Sunday, March 27, 2016

Sloppy Donegal Defeated in Croker Combat

It was a case of back to the future for Donegal last night as the all out defence model that was inflicted upon the public in 2011 made its re-appearance. The game of Gaelic football survived after that seminal day five years ago and despite a poor spectacle in Croke Park, the game will survive again.

After Roscommon posted a total of 1-19 on the O’Donnell Park scoreboard last time out, Rory Gallagher made sure there would be no repeat against an even more formidable attack. It was an unashamed and unapologetic display of doggedness right from the off – under no circumstances were Donegal going to give away a big score.

We’ve seen this tactic from numerous teams in various sports over the years; after a bad beating or a chastening experience teams revert to type, go back to basics and get their defence sorted. That is the foundation upon which the rest can be built. Chelsea often did it under Jose Mourinho while the English rugby team revert to a forwards-orientated game when times are tough. Even in hurling, the aristocrats in Kilkenny, after conceding 1-28 against Tipperary in the 2014 All-Ireland final, made sure that the replay would see a big reduction in their concession rate. Keeping Tipperary to sixteen scores helped bring Liam McCarthy back to his usual winter resting spot along the Nore.

Donegal didn’t win the game of course last night but it wasn’t because they conceded too much; the trick to playing the blanket effectively is getting the balance right to allow you to create and score at the other end. Some awful wides, juvenile shot selection and a lack of shape up front cost Donegal dear.

Donegal only scored one point in the last half hour; Rory or anyone else doesn't need to be told that that isn't good enough to win big games. The manager though will take certain plus points out of the game while also acknowledging that there’s nothing much won in March.

The Dubs had their homework done on Donegal’s kick outs and pressed high in the hope of forcing the ball long. It has been a recurring theme this year, even in the victories gained, that the team are struggling to win possession around midfield.

A change in goalkeeper was made last night but in truth Mark Anthony McGinley didn’t fare too much better than Peter Boyle has up until now – the ball just isn’t sticking when it goes out long. The simple answer to that is to go short but Dublin penned Donegal in at The Hill in the opening half and with a breeze to play against as well they rarely made much headway.

McGinley was constantly berating his team mates out the field to move and show for the ball but to no avail. With at least another game left in this league campaign might we see another change in goal? Perhaps the most in-form net-minder currently in a Donegal jersey at present is Danny Rodgers. The Dungloe stopper is the incumbent U21 ‘keeper and should also be in the mix with McGinley and Boyle for keeping Paul Durcan’s jersey warm. For now, Rodgers has the small matter of an Ulster semi-final battle with Tyrone on Wednesday night.

Donegal’s plan worked to a large degree in the first half, suffocating Dublin and only a few well worked scores from the boys in blue troubled the umpires. At the other end though, things did not work so well. Time and again there was no one in front of the ball when attacks reached halfway. Conversely, Leo McLoone had the unenviable task of being the sole target man with several Dublin players for company. At least if Paddy McBrearty was the nominated lone striker, he might have troubled the defence with his pace but Leo isn’t that kind of player. A big, strong ball player, he only hits top speed after working through the gears whereas the game plan called for a more impish, wriggly forward.

McBrearty was eventually moved in and registered a trademark point on the turn. Rory Kavanagh, Michael Murphy and the excellent Eamon McGee also notched fine points but the accuracy illustrated by those scores was all too fleeting. Kavanagh, Odhran MacNiallais and the McHughs were guilty of some poor striking; calm, measured build up was often the order of the day instead of some of the horrid ballooned efforts witnessed.

At one stage in the first half with Donegal two points in arrears, Murphy took an opportunity to tie his boot laces and that halt in play took the sting out of Dublin’s momentum. Donegal got a couple of scores back and took the lead briefly following another scoring spurt after the restart.

Murphy rallied the troops as best he could and put in a tireless shift but his departure on a double yellow seemed to signal the end of any hopes of collecting a league point or two.

