Monday, July 29, 2013

Dún na nGall back on track as Mayo lie in wait

Donegal are back in the last eight and while they didn’t go the route they wanted the main thing is they were in the pot for the draw last Saturday night; as Jim said afterwards “we’re back were we would have been minus the cup.” We’re still the holders of the other cup and its up to Mayo now to take it off us. It’ll be a titanic clash, without doubt the tie of the round and one game that everyone will want to see.

Saturday was a typically nervy encounter, a real do-or-die feel to it early on with both teams being ultra-cautious and players desperate not to make mistakes. The downpours that hit Carrick in the hours before throw-in made for a greasy surface and added to the conservative nature of the play in the opening exchanges. This mind set was transferred to the crowd with the tight surroundings making for a claustrophobic cauldron. Carrick was a far from ideal venue as regards traffic, ticketing or ease of access but for atmosphere, a packed house at a small venue makes for a great noise.
It wasn’t just on the field and in the stands where the tension was evident, on the sideline Jim and Rory were up for the battle as well as their set-to with Justin McNulty and Fergal Byron clearly demonstrated – this game meant a lot, this title that Donegal are defending means a lot and they were hurting from the nature of their no-show in the Ulster Final.

The match took quite a while to settle down and the first huge roar from the green and gold contingent was provided by a booming score from the right by Michael Murphy. A few moments earlier he had hit Laois newcomer O’Carroll with a shuddering shoulder as he and his team set the tone for what would be a dogfight for the most part.

Michael had spoken midweek of righting the wrongs from Clones and with so many players needing to atone for abject personal displays, there was a real desire to make a statement. Neil McGee was one such man, coming in for a bit of a roasting against Conor McManus the previous week he was in no mood for a repeat performance. Composed at the back, he also drove forward on numerous occasions capping an excellent display with a surging run and point near the end. Paddy McGrath alongside him in the full back line again was fantastic; the Ardara man just never seems to have a bad game.

McGee’s point came in a closing period where players were happy to take on the posts, with Colm McFadden and substitute Leo McLoone also registering white flags. This was a welcome development as at times the patience the team shows up front can lead to scoring opportunities being neglected. The team has been very economical this year, hitting very few wides but there may be point scoring chances being ignored also. A more progressive shooting policy in the early stages, as well the latter of the game, could serve us well next week as a good start could be crucial against Mayo.

The green and red are still smarting from the early onslaught their Hill 16 goal took in last year’s All-Ireland Final and will be hell-bent on making a quick start this time around; .if they were to fall behind again their minds would inevitably drift back to September. Conversely, Mayo getting ahead early would see Donegal chasing the game and as we saw against Monaghan that’s not an easy task to be faced with, especially for a team who will be playing for the third weekend in succession.

If Murphy’s score was the first big cheer of the day then Anthony Thompson made the Donegal roar reverberate around Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada with his majestic piece of skill in the second half. Following good work from Eamon McGee to dispossess Laois as they attacked, Thompson broke onto the loose ball on the right wing. Aware that he was about to be tackled by a blue jersey, instead of bending his back to pick up the ball he delightfully chipped it into his arms without breaking stride. He kept going up the wing before driving the ball across to McFadden who popped it over the bar. That put Donegal five points up and despite a Laois rally to close to within two they were on their way back to Croke Park.

As the scoreboard ticked over in the closing stages Rory Gallagher turned to the Laois bench and let out a roar of his own, conveying just how much this meant. Donegal were down after the Ulster Final but not out. True it was Laois in Carrick-on-Shannon whereas Mayo at Headquarters will be an entirely different challenge but at least we’re back on track. Next week will require every ounce of character and every fibre of energy to repeat last autumn’s result.

Although it was tough to accept a defeat in the provincial showpiece, in some ways it was great to be back on the road for a qualifier. Before Jim came along this was a road very well-travelled by the Donegal faithful and it brought back some good memories. Of course our last sojourn through the back door ended on that fateful day in South Armagh three years ago. That was a seminal moment in the history of Donegal football – from the dying embers of that day came an All-Ireland winning team. Only time will tell whether or not Carrick can mirror Cross in being a catalyst for something special. If the team can come up with a mammoth performance and win on Sunday next, Carrick will also live long in the memory.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Farney Army Dash Dun na nGall 3-In-A-Row Dreams

The three-in-a-row dream died against a Farney onslaught yesterday but Donegal are still alive in this year’s quest for Sam - going by their display in the provincial showpiece though things need to improve quickly. Its six short days until the back door is bolted shut for another year and the team face a tough task in ensuring they are still at the party come closing time.

There can’t be any complaints about proceedings in Clones; the best team won on the day and there were no ifs, buts or maybes from the defending champions’ perspective. Mark McHugh going off injured was a blow but such was the lethargy and clumsiness on show from his team mates it didn’t make that vital a difference when the game is looked at as a whole.

Two key chinks were exposed in the Donegal armoury yesterday and they have been worries for quite a time - but this was the first time under McGuinness that a team successfully exploited both.

Firstly we were by and large wiped out at centre-field and this had already been a major problem against Tyrone and indeed in some of last year's games. Thankfully Neil Gallagher’s introduction steadied the ship somewhat and only for his efforts things could have been a lot worse. Apart from Gallagher's tour de force against Cork in last year's All Ireland semi, this Donegal side have rarely dominated a team around the middle third and yesterday it was Monaghan who were doing the dominating. Coupled with the midfield platform they created, they then attacked Donegal in a way that few teams have – with direct high ball in on top of our full back line.

