Monday, September 22, 2014

Double Dream Dies for Dún na nGall

It was supposed to be our greatest day but it couldn't have turned out any worse. A devastating double defeat for Donegal, with both minors and seniors falling short and it is not a nice feeling waking up the day after an All-Ireland Final defeat.

Leading into the game, Donegal seemed to hold all of the aces and in truth if the teams were taking to the field every day this week, you’d back Donegal every time. On the day Kerry were better – but every other day Donegal would be better. Kerry were depending on keeping the game tight and hoping that their opponents would under-perform and that is exactly what happened.

The verve and brio usually associated with the team, illustrated so perfectly in the semi final, was absent and the players seemed nervy, possibly struggling to cope with the expectation heaped upon them. Jim McGuinness though is the master at preparing for such situations, getting the heads right, so for his Donegal team to be so out of sorts is unusual. For it to happen on the biggest day of the year is tragic as the team will know today as they make the long trip home that they left a second title behind them.

Kerry did what they had to do in that they retained a defensive shape as much as they could but in truth they didn’t out-think or outfox Donegal. The Kingdom’s midfield pair of David Moran and Anthony Maher were both excellent and had a great battle with Neil Gallagher and Rory Kavanagh, who were two of the team’s better performers, especially in the first half. Gallagher had another fine match to cement his All Star selection but was unable to dominant aerially from kick outs such was the pressure exerted by the Kerry duo.

Leo McLoone was fantastic throughout, incessantly running at the opposition defence looking for gaps. Leo is often the player who makes way in the third quarter but that it was Ryan McHugh and not the Glenties man who made way at this juncture of the game spoke volumes of his display.

Of course it says plenty about McHugh as well. The young starlets of this team, who have brought so much to the fray this year – McHugh, Odhran MacNiallais and Darach O’Connor – all started yesterday but were all taken off. They have added so much freshness and skill to proceedings this year that without any of them playing like they can, the team’s capabilities were greatly reduced.

Going into the game, the talk was of Kerry’s primary threats of James O’Donoghue and Kieran Donaghy. O’Donoghue played most of his football out the field in a deeper role and while he saw a lot of the ball, by his own standards his impact was minimal. If someone had said during the week that O’Donoghue would be kept scoreless, many would have felt Kerry wouldn’t have had a prayer.
Donaghy made a nuisance of himself on the edge of the square and won some good possession. At times Gallagher was brought back to double up on him along with his marker Eamon McGee and overall his threat was handled well.

Despite a horrendous start, Donegal were calm and composed and slowly but surely grinded Kerry down in the first half. It was fascinating to watch as the system clicked into action; there was a strange subdued atmosphere in Croke Park for much of the first half – there seemed a certain inevitability to every attack and with Donegal level by half time things looked fairly good although there were a few too many chances wasted.

One feature of play yesterday was the amount of times Donegal players ran into groups of Kerrymen without support runners in tow; players were isolated as the ball was stripped off them and gobbled up by hungry defenders.

The second half followed suit; Donegal not playing particularly well but not panicking and happy knowing that their game plan would see them home.

Then came the match and season defining moment.

However bad the rest of us feel today, it will be nothing compared to Paul Durcan. The big man is one of the key reasons why Donegal made it this fair in the first place and has every chance of collecting a second All Star award next month.

With the game delicately poised, Durcan weighed up his options to set Donegal on the attack again. Whether the clash of jersey colours played its part in the next few seconds or the strong sunlight shining into the Hill was a factor, either way the ball ended up in the grateful hands of Donaghy who finished simply, although his task was made easier with the big keeper going to ground too quickly.

It was a horrible moment for Papa. Every player at every level, indeed everyone in every walk of life makes mistakes. Such are the perils of being a goalkeeper; those mistakes are magnified and are usually punished.

The stadium was stunned, Kerry fans rejoiced, they knew this was a huge moment. There was still time for a comeback but a goal at that stage, in a tight, dour contest was massive. As it turned out, it decided the All Ireland.

Durcan was rattled and his next few kick outs went straight down the middle, he wasn’t going to chance anything other than a long punt. This led to fifty-fifty ball being contested and each time Kerry won possession it was another chance gone for Donegal to eat into the lead.

There was one last chance with that frantic scramble at the death as the ball came off the post instead of finding the net and salvaging a replay. That was that.

Nobody from Donegal knew what to do after an All Ireland defeat as it hadn’t happened before; so people ended up doing the same as they did two years ago and had the craic. It was gone after five a.m. this morning in Donegal’s home from home on Harcourt Street, Dtwo, when Jimmy’s Winning Matches was played three times in a row and it was belted out with gusto and pride just as it always is – legendary man, legendary support.

Some of the players joined the fun too and mingled with the faithful and the main thing now that will be on their minds and all of ours is will Jimmy be winning matches next year?

His four year plan is complete, will there be a fifth? Will the great progress made by the minor team under Declan Bonner’s tutelage entice Jim to stay on, knowing that there is quality in that squad that could make the step up to senior?

We don’t know when these questions will be answered but obviously we’re all hoping for a yes. 

