Wednesday, January 16, 2013

McKenna Cup put to bed, now its back to Croker

The McKenna Cup has been put to bed for another year and now Donegal can firmly focus on training and catching up with the rest of the country in the fitness stakes.

The experimentation continued in tonight’s final game of the competition with John O’Malley and Eoin McHugh making their debuts while Adi O’Gara, Pauric Carr and Michael Cannon, after brief cameos in the previous games, all made their first starts. O’Malley is well known for his senior exploits with Naomh Conaill and is likely destined for many more games in the county jersey. A huge honour too was bestowed on the Cloich Cheann Fhaola club, with Kevin McFadden skippering the All-Ireland Champions.

The fact that a 3rd level side, in the form of Belfast teaching college St Marys, were the opposition meant Donegal’s newcomers enjoyed a bit more of a level playing field than in the previous exploits against Fermanagh and Monaghan. The lads were quick out of the blocks with Odhran MacNiallais doing the damage early on. The students found their feet though and in a high scoring affair they led by a point at the break.

Caolan Ward and Kevin McFadden again impressed and with both players having played in different positions over the course of the competition, their versatility could be an asset to both Maxi Curran’s U21s and possibly Jim McGuinness' senior squad.

The high scoring continued after the change of ends; Donegal went on a scoring spree with five unasnwered points before Marys pegged it back to make it all square. There was some confusion between the score the referee had noted and that of the MacCumhaill Park scoreboard but in the end the record books will show a one point win for the hosts.

The GAA season now goes up a notch with Kildare providing our next opponents in the league opener and it gives supporters an early opportunity to go back to the Graceland of Croke Park and relive some of those wonderful memories from September. From a playing point of view, following the switch of venue for the clash, it will do McGuinness’ troops no harm playing at Headquarters as opposed to Conleth’s Park in Newbridge - the players are obviously well used to it and any opportunity to play at the Mecca of football can only benefit a team.

Jim spoke at the weekend of the training the team are undertaking now that their holiday is firmly in the past - Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday are all training days and the players will be glad to get back to the group dynamic and getting themselves prepared for what lies ahead.

Last year McGuinness along with Adam Speer and the rest of the coaching staff got the entire panel in incredible shape and in our best moments of the Championship other teams simply couldn’t live with our relentless stamina. 2011 was a case of getting the players up to a decent level of fitness based on the individual needs of each player. Last year however, to a man the squad was operating at close to peak condition - bringing them back up to that level again while also managing the niggles and knocks, and a serious hip injury in Karl Lacey’s case, is the target over the next few months.

Another goal of the management team will be to try to blend in those players who have shown well in this McKenna Cup campaign and there will be a few with an eye on at least a training spot with the panel and possibly more.

It is critical for any team that wins the All-Ireland to have competition for places and to avoid having players resting on their laurels. Someone breathing down the neck of a man in possession of a Celtic Cross should drive him on to win another one.

That’s all well in the future of course, for now its well done to the boys who’ve represented the jersey over the past week and all roads lead to Croker in a couple of weeks time.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Inexperienced Donegal Mauled by Monaghan

A first home game of the year for the All-Ireland Champions but its safe to say we’re all waiting for the homecoming proper in May after watching the mauling handed out by Monaghan today.

It was a similar story to Wednesday night with an inexperienced Donegal being well beaten by a superior conditioned side but it was a useful exercise nonetheless with some of the new lads doing their bid for a permanent squad place no harm at all.

The McGuinness ‘system’ is well known to the players, and everyone else really at this stage, and as such it makes it a bit easier for players to slot in when required; however it is certainly less troublesome for defenders to take up the baton. A mobile, pacey defender can answer most of the questions asked of him and with numbers behind the ball he has help by his side (even though the questions came a bit too quick for the back unit today). It’s a different story up front where a lot of Donegal’s forward play is built upon physical presence and ball winning ability. When the usual suspects aren’t available it can be very difficult for the forward line to play with any kind of cohesion and so much more work goes into each score. Today was a case in point when it took 28 minutes for the first score to arrive, that being Adrian Hanlon’s goal.

Daniel McLaughlin going off early after shipping a heavy knock to his knee while taking a shot at goal didn’t help matters up front; the St Michael's man was very effective on Wednesday night and his pace and piercing runs were missed.

The Naomh Conaill duo of Dermot Molloy and Marty Boyle were unavailable from the off today with each suffering from a bout of the vomiting bug and this further depleted the options available to Maxi Curran.

Gary McFadden was again prominent and looked Donegal’s most dangerous player. He played in midfield today but still got forward whenever he could and got his name on the score sheet, adding to the four points he registered in Brewster Park.  His leadership is vital on days like this when there are so many newcomers on the field and of course he’s no stranger to that type of role having captained his club to county glory in 2011. He’s one who could well have his eye on a starting spot in Croke Park in three weeks time.

Shane McGowan was another who put impressive back-to-back displays together and indeed was the standout performer in green and gold today. Playing what could be termed the ‘McHugh role’ he looked good on the ball and showed great anticipation - just like the Kilcar man did all last year.