Eamon McGee actually mentioned in an interview he gave earlier in the year that he had spent a lot of time doing extra training on high fielding – he and the management team were well aware that this was a potential weakness for the defensive unit and they had tried to correct it. Yet when someone like Kieran Hughes is in the sort of form he showed yesterday sometimes its just near impossible to cope. Hughes had a terrific game in Ballybofey in the McKenna Cup back in January and while that competition was disregarded by Donegal he left his mark that day and did so again with even greater aplomb in the biggest match of his life.

It was so unusual to see both McGee brothers given the run around yesterday; they’ve been the embodiment of this current Donegal team with their strength, power and assurance yet Hughes along with Conor McManus were unmarkable yesterday. How many times over the last couple of years have we seen full-back Neil come storming out from defence to take man, ball and all? It just didn’t happen this time, he was close to McManus on a number of occasions but was never able to get a hand in or shove the Clontibret sharp-shooter off the ball.

The tackling in general by the whole team was lazy. Monaghan players on numerous occasions side-stepped or wrong footed green and gold men with quick movement of the hips or shoulder and they created space easily. The game’s opening score was a case in point with Darren Hughes easily selling a dummy to Karl Lacey to get into a better scoring position. Normally the ferociousness of the Donegal tackle makes teams wilt and that’s why teams hit so many wides against us because they are forced to shoot when they don’t want to. Instead Monaghan took their scores when they were on and were supremely confident in their shot making ability.

Monaghan got the early run on Donegal and the four-point lead they amassed, just like we did in the semi-final, was a crucial cushion. In a game where both sides are setup the same way and both trying to hit on the counter, a deficit like that is extremely hard to claw back. Down only once got inside the three point margin against Donegal in Breffni Park and in Clones yesterday we never got inside that margin at all.

Aside from Gallagher in midfield there weren't too many players who could be happy with their days work. Paul Durcan was excellent in goal, dealing well with almost every high ball that came into his square - and Ryan McHugh was on hand to give him a dig out for the one he didn't manage to claim. The younger McHugh looked very composed when he came on and capped a good cameo with a wonderful score floated over with the outside of his right boot.

Unfortunately such scoring feats were few and far between. Michael Murphy was largely anonymous with Vinny Corey giving an imperious display at full back. He rarely looked at or for the ball, his eyes were firmly fixed on the Glenswilly man-mountain and it made for a frustrating day for the captain. Even when Murphy appeared to be hauled down in the box approaching half-time it was he who was shown a yellow card by the referee, thus infuriating him even further.

His strike partner Colm McFadden had a similar afternoon; twelve months on from shooting over booming scores from all angles in the 2012 decider he was thwarted time and again by Drew Wylie; there wasn't anything too scientific about the man-marking jobs carried out by Wylie or Corey, just good old-fashioned staples of defending - stay tight on your man and keep him on his weaker foot.

Of course everyone is now asking the question, why did this happen? Was it tiredness in the bodies, tiredness in the minds, hype getting to the players – the truth is nobody knows. The squad though are still supremely fit and well conditioned so the physical explanation doesn't really wash. The hype issue and the three-in-a-row thoughts seeping into the player’s mindsets is the most likely reason. Of course with pretty much every one of us having written Monaghan's chances off there was always a chance of that happening. If the treble bid is the reason for defeat then there's still every chance of progressing further in the Championship; however if tired minds are at play then we could be near the end of the 2013 road – we’ll only find out if that is the case next Saturday.

Whatever way you think about or analyse yesterday it wasn't pretty from a Donegal viewpoint - yet we’re still there. We’re not out of the Championship and we are still the defending All-Ireland Champions. The six-day turnaround for beaten provincial finalists is usually the kiss of death for teams but after such a wretched performance it may be beneficial having a game so quickly to try to put things right. Carrick on Shannon holds a special place in the hearts of Donegal Gaels – it was in Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada that the county secured a first ever national title, becoming All-Ireland winners at U21 level in 1982.

More recently it was the scene of a young Murphy’s Championship debut in a senior jersey on a night when the then reigning National League Champions needed extra-time to shake off a dogged Leitrim team in a Round 1 qualifier. This weekend could be something similar – it’s all about grinding out a win, nothing more.

All players and managers want to get to Croke Park for the August Bank Holiday weekend because that’s when the Championship starts in earnest. Donegal would have wanted to go there as Ulster Champions but instead that honour is now bestowed upon Monaghan. Its up to McGuinness’ men to earn their place amongst that last eight and if we get there anything is possible.

Jim always maintains that his team competes in two different knockout competitions – the Ulster Championship and the All-Ireland Championship; it’s no different this year except that we’re starting the latter a week earlier. The road is a bit rockier but the journey and destination remain the same.

We've heard so often in interviews with the players about the plans Jim and Rory have laid out for them before each game and the work that goes into preparing them for what the opposition will throw at them. That process was again meticulously followed before the Ulster Final as it will be before Saturday’s crunch encounter with Laois. However once they cross the white line its up to the players to determine the outcome. They were off-colour yesterday, no doubt about that; but these players have given us days of joy that we only dared dream of over the last couple of summers; they will know themselves that they didn't perform yesterday and were well beaten. But they also know they’re still good enough and that they haven’t suddenly become a poorer side - now is the time to back these boys.