Donegal will be back - and hopefully Jim will too.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Dún na nGall Into All-Ireland Final After Beating the Unbeatables

They said that they were the team that couldn’t be beaten. We were the team that beat the team that couldn’t be beaten.

Those were the immortal words uttered by Pete McGrath as he addressed thousands of Down supporters in Newry after he had masterminded his team to the 1991 All-Ireland title, against the supposedly unbeatable Meath. Those words seem very apt this morning.

Twenty-three years on, Jim McGuinness is the master and his Donegal side have beaten the team that couldn’t be beaten.

Things were looking ominous early on as a Paul Flynn inspired Dublin looked like they were going to run riot and they raced ahead with a series of excellent points. They never managed to raise a green flag though and that was vital for Donegal to stay in the game. Paul Durcan made a wonderful save from Diarmuid Connolly and that, allied with the introduction of Christy Toye, swung the pendulum towards the green and gold. Toye’s tackle and dispossession on Michael Dara Macauley in the first half was a big moment and got the Donegal support off their seats and got the adrenalin going.

The training camp in Enfield last week had many speculating that a new tactical grand plan would be unveiled by McGuinness yet Donegal stuck to what they’ve always done but crucially produced their best ever display under his stewardship. There were slight variations here and there but ‘The System’ is still alive and well and when executed to perfection it is unbeatable.

One key tactical variation was the positioning and interchanging of the Glenswilly duo, Michael Murphy and Neil Gallagher. This Dublin team hadn’t been tested all year and it was well documented that they had a suspect full back line but no team had been able to really get at it. This game was billed as Donegal’s defence stopping Dublin’s attack – but McGuinness knew how to turn the tables and attack the Dublin rear guard.

He knew if they could create space in behind and get runners in there, there was joy to be had. Murphy was being picked up by Rory O’Carroll while Michael Dara Macauley shadowed big Neil. With the two players constantly changing it meant that O’Carroll often found himself at midfield with Macauley marooned at full back – two players out of position and in unknown territory. It caused confusion in the Dublin defence, generated space and with three goals to show it proved to be a marvellous ploy by Jim.

Murphy actually spent more time at full forward yesterday than he has done all year but he still managed his customary tour de force all action display, he was simply everywhere. He nailed a forty yard score when the first half comeback was in full swing just minutes after he had missed a gimmie. His role in the opening goal was crucial - after the first ball didn’t go his way he put in a hit on Michael Fitzsimons with the ball popping up to Colm McFadden who fed Ryan McHugh to finish.

It is these types of situations and these types of plays that mark Murphy apart; he can be the typical full forward kicking scores and plundering goals but he can also play any number of roles and make chances out of nothing. The tackle on Fitzsimons was reminiscent of his hit on Conor Gormley in the Ulster semi-final of 2011, which led to a McFadden goal and a Donegal victory. Murphy has now firmly put himself in the frame for the player of the year award - more importantly he will have a chance in three weeks’ time of climbing those famous Hogan Stand steps again.

McHugh’s goal capped an amazing few minutes of football from Donegal, scoring an unanswered 1-4 having been five points in arrears. The Dubs were stunned and once Donegal hit the front they never looked back. The Kilcar man was in the right place at the right time again shortly into the second half to finish wonderfully with his hands after Anthony Thompson’s raid down the right wing.

Gallagher at midfield was a colossus again yesterday and should collect his second All Star come seasons’ end. Despite coming up against the athleticism of the Dublin midfield, he played his own game, at his own pace and bossed the middle sector – as he did against Cork in the semi-final two years ago.

There were towering performances all over the field from Donegal men with many players producing their best when it mattered most. Paddy McGrath was absolutely immense from start to finish, throwing himself into tackles and putting his body on the line. In truth, it’s hard to remember McGrath ever having a bad game for Donegal, going all the way back to the U21 campaign of 2010. Despite the success this team has enjoyed, players like McGrath and Thompson are under-rated by many yet winning teams simply don’t function without players with their selflessness and drive.

Karl Lacey went about his business quietly but efficiently yesterday, shutting out the playmaking abilities of Alan Brogan, while the McGee brothers continued the fine form they’ve shown all year. Paddy McBrearty again made a huge contribution off the bench and it will be interesting to see how he is used in the final.

It was a day of smiles all round but possibly the biggest grin we saw was that of Colm McFadden after he scored his side’s third goal. He had come into sharp focus in the previews for the game and while his shooting was still quite erratic at times he finished with 1-3 and his effort, work rate and commitment cannot be questioned. For a man playing below his usual standards he has now scored 1-10 over the course of three big championship games against Monaghan, Armagh and Dublin.

That third goal put eight points between the teams and Dublin would only get as close as six come the final whistle; Donegal’s game management and cuteness showed in the final straight as they closed the game out. In the last quarter, almost every time Dublin scored a point, there was a Donegal player down looking for attention from the physio and it killed any momentum that the Dubs might have gotten.

The role of the Donegal minors in proceedings yesterday cannot be over stated. They were underdogs in their joust with Dublin and even after conceding a needless goal, they showed great heart to get back into the game and get ahead at the finish. As people milled around the bowels of Croke Park between the minor and senior games, you could sense that every Donegal person was walking that little bit taller and it gave huge impetus for what lay ahead for the big one. To have both teams now in action on All-Ireland Final day is the stuff of dreams.

