicted, we knew our form pointed to victory.

The game panned out in a very similar manner to last year’s encounter; Tyrone did most of the running early on with Donegal happy to let them tire themselves out, safe in the knowledge that there was plenty more in the tank. While the goal chances at the end of the game caused many a heart palpitation around St Tiernach’s Park, Donegal always just seemed destined to come out on top and looked the better side.

A definite pattern has emerged in many of Donegal’s championship games this year and last - the opening exchanges usually involve opponents running at us full of intent and belief that they can defeat the system. Inevitably our strength and know-how wears them down and when we hit our purple patch we can put teams away.  Tyrone didn’t score for over half an hour in the second half yesterday while we scored five points in the same period. Donegal are so patient and controlled that they have an inner belief that the scores will come - that belief probably wasn’t there in last year’s All-Ireland semi final but you get the feeling if the situation presents itself again the team would be able to push on that bit more rather than waiting for the finishing line to come to them.

Tyrone set the tone for a tactical chess game with their formation at throw in, Mickey Harte had a very clearly defined plan as to how to beat Donegal and they were close to pulling it off. Harte is the game’s eminent tactician, the only manager who can compete with him was the man in the other dugout. The game’s premier coaches went head to head and it was Donegal’s familiarity and know how of their own system coupled with their fitness and power that won the day.

The amount was of switches at throw-in was mind-boggling and indeed hard to decipher exactly what was going on; it took quite a while for the game to settle down into any kind of pattern. Both teams favoured short kickouts rather than risking losing possession by delivering into midfield which was somewhat strange from a Donegal point of view considering the form that Neil Gallagher is in at present.

His midfield partner, Ryan Bradley, had another terrific game yesterday and is playing like an All Star in the making if he keeps going. He is a prime example of the McGuinness effect having been a bit part player under previous bosses but thanks to the tutelage and guidance of Jim he has been transformed into an immense athlete of pace and power to go with the footballing talent that’s always been there.

Losing Neil McGee early on was a blow and indeed some of the goal chances Tyrone created through high balls in his absence was worrying. On one occasion Neil’s brother Eamonn was one on one with Stephen O’Neill, a situation you generally don’t see with this Donegal team - thankfully after he won the ball O'Neill's effort clipped the post.

Karl Lacey had another fine game, not allowing Peter Harte to dictate things too much while carrying a huge amount of ball for his side. He popped over one of his customary points near the end too and a fit and on-form Lacey is imperative for an All-Ireland challenge.

The chance of Ulster glory comes before that of course and Down stand in the way on July 22nd. They’re an exciting outfit with some top class forward talent but its hard to see how they will cope with the sheer size and speed of Donegal. Back to back titles would be an amazing achievement for this team and it’s a very real possibility. Three weeks time will tell all.