A new year, new league campaign, new jerseys, new players but same old Donegal – composed, economical, patient and crucially last night, clinical. To post 3-15 any day is pleasing, to lay down such a marker away from home in Division One even more impressive.
It was clear early on who was the established top tier outfit and who was experiencing what may well be a brief stay amongst the game’s elite. Donegal made everything look simple whereas Down had to expend much more effort in all aspects of play.
The visitors’ defence, led by the commanding Neil McGee, illustrated wonderful examples of interceptions, near hand tackles and doing enough to dispossess their markers. McGee’s evening didn’t last too long but he can certainly feel aggrieved over his black card dismissal – he made a genuine attempt to get the ball as Ryan Johnston bore down on goal and therefore a deliberate foot trip was an incorrect call; a yellow card for a sliding tackle would have been more appropriate.
It mattered little as brother Eamon, who incidentally made it two McGees & two black cards before night’s end, slotted in seamlessly and after Peter Boyle saved the resultant spot kick, the fight seemed to seep from the Mournemen.
Boyle had an encouraging outing between the posts with the vast majority of his kick outs directed straight down the middle. Whether or not Paul Durcan returns to the side over the coming months remains to be seen but if not then Donegal’s restart strategy will need some variation.
There were numerous changes in front of Boyle at throw-in and when it all settled down, Anthony Thompson sat in front of the full back line and swept to great effect. He made one or two of his trademark ghost-like appearances inside the opposition scoring zone but for the most part he used his fantastic game intelligence to snuff out Down’s direct ball threat.
Anthony’s brother Ciaran, after some fine McKenna Cup performances, produced another solid display. Thompson junior showed great composure and awareness to setup Ryan McHugh for the night’s opening goal while he also got on the score sheet himself with a booming left footed score in the early minutes.
Donegal dominated the early exchanges around midfield, claiming possession from both clean fielding and winning those all important breaks. It is an area that is worked on religiously at training as the players are hugely adept at making the decision whether to tap the ball down to a waiting team-mate, put the fist through it or go for the catch.
There was a slightly wayward midfield spell during the first half when Down got back into the game; they seemed to have far too much space on their own kick outs, winning some of them uncontested but they failed to make the most of their increased share of the ball.
The gap soon became an unassailable lead as Michael Murphy’s flawless place kicking punished every Down misdemeanour. The captain’s majestic sideline kick was another one for the scrapbook, landing right on the black spot as it made its way through the Pairc Esler uprights.
Murphy’s positioning on the field is of course always a huge source of debate. Patrick McBrearty manned the full forward line as Michael did most of his work between midfield and centre forward, not that the nobles would have noticed as all eyes would have been on the ‘GAA clasico’ taking place on Jones Road.
Down are fortunate that their fixture with Dublin won’t be taking place at Headquarters as their lack of mobility on a big pitch could make for unpleasant viewing. New manager Eamon Burns stated before the match that he had introduced bigger, more physical players into the panel to assist in breaking down the defences of the modern game. On the evidence we saw in Newry its a flawed policy.
Their players struggled to cover the ground, stay with their men or make any inroads into the Donegal blanket. Their new policy robs them of pace and even their skill set looked below the required standard at this level.
Donegal on the other hand are a very mobile team. Sure there are plenty big men and there are a lot you wouldn’t fancy running into at full tilt but you also have the likes of the McHugh cousins, Paddy McGrath, the indefatigable Frank McGlynn and Martin O’Reilly - players who can make incisive cuts through opposition defensive lines. The best teams have both power and pace, both speed and strength. The first and third goals, either side of a stunning effort from McBrearty, are a case in point; Donegal ran around the statue-like home defence with ease.
McHugh’s two goal salvo earned him man of the match honours but it was a close run with O’Reilly, who produced a terrific evening’s work from wing back. The MacCumhaills man appears more confident and more assured than ever, wanting to take responsibility on the field and get on the ball. He came of age as an inter-county player in 2015, primarily as an accomplished goal poacher. Last night saw him moved back the pitch where he was marking one of Down’s key threats, Kevin McKernan. Such was O’Reilly’s dominance that McKernan was largely ineffective and spent much of his evening running the other way trying to stay with the Donegal bundle of energy.
Down’s other main creative threat, Mark Poland, had a similarly frustrating game getting to know what McHugh’s new No5 jersey looks like from the rear.
The Donegal pair are a great example to the many new faces in the squad and they will all feel that they can be operating at their level over the coming years. There will be some teething problems, some hesitancy in possession and slightly delayed decision making the main issues evident last night but overall the younger of the Thompsons and McHughs, along with Micheal Carroll can be delighted with their night’s work.
So all in all a good night’s work and two points in the bag. A few of the big hitters got a run near the end, including the returning Rory Kavanagh, and with lads such as Karl Lacey and Colm McFadden still to come back, the panel is in rude health. Securing such a comfortable win without many of those big hitters will satisfy Rory Gallagher and his backroom team.
The poor standard of the opposition though will keep expectations firmly in check. A more rigorous examination will be provided by Cork next week and that will present a clearer picture of the current state of play.
The last word can go to a home supporter who left the Marshes with a number of minutes still to be played... ”that wasn’t worth two f***ing pound never mind twelve!” For Down, that says it all.