There’s a special feeling about winning a semi-final; Donegal had such a wretched record in last four encounters for so long, winning them and realising that your going to be there on the biggest day is hugely satisfying.

If there is a downside to what was one of the great days for Donegal football, it was that there was no cup handed out yesterday. It was an incredible display but it will be worth nothing unless the job is completed in three weeks against the Kingdom. The two epic battles with Mayo will have Kerry well primed for an assault on Donegal and despite supposedly being a team in transition, they will present a massive challenge. The crux of Jim’s game plan will revolve around containing Kieran Donaghy and Murphy’s rival for the player of the year award, James O’Donoghue.

Yesterday was The Messiah’s finest hour as a coach and he can take his place with the all-time greats with a second All-Ireland later this month. Believe!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dún na nGall Edge Orchard To Setup Dubs Showdown

The dream semi-final, the match that everyone wants to see is now a reality; though there looked to be a real chance of a nightmare unfolding for Donegal in the dying stages of yesterdays contest with Armagh.

Two wonderful points from the left pegs of Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty finally shook off an Orchard side who were behind for much of the game but looked to have timed their raid to perfection.
It was a patchy performance from Donegal, the overall unit not performing anywhere near the level it is capable of but there were some stirring individual displays. The McGee brothers were fantastic in the full back line while in front of them Frank McGlynn and Anthony Thompson put in incredible shifts.

Thompson won a huge amount of ball and in tandem with Neil Gallagher, was the source of so much of the side’s primary possession. Gallagher had another big game at midfield; Donegal just don’t function in the same way when he’s not on the pitch, he holds it all together around the middle and his fielding is a joy to watch. There were a few of Paul Durcan’s kick outs that went awry, on occasion kicking straight to unmarked Armagh men. Whether these were errors from Durcan or from the his men not making the correct run its hard to say but that particular facet of the game will be hugely important in the semi-final and Gallagher again will need to be at his best.

McGlynn meanwhile ran himself into the ground, attacking the left flank over and over again - he can’t have been far off leaving tracks in the Croke Park sod. With McGlynn raiding down the wing the central channel was the route taken by Leo McLoone. The Glenties man’s direct running and superb ball control has been a feature of this year’s Championship and with him being so comfortable off both feet he’s a nightmare for defenders trying to stop him.

While the aforementioned players and others of course all played their part, there was one man who stood taller than anyone else, captain Murphy. We’ve seen numerous exhibitions of football from the Maestro but yesterday was as good as he’s ever been from a leadership perspective. So often when Donegal ran into the Armagh defensive wall, the play slowed down as the team had to be patient and hold possession. Invariably it was Michael who would then inject some pace into a move, make a run, create something from nothing and his fingerprints were on almost every Donegal score.

His equaliser was a perfect example. Making a surge from deep he collected the ball at halfway before off loading; he continued his run and two passes later he was on Frank McGlynn’s shoulder to receive the ball and slot it over the bar with his left foot.

You could almost sense it amongst the team whenever they engaged in the patient, keep-ball build up – they were waiting until Michael got on the ball and then suddenly the runs were made, openings created.

Odhran MacNiallais continued his dream debut season of Championship football, scoring a well taken goal while also getting a crucial score after Armagh had taken the lead late on. He and Ryan McHugh have firmly put themselves in the frame for the Young Player of the Year gong, as well as All Stars. His goal came at a time when Donegal were struggling, content to stifle their opponents but not showing much inventiveness themselves. That changed after twenty minutes when Michael was pushed up alongside Colm McFadden in the full forward line. With that switch Armagh had to reorganise their defence with Charlie Vernon and Brendan Donaghy sharing responsibility for Murphy. The consternation he creates in opposition defences merely by his presence leads to space for others – within minutes of the switch being made, MacNiallais found room in behind and cracked his goal in off the upright.

From then on Donegal appeared to have the measure of Armagh with the Orchardmen reduced to initiating scraps and doing their best to get under Donegal’s skin. As Karl Lacey made his was off the field at halftime, Aidan Forker immediately ran towards him to give him a shunt and some pleasantries in his ear. Lacey looked bemused by the episode and by the childishness of Armagh.

Lacey had a quiet enough game after picking up an early injury; while you’d want to have your top players firing it is encouraging to see Donegal winning games knowing that there is more in the tank. McFadden is certainly a case in point – it is just not happening for him. In trying to make amends he’s probably trying even harder and trying to force things, going for shots that aren’t on. It would be a surprise to see him start the semi-final on the bench but you can be sure it will be discussed amongst the management team.

The third quarter surge that has been key to Donegal over recent years was evident again; the scoreboard was kept ticking over and they found themselves three points to the good as we approached the hour mark. Some wastefulness didn’t help matters and with a bit more composure the lead could have been a few points more.

Then came Armagh’s goal, very unlucky from Paul Durcan’s point of view, with the ball rebounding off the post and into the net off his foot. Armagh sensed blood and started to believe the game was theirs. Donegal though showed huge courage to get back into the game and get back in front, a real mark of seasoned champions.