A goal for the visitors almost straight from the restart killed the game and it was a second half procession for the Farney men. Monaghan have traditionally always had strong, tough footballers who bring great physicality to games and this was evident again today. They also moved the ball extremely well at times and regardless of the nature of the teams, wracking up 3-16 against Donegal is good going.

They had many excellent performances today but Kieran Hughes stood tallest and his afternoon was peppered with fine score taking, good build up work and some sumptuous assist play. One particular highlight came in the second half when he hit an overhead reverse pass with his weaker right foot to set up a point for substitute Dermot Malone.

Willie Gillespie came into the game more in the second half for the hosts and scored a wonderful point off his right following clever use of his body to shield the incoming ball from the defender before grasping it and slotting it over. He did something similar in the first half and was unlucky not to get a penalty when striking for goal on that occasion.

Malachy O’Rourke’s men appear to motoring along nicely and they will face Fermanagh on Wednesday night in a shoot-out for top spot. Of course Monaghan could easily have been our opponents in last year’s Ulster Final, their second half collapse in the semi against Down is no doubt still a sore point. They have a good manager in place in the shape of O’Rourke who had a good stint as Fermanagh boss and indeed the Ernemen were only a good free-taker away from an Ulster Championship in 2008.

Monaghan could certainly be in the mix again this Summer, they are on the weaker side of the draw and will fancy themselves as dark horses for the Anglo Celt.

There’ll be nothing dark about Donegal’s quest for three-in-a-row of course and depending on the decision from the Ulster Council over whether MacCumhaill Park is fit to the host eagerly awaited clash with Tyrone, that bid could begin on home turf. The old ground was quiet and hushed today but hopefully, with the correct call from Ulster HQ, the place will be rocking come the end of May.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Here We Go Again

Matches at this time of year are always a bit unusual, no one knows quite what to expect performance-wise; results are by and large meaningless as Donegal’s whitewash in last year’s McKenna Cup testifies. A freezing Wednesday night in Brewster Park is as far removed from Croke Park in September as you can imagine but that’s where the Donegal faithful pitched up last night. Every journey has to start somewhere and of course we’re all hoping that this year’s will end in nine months time again.

With the team only touching down on Irish soil on Tuesday after their Dubai sojourn this was always going to be a bit of a strange and rushed affair. So rushed indeed that two of Donegal’s players, Michael Boyle and Shane McGowan, had to make do with the 2011 kit that we last wore against Dublin in the All-Ireland Semi-Final as their 2012/13 equivalents had gone AWOL!

Stranger still but hugely satisfying was the fact that for only the second time ever we were treated to a Donegal team being given a guard of honour in their season opener as they made their way onto the field.

Amongst them were several debutants, eight of which saw their first action in a senior jersey; Kevin McFadden and substitute Caolan Ward along with panel returnee McGowan putting in the most noteworthy displays of the youngsters.

Last year’s panellists appeared that bit sharper than the newcomers despite the schedule of holidaying and celebrating they’ve had of late; indeed it’s a good omen for the rest of the first team that players like Daniel McLaughlin, Gary McFadden and Thomas McKinley weren’t found wanting physically against a Fermanagh team that have been back training for the past 7-8 weeks. Jim will put the boys through their paces over the next month and hopefully it will be a case of topping up to reach the extraordinary levels of fitness attained last year.

Maxi Curran directed operations from the sideline last night, with the majority of the matchday squad being plucked from his U21 panel. Jim and Rory watched on from the stand as part of a 1,500 strong crowd.

Fermanagh hit the front early and wouldn’t leave that position although it was hard to know at times such was the density of the fog that suffocated Brewster Park. The latest score had to be announced over the loudspeaker in each half, the scoreboard practically invisible through the fog in one corner of the field to the vast majority of patrons seated in the John Vesty Stand.

The game from a Donegal perspective was essentially a short passing, tight affair; with the fog making visibility difficult this was understandable. Also, with so many new players in action, its natural for players to take the safe option of a quick hand pass in order to retain possession instead of being more expansive. Despite the low-key nature of the fixture, pulling on a county jersey for the first time is the biggest game of some lad’s lives and their mindsets are somewhere in between making a name for themselves and not making mistakes.

Without either of the twin towers of Michael Murphy or Colm McFadden on the field, Donegal generally try and carry the ball into the forward line but in the second half when they did go that bit more direct they got their rewards with the goals from Adrian Hanlon and Brick Molloy.

The hosts though for the most part had an effective defensive screen and their superior, more advanced early season conditioning allowing them to funnel back and then immediately break in numbers. McLaughlin and Copper McFadden kept running and probing though and eventually found some gaps with the Glenswilly man finishing with three well taken scores from play.

Copper is one of those who would be hoping to kick on and get to the next level in 2013; this time last year there were plenty in the same boat and players such as Neil Gallagher, Eamonn McGee and Paddy McGrath climbed another rung or two on the performance ladder and were soon undroppable fixtures in the team. Others now include Brick Molloy, Patrick McBreaty, Leo McLoone and Marty Boyle – they can all push for a higher level of performance and if Jim can get that extra 10% out of some his players hopes will be high of another successful Summer.

Before all that though we continue with our Winter programme and its back at base in MacCumhaill Park on Sunday where Monaghan are the visitors.