The second bookable offences, which saw Murphy and James McCarthy shown the line, left both teams at fourteen a side but the difference in departing personnel was huge. Donegal’s heads dropped somewhat while Dublin injected more pace into the game and managed to get in behind the Donegal backline.

While a lot of similarities were evident with that 2011 semi-final, this game ended more like the 2012 league clash; that was a tight, cagey affair but Donegal were well in the game thanks largely to the work of Murphy both in defence and attack. His premature departure that night, due to a knee injury that would keep him out of that year’s championship opener, also signalled the end of Donegal hopes.

It is often said that Donegal are over-reliant on Michael and at times that notion is laughable – why wouldn’t you rely on the country’s best player? Monaghan’s dependence on Conor McManus gets similar coverage but the Clontibret ace is the best finisher in the game so it makes sense that he finishes the majority of his team’s chances. Reliance on a big player is fine within reason and obviously teams also need to have alternative plans.

Where the over-reliance theory does have credence is when the star men mentioned above aren’t there. Players cant rely on Michael Murphy when he’s not on the field of play and the countless instances last night of players abdicating shooting responsibility onto someone else was disappointing and had a big effect on the game.

All sports are about decision making. In football, every player makes hundreds of decisions in a game and every time they receive the ball their mind debates about holding onto the ball, taking a man on, soloing, holding possession or shooting. The higher the level, the less time you have to make these decisions. On too many occasions last night we saw Donegal players make bad decisions in passing to McBrearty or Murphy while they themselves were in space in front of goal. There are top class footballers wearing green and gold but offensively they are not making top class decisions.

Not having Michael on the field for the closing stages, or indeed Neil Gallagher to bring on from the bench, robbed Donegal of a chance to seriously test out Dublin’s full back line. The decision by Rory O’Carroll to leave the panel and go travelling leaves a big hole in the champion’s defence but that perceived porosity wasn’t put to the test with Donegal having no target man option.

Dublin ran out winners and there was no doubt about the result following Philly McMahon’s well taken goal. Rory and Jim Gavin though would both have been annoyed with some of the sloppiness on show particularly the hand passing from either side.

Hand passing is seen as a fairly basic skill but it still has to be executed properly. A lot of what the Croker crowd saw was of a low standard not expected at inter-county level. Passes were played to the man on the wrong side, too close to his marker. Others weren’t going straight onto a team mates’ chest and were instead hopping once, maybe twice before reaching their target. It is only a small detail but it takes the receiver that extra second to get the ball in control and amongst the big boys seconds matter.

The blueprint adopted by Donegal coupled with the result didn’t make for good viewing but in spite of all the probable negative coverage that the match will generate, this was two of the country's biggest going head to head. Come summertime they will still be two of the biggest gunning for glory.

The Dubs march on and are aiming for a fourth league title in succession, a phenomenal record. The Hill enjoyed cheering every Dublin pass near the end of the game but as Mickey Harte once observed, there’s always another day.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Impressive Roscommon Derail Donegal

A second defeat in a week for Donegal but there wont be too many alarm bells ringing. Rather than disappointment or worry, the main vibe in the air after yesterday’s game was respect and admiration for an excellent performance from an emerging Roscommon team.

They started as they meant to go on, running powerfully at the hosts and giving an exhibition in point taking from distance.

Donegal had no answer early on. The home side looked lethargic and off the pace which was in complete contrast to the opposition.

Coming into the game on a three game winning run, the men jointly managed by Fergal O’Donnell and Kevin McStay, brought verve and a buccaneering spirit to their play.

The direct style of running caused numerous problems for Donegal, with players penalised time and again by referee Padraig Hughes. Perhaps after last week’s messing in Tralee, the man in the middle was intent on having an incident-free afternoon and there was barely a tackle of note from either side at O’Donnell Park.

The free-taking from Ciaran Murtagh and Fintan Cregg along with the accuracy of others from play saw them surge clear in the opening half and the spread of scorers they had was an important facet of their victory. They generally tried to attack down the centre before popping off passes to either side; it didn’t seem to matter which player was on the end of these moves as point and after point landed over Peter Boyle’s crossbar.