Substitute Martin McElhinney showed great bravery and heart to throw himself onto a loose ball and guide it into the path of a team-mate in the build up to McBrearty’s winner. That type of play, putting your body on the line, will be required from every man that takes the field in the semi-final. McElhinney’s clubmate Christy Toye didn’t see much of the ball from an attacking sense put he was another who put in a huge amount of work. For large parts of the first half he was marking Aaron Kernan and he covered his runs diligently and sacrificed himself for the cause in attempting to negate one of Armagh’s main threats.

And so to what awaits in three weeks time. The Dubs will present a huge challenge. Many have said that Donegal are the only team that can potentially topple the juggernaut. That is probably true but it will still take the performance of our lives to make that happen. At times yesterday we got turned over in the Armagh half of the field when we were expecting to get frees – these little nuances of the game all have to improve, everything has to be lifted a notch.

Donegal will not have impressed many with their overall display yesterday and as such the team will be rank outsiders for the last four encounter. We’re winning games with our best finisher, McFadden, out of form and with other players who have another gear or two to find. Others though like McLoone, McHugh and Thompson are going above and beyond – is that enough to beat Dublin?

Jim has lost just three championship games as Donegal bainisteoir; with the Ulster Final win this year and now redemption in the quarter finals after last year’s horrow show, two of those three wrongs have been righted. Only one remains - Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final. The game will represent the greatest test of the McGuinness system but no doubt it will be a task he will relish. A win would be his greatest achievement. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Dún na nGall Recalim Seat on Ulster's Throne

We got our trophy back! The Anglo Celt is back in Donegal hands for the third time in four years and with the Fr. Murray cup also crossing the border last night after the minor team’s victory it was a day of double delight for the green and gold.

Despite being somewhat used to the celebrations that go with an Ulster title win, the management and players took particular pleasure out of yesterday’s win; it seemed to mean more, even judging by Jim’s reaction at the final whistle. There’s a fierce determination within the group to right the wrongs from last year and they’ve now banished the memory of the provincial showpiece 12 months ago.

For a few of course this is their first Ulster medal – Ryan McHugh marked the occasion with a man of the match performance while Odhran MacNiallais kicked three wonderful points over the course of the game.
In the early stages of the match, the blood and thunder of last year wasn’t quite evident; there was nervy, nasty atmosphere and a somewhat claustrophobic tension which mirrored the dead heat in the Clones air. The apprehensiveness affected the players too with three of the country’s leading dead ball specialists, Conor McManus, Michael Murphy and Rory Beggan, all missing attempts at the posts in the opening minutes; indeed McManus would register his only score in stoppage time at the end of the match – and that was a long ball intended to land in and around Paul Durcan’s square.

Donegal coped better in the dour opening exchanges, notching the game’s first three points and Monaghan struggled to cope with Jim’s defensive setup. McGuinness stationed Leo McLoone in the full forward line alongside Colm McFadden and it is an example of the options that the coaching staff have developed over time. Leo’s fabulous fetch on the end line led to MacNiallais’ second point of the day and kept Donegal nudging ahead.

Despite the perception that ‘The System’ is extremely rigid, the players have to be agile and be able to undertake different roles throughout the course of a game. Murphy is the best example of this of course; he spent most of yesterday’s game as an auxiliary centre back alongside Frank McGlynn and on numerous occasions he was even covering in at full-back when Neil McGee sauntered up field. Armagh were the pioneers of this role under Joe Kernan - Tony McEntee used to slot in alongside Kieran McGeeney as Murphy did yesterday.

The purists baulk at such tactics, stunned that one of the game’s eminent attackers is asked to perform such a role yet I’m sure Michael didn’t mind one bit where he played once he was able to climb the steps of the Gerry Arthur stand to pick up the trophy for the third time.

When the team was named during the week, it was assumed that there would be changes before throw-in and Karl Lacey was sure to be one of them. He had a fine afternoon, getting the game’s opening point and also displaying his now trademark, textbook dispossession on Dermot Malone in the second half. You often see defenders - not very good ones - frantically swinging both arms at an attacker hoping to dispossess them; Karl does this but always in a measured way, aimed at the ball and it’s a fantastic skill.

Lacey’s half back counterpart, Anthony Thompson, had a somewhat unusual game – time and again his handling let him down and he, like quite a few of the players, looked nervous. Yet the Glenties man just always seems to make a big contribution and he certainly did that again.

Neil Gallagher was another change to the fifteen named and the Glenswilly man had an outstanding game. Such are his injury problems that he rarely gets seventy minutes in a Donegal jersey these days but he lasted the pace yesterday and that in itself is a huge positive as we move into the All-Ireland series.

There’s an intense, somewhat bitter rivalry building between these teams lately and that always simmered close to the surface yesterday. There were quite a few flashpoints in the game and it was a surprise that both teams managed to keep their full complement of players on the field. The McGee brothers both picked up cautions in the first half but did well to keep their discipline thereafter, crucial in such a tense, turgid battle.

