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.