In similar situations, Donegal usually try to find the likes of Michael Murphy, Paddy McBrearty or Odhran MacNiallais to get shots away and it is a great credit to O’Donnell and McStay that they are coaching such potency in their ranks. Some of their long range scores were outstanding.

Roscommon also managed, on several occasions, to get inside the area between the Donegal 21 and 45 metre lines – very few teams have managed to get in there with such regularity during one match. The cordon of players acting as doormen along the 45 were unusually generous to guests in the absence of head bouncer, Hugh McFadden, a late withdrawal before throw in. The Kilybegs man was sorely missed around that crucial area of the field he usually patrols, where he offers such security and assuredness.

Rory Gallagher was quick to make changes on the line in an effort to stem the tide. He took off both Anthony Thompson and Eamon McGee, two stalwarts of the famed Donegal defence. While they were being treated to somewhat of a roasting by their direct opponents, it was more likely a case of isolated poor displays from each rather than any seminal watershed moment signalling their respective declines.

Rory instructed his players to push up on the Roscommon kick out from the off but Donegal struggled in this aspect and often there was a man in blue free to receive possession from goalkeeper Geoffrey Claffey.

At the other end, net minder Boyle utilised the short kick-out much more than in previous games, particularly in the first quarter but with a sluggish defence in front of him, Donegal rarely made much headway. Roscommon were quick to get to grips with the short option and a long kick-out lottery ensued.

One major positive did emerge despite defeat and that was the return of the evergreen Karl Lacey. Getting more game time than was probably planned due to Eamonn Doherty’s blood injury and McGee’s early withdrawal, Lacey looked as if he had never been away. Playing his first game for Donegal since the Mayo defeat in August, he showed that while the boots may have changed from white to orange, the class still remains.

Mark McHugh also made his seasonal bow and to have two All Stars back in the fray gives even more depth to an already competitive panel.

Lacey and McHugh helped shore up the defence to a certain extent following their introductions but with Roscommon happy to sit back in the second period and play on the counter, they did pick off some easy scores.

Donegal made a valiant effort at a comeback, with Murphy dragging what he could from himself and his team-mates, almost inspiring an amazing comeback. The Glenswilly giant upped his game straight from the second half throw up, literally, as he grabbed onto two Roscommon men allowing Rory Kavanagh to take a clean catch.

There was a moment of worry shortly after as Michael went to ground clutching his leg and his participation seemed in doubt. Thankfully it turned out to be a likely dead leg and two fabulous points soon after confirmed he was still up for the fight.

As has happened in most league games thus far, Murph spent most of his time at midfield. His brace of scores illustrated the benefit of this as he was able to time his run coming from halfway, claim possession with a bit of steam built up and stroke the ball over between the posts.

When he moved closer to goal towards the end of the game, he was wrestled and manhandled to the ground, which in fairness to the defenders in question is just about all you can do. The resulting free at the end did allow the large crowd in attendance to see as clean and as powerful a strike as they ever will; Murphy managed to beat the seven players on the goal-line but unfortunately not the crossbar.

Donegal needed a goal to arrive much earlier and when they got to within two points there seemed a real chance of a win. Almost immediately however, that prospect evaporated with the needless double yellow offences from MacNiallais and a breakaway Roscommon goal putting an end to the contest.

It was a difficult afternoon for Gallagher and his backroom team on the sideline. So many decisions were right but also had a robbing Peter to pay Paul feel to them.

Paddy McBrearty came out to half forward in the second half to add his elusiveness and skill to the effort of breaking down the visiting defence. That though did mean that his movement and ball-winning ability was sacrificed inside and almost all of Donegal’s scores were sourced from deep rather than from any penetrating ball delivered to the full forward line.

With Michael posted at midfield, Neil Gallagher was used as a target man in the forward line when his fetching ability was also needed for the aerial battle that Donegal were forced to engage in around the middle third.

There’s certainly plenty to ponder for the management team but as Jim used to say, every day is a school day. There will be plenty of lessons learnt after two the recent losses with two