The battles were taking place in the stands too with quite a few slagging matches breaking out amongst the two sets of supporters. Stephen Gollogly didn’t help matters as he put in a high tackle on McHugh, this of course the same player who ended Mark McHugh’s Ulster final participation last year. Monaghan were intent on drawing Donegal into a physical battle and they hit hard and sometimes late. Yet the discipline shown by the men from the Hills was commendable – in the first few minutes Gollogly swung Murphy around by the neck but there was no reaction whatsoever from the Maestro, he just took his free and got on with it.

Donegal had a two-point lead at the break and continued to look in control in the third quarter, stretching the difference out to four. Monaghan’s goal could have been a major turning point as it left just the minimum between them - the next score was going to be crucial. McGuinness’ men got it and added two more and that was the winning of the game.

Patrick McBrearty was to the fore in this period and maybe the decision not to start him was a smart call from Jim in that it reminded the Kilcar youngster that his displays had to improve. Injury curtailed his involvement during the league but in almost every game he came off the bench to good effect and got his name on the score sheet, just like he did yesterday.

It was the captain who had the final say, Murphy nailing a monster 70 yard free to sink Monaghan hearts. It was reminiscent of the free he scored against Ardara in last year’s county semi final to get his club to the final – big moments, big man.

A handling error from Frank McGlynn led to the goal but that aside he was immense throughout. He was the source for many of his side’s attacks and swept up in front of the McGee brothers. Earlier in that move for the goal, McFadden handled poorly to give possession back to the Farney men; Colm’s poor form continued yesterday, having been brilliantly marshalled by Drew Wylie, and his lack of confidence is a worry as we head for Croke Park. He’s working as hard as ever but it just isn’t happening for him at present. That can happen sometimes and you feel that a goal or a big point from play could turn his season around. He still notched 0-4 from frees though and for that alone he’s a vital cog.

Neither Colm nor Michael scored from play yet the team still registered 0-15; maybe Donegal aren’t as reliant on these two as everyone makes out. For a defensive side who supposedly neglect the attacking element of the game, it was a decent score to post and indeed there were some very poor wides and missed chances to go along with that.

So all this means that its back to Jones Road in a few weeks’ time for a quarter final against either Armagh or Meath. The Orchard had our number for quite a few years so a rematch would be something to look forward to.

Looking forward to the semi-final is what the rest of the country are doing though – the unbeatable juggernaut that is Dublin will be there and many believe Donegal are the only team that can stop them. A Dublin street trader even found his way to the market town yesterday, selling headbands for a euro, maybe on a spying mission for August.

Certainly right now, the team is not as fluid or assured as it was this time two years ago. However Jim has broken a seventy minute football match into so many little parts and has a specific plan for each as regards positioning of players, personnel changes from the bench and game plans that you wouldn’t back against him in any contest.

There probably wasn’t a need to go as defensive yesterday as Jim did but maybe this was with an eye on future opponents and honing that watertight system that will be undoubtedly pushed to its limit by the Dubs should the two sides meet.

That’s for another day though; for now it’s a quarter final to think about and a chance to bask in the glory of another Ulster title. Maith sibh lads.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Dún na nGall Back in Ulster FInal After Second Half Surge

A fourth provincial final on the bounce awaits for Donegal and while the test they will face in four weeks time will require a further step up in performance, the team can be pleased with today’s workout.

Antrim were given little or no chance of causing an upset and thus came into the game with nothing to lose. Liam Bradley had his side setup well and they were intent on denying Donegal space and catching them on the break. Sadly they were forced to line out without the Johnston brothers, Ricky and Marty, following after the death of their father on Friday. Those changes meant that Sean McVeigh was given the onerous task of shadowing Michael Murphy and the full back immediately set about roughing up Donegal’s captain as best he could. Murphy is well used to close attention at this stage and despite being pulled and dragged all over the Clones pitch he was heavily involved in a lot of Donegal’s scores and finished up with three of his own.

Jim McGuinness also made changes prior to throw-in; despite reports during the week of a full deck to choose from, the manager felt the game had come a few days too soon for Karl Lacey following a recent leg muscle complaint while Rory Kavanagh suffered a strain at training during the week and didn't tog out today. Neil Gallagher’s ongoing injury troubles show no sign of abating, a tight hamstring forced him off just ten minutes into the game. Many of the big Glenswilly man’s contributions in recent times have been off the bench and he might well be kept in reserve in future games should his niggles persist.    

While the loss of Lacey and Kavanagh was unfortunate, it was encouraging to see trust being placed in the young duo of Darach O’Connor and Odhran MacNiallais – and they certainly repaid the faith shown in them. They were both on the scoreboard early on from their respective spots at wing forward and midfield. MacNiallais has always looked confident on the ball and his languid kicking style makes his left foot a potent weapon. O’Connor on the other hand, even going back as far as the McKenna Cup, has sometimes looked unsure in possession but he was intent on running at defenders today having obviously been encouraged by Jim and his staff to be more dynamic with ball in hand. He took his first point off his left and then later in the half received a wonderful outside-of-the-foot pass from his captain before turning inside two players and slotting over; the master and the apprentice working in tandem.

To cap off a brilliant individual display he drove through the heart of the Antrim defence in the second half to fire home a goal that made sure of the win for his team and he deservedly got a standing ovation from the Donegal faithful as he left the field to be substituted later on.

MacNiallais also pushed on in the second half, he finished with 0-4 to his name and would have been many people’s choice as man of the match. One point in particular showed his confidence and skill when he dummy soloed near the end line, fooling a Saffron defender, before cutting inside and slotting over the bar. The competition for places around the middle sector for Donegal is fierce at present with MacNiallais battling with Gallagher, Kavanagh, Christy Toye and Martin McElhinney for the two spots – on this evidence the Gaoth Dobhair man is at the head of the queue.

McGuinness’ men were on top in the opening stages but Antrim fought their way back into the game and managed to gain parity as the end of the half approached. As is now customary for a team playing Donegal, they mirrored the game plan they faced and kept proceedings as tight as possible. Leo McLoone retreated to centre back in place of non-starter Lacey, leaving Kevin O’Boyle as Antrim's spare man which resulted in Donegal having a free player for all of their own kick outs. Paul Durcan went short to Paddy McGrath and Eamon McGee for most of the first half and therefore the departure of Gallagher didn’t hamper Donegal too much. 

Antrim eventually pushed O’Boyle further up for the restarts, allowing Niall McKeever to compete in the air and his team mates were finding joy in attacking Donegal down the central channel vacated by Lacey. Generally there are two types of centre backs in the game - one who attacks like Leo and the more traditional version who holds the middle and keeps his defensive unit cohesive and disciplined. Lacey of course is worth his weight in gold because he is equally adept at both strands of centre back play and as we saw today, opposition attackers seem to find gaps that little bit easier when he’s not there.

Jim made a further switch in defence early in the game as Frank McGlynn was instructed to shadow Kevin Niblock, with McGrath given licence to get up the field. On numerous occasions the Ardara dynamo strode forward into swards of open St Tiernach’s Park terrain unopposed and he was the primary source of many of the early scores.

Antrim would have been delighted with their opening period display but as is generally the case with Donegal, the start of the second half is when the handbrake comes off. Derry felt the full force of the 3rd quarter blitz in Celtic Park last month and again today players surged forward in waves, annexing 2-4 from the Antrim rearguard inside thirteen minutes. As we’ve seen time and again, teams set up defensively at the beginning of games against Donegal and run out of steam but in truth they’d probably be better off going ultra-defensive at the start of the second half as that is undoubtedly when the damage is done.

In a sense Donegal can find it easier to play against the better teams because those opponents come with their own game plan that they want to implement rather than focusing solely on how to counteract the McGuinness system.

That system was moving through the gears nicely towards the end of the match but a much sterner examination of its effectiveness will be witnessed in the Ulster Final. The Championship capitulation of this Donegal team last year is still a sore point for many and is acting as a huge motivation for the players and management to make amends this year. What better way to make up for last year’s final defeat than a re-match with reigning Anglo Celt holders Monaghan?

The Farney Army have to first get past Armagh next weekend and while the Orchard men won’t have any fear going into that game, it would be a surprise if they were to succeed. So barring a reversal of form, the province’s blue ribbon event will see the sides who have shared the last three titles go head-to-head. That same pairing could also lock horns in the minor match, with Declan Bonner’s charges assured of a place following their win in today’s early game. 2006 was the last time Donegal had both minor and senior teams competing on finals day with the names of McElhinney, Murphy and McLoone amongst those on the minor team sheet eight years ago. Croke Park was the venue that day and the outcome for Donegal read ‘won one lost one’ – for Clones 2014 we’re all hoping for two from two and a clean sweep.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

McGuinness Masterclass Sees Off Derry

So let’s be honest, how many of us went to the Bogside today with quite a bit of doubt in the back of our minds? All we’ve read of late is of a Donegal team in crisis and conversely a Derry team on the up and ready to have a real tilt at an Ulster title. This match represented as big a test as Donegal have faced in the McGuinness era but yet again when it mattered, when Championship football was put in front of his men, they delivered.

A triumph of management skill and coaching was what we saw in Celtic Park as McGuinness carefully constructed a match winning performance with astute switches, well-timed substitutions and above all an efficient use of resources. He took a calculated risk in opting to start with a more inexperienced fifteen before adapting to a more settled side in the second half but it proved to be a masterstroke.

Midfield was always going to be the key sector - with Rory Kavanagh suspended and Neil Gallagher struggling for full fitness, whoever came up against the Derry powerhouses of Patsy Bradley and Fergal Doherty were going to have their work cut out. Christy Toye and Odhran MacNiallais were initially assigned the centrefield roles, with plenty of support being provided by the roaming Michael Murphy in the first half.

The primary difference in actual play between league and championship is in the physical stakes and this was illustrated early on - Paddy McGrath, Murphy and Leo McLoone all put in shuddering hits on their opponents during the first half, with McLoone’s particularly vital as he stopped a Derry attack from getting in behind the Donegal cover. Thankfully, even with the introduction of the black card and the fear that it would bring a decline in this facet of the game, there was some good old-fashioned shoulders going in from both sides today and the game was better for it.

McGrath was a late inclusion and despite the lack of any game-time for his county this year he seamlessly slotted into his customary corner back position and played a blinder. A feature of the Donegal defenders today, led by the Ardara man, was in how well they shepherded on-coming attackers wide and away from goal. Instead of putting in a tackle and risk giving away the free they forced the Oakleaf forwards out to the wings, thus making them turn back for help and recycle possession.

It was tight and tense in the early stages and Donegal were holding their own. Derry kicked on in the second quarter and despite seeing the influential Doherty go off injured they put some daylight between the teams but the visitors managed to stay within striking distance at the break, only two points back.

Jim was very clever in his use of the Creeslough pairing of Toye and Martin McElhinney; the former was Donegal’s most dangerous player in the first half and he had been instructed to empty the tank in that opening period. At the short whistle, McElhinney took up the baton and, buzzing with energy and running, he produced a carbon copy all action cameo, capping it off with a lung bursting score late in the game.

The changes at the break and shortly after the restart, which also included the introduction of Neil Gallagher, allowed Michael to spend more time in front of the Derry goal and the Maestro was immense. Derry full-back Chrissy McKaigue had a wonderful league campaign and the battle between these two was well flagged before the game - it was a battle that Murphy won hands down. Interestingly alongside McKaigue was Gareth McKinless, who carried out an excellent man marking job on Murphy in the Ulster club final last December but on today’s form nobody could have held the big man. The ball going into him from out the field had a lot to do with his performance so credit must go to the likes of Anthony Thompson and Frank McGlynn for finding their captain so often.

In the early part of the second half, just as they did so often during their All-Ireland run, Donegal blitzed their opponents and Murphy had his fingerprints over all of the scores during this period. His gorgeous dummy to fool McKaigue allowed him to launch a skyscraper to split Thomas Mallon’s posts while he was also involved in Leo McLoone’s goal when he set McGlynn on his way into enemy territory.

He saved his best until a few minutes later when Donegal were awarded a line ball on the 45’, close to where the Donegal management team were standing. It was a lovely moment for supporters on that side of the pitch as we got a close up view of the action as McGuinness walked up to his commander and uttered the words ‘put it over the bar’; mere mortals wouldn’t dream of attempting such an audacious effort but Michael did as he was asked and dispatched a monster of a point, registering as good a score as you're ever likely to see.

Leo’s goal was always going to be crucial in such a close encounter but just as critical was what transpired in front of the Donegal goal moments later. A flowing move up the field ended with wing back Kevin Johnston one on one with Paul Durcan but just as he pulled the trigger Neil McGee appeared out of nowhere to produce a fantastic block and keep his side’s hard fought lead intact.

McGee’s clubmate MacNiallais put in an accomplished performance around the middle third and can be delighted with his championship debut. Likewise Darach O’Connor, who used his pace to great effect to open his side’s scoring account and he was a real danger throughout his time on the field.

As is usually the case, Donegal sat on their lead somewhat and made things a bit more nerve-wracking for the supporters than maybe it needed to be, as the home side ate into the lead bit by bit. Durcan’s role was crucial though and when he really needed to, he was able to find his men with his pinpoint kick outs; one miscue apart Papa provided the platform for his team all day and all the different strategies that were worked on during the league came to fruition today.

In the end it was the goal that separated the teams and the man who scored it, McLoone, walked away with the RTE man of the match gong. His finish for the goal was sublime and it shows the worth of a player being comfortable on both feet. McLoone’s last big goal for Donegal came in the 2012 Ulster Final, when he finished wonderfully with his right foot past Down’s Brendan McVeigh – he also got the insurance point today off his left but we’ve seen on numerous occasions that either foot is fine for the Glenties man.

So in spite of all the prophets of doom that have spoken in the build up to the game (Colm O’Rourke was especially dismissive in his newspaper column this morning), it seems as though reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. The aftermath of the League final and the supposed clues it offered on the state of the team needed to be looked at in a bit of context. Seven weeks prior to that final, Donegal dismantled Monaghan in O’Donnell Park and on that evening they sat at the summit of the league table with maximum points. At that stage McGuinness’ men needed four points from the remaining eight to ensure promotion. One eye was already on May 25th at that point in time but after a big victory against one of the better sides in the division, their gaze completely switched to championship and preparing for the challenge of Derry.

With all the talk of the supposed shallowness of the Donegal panel, the team now goes into an Ulster semi-final on the back of an outstanding display and with Rory Kavanagh, David Walsh, Big Neil and Martin McElhinney trying to force their way into the starting line-up. That competition will be very healthy for the squad and management as they face into their last four clash with either Fermanagh or Antrim. Regardless of who they play, Donegal will be overwhelming favourites but they have to go about their business in the right way and with lads battling for starting spots, that should be a given. May 25th is done and dusted, now it’s all about June 22nd.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Dún na nGall Undone by Mighty Monaghan

Another bad day at the Croke Park office for Donegal yesterday in what turned out to be a meek surrender against a superior Monaghan outfit. Throughout proceedings the Farney Men were faster, sharper and above all more committed in the tackle - Donegal just didn’t get into any rhythm and looked sluggish and well off the pace. Perhaps this can be attributed to last week’s training camp in Portugal; whatever the reason there was certainly something amiss with the performance, or non-performance, to put it more accurately.

Monaghan took control of the game in the second quarter as their tactic of taking points from distance reaped plenty of rewards. Teams have realised that carrying the ball into the waiting hordes of gold jerseys usually results in a turnover so shooting from forty yards out renders the blanket redundant.

It was interesting that almost all of the scores at this time were taken with the outside of the boot; even though this is a difficult skill to execute, it is generally a technique used by players who aren’t natural strikers of a ball or who don’t often find themselves in scoring positions (a Michael Murphy or a Conor McManus would normally kick around the ball when taking scores rather than cut across it) and it was primarily Monaghan’s defenders and midfielders who were getting up to register these points and kick in that style.

Derry may well try something similar in the upcoming Championship battle so we may see Donegal’s defensive screen pushing slightly higher up the field as a counter measure. This tactic will not always work of course, due to the difficulty of the shots on offer but Monaghan excelled in this facet of their game.

Following this first half scoring spurt, Donegal were always chasing the game and with a somewhat misfiring forward unit this always seemed destined to be a fruitless pursuit. Patrick McBrearty struggled to get into the game while Colm McFadden had one of those fidgety days where his control and accuracy disappear for large periods. Murphy did fairly well when the ball came his way but his marker Vinny Corey, as he has done in the past, did a decent job on the Maestro.

Things certainly improved when Neil Gallagher was introduced late in the first half as he helped gain some level of parity around the middle third. The decision to keep both Gallagher and Mark McHugh on the bench may have been some shadow-boxing ahead of Championship but there is no question that both need to start in four weeks’ time in Celtic Park. Gallagher’s importance cannot be overstated and he’ll now have even more responsibility on his shoulders seeing as his midfield partner Rory Kavanagh will be suspended after being shown red in the game’s key incident - any chance of a comeback was put to bed with the dismissal of the St Eunan’s man after half time.

Kavanagh had lost his right boot in a tangle for the ball - Darren Hughes then kicked his boot away as he tried to pick it up, then knocked it out of his hands after he had picked it up; Rory reacted by jabbing the boot into Hughes’ nether region – cue the Oscar-winning performance from the Ulster captain. Rory’s actions were petulant and silly but Hughes should be embarrassed with himself. Such a fine player, having a fantastic game at midfield, he let himself down badly with his play-acting, writhing around for a few minutes as if he had been shot, with his only aim being to get his opponent sent from the field. Marty Boyle did something similar against Dublin a few years ago and rightly endured some flak for his actions but Hughes was even worse. Kavanagh will now be suspended for the joust with Derry while the futility of the black card was highlighted as Hughes was ordered from the field with only a few minutes remaining after an off the ball hit on substitute Conor Classon – the card was academic at that stage.

History was repeating itself as Jim McGuinness had also seen his side reduced to fourteen in his last Division Two final, on that occasion in 2011 it was Adrian Hanlon who got his marching orders against Laois. Another repeat from that final three years ago was a Michael Murphy penalty dispatched into the Canal End goal; back then it set us on the way to victory but yesterday the Ulster Champions responded with a goal of their own, ending the game as a contest.

Ryan McHugh had won the penalty after an incisive burst into Monaghan territory and he looked lively throughout but didn’t see enough of the ball. It was good to see the introduction of Classon into the fray for his first action of the year; a hugely important member of the U21 Class of 2010, the Ardara powerhouse has never really made it at senior level but his brilliant performance in last year’s County Semi-Final against Glenswilly illustrated his ability and he might be one to watch over the Summer if Jim decides he’s ready for more game time.

It is an unusual thing to say about McGuinness’ Donegal but we looked like conceding yesterday. Normally opponents are swallowed up in possession and you’d be guaranteed to see numerous turnovers and the subsequent swarm break out of defence. Monaghan were comfortable with the ball though and had very little pressure applied to them and looked like they could create opportunities at will. The sheer bloody mindedness of the Donegal defensive effort wasn’t evident yesterday but it needs to return.

So where does all this leave the team as they await the cauldron of Celtic Park for the Ulster opener with Derry? On the face of it, it might be unwise to read much into either team based on events at HQ yesterday. Not long after Donegal left the field, Derry entered the fray for the Division One decider hoping to continue their impressive form and give the All-Ireland Champions a rattle – instead they were totally obliterated as the Dubs produced a frightening display of pace, power and accuracy. Prior to that the Oakleaf County have looked good in the league and there’s no doubt that a huge test awaits.

This isn’t the first warning sign to flash for McGuinness’ side this season; the performance in Newry was below par and that had been preceded by the match with Meath which needed a last-gasp Murphy free to secure a draw. We’ve heard time and again though from both the manager and the players, on the importance of Championship and how everything is geared towards the first round of Ulster. If anyone is going to have a team ready its Jim. He watched his charges suffer relegation this time last year against Dublin but returned to Ballybofey a few weeks later to beat Tyrone. Derry in Celtic Park will be even tougher and there have been aspects in our play of late that will have even the most faithful of supporters a little worried. In spite of that though, we know what this team are capable of and we have to believe that the spark will be back in time for what will be a great occasion on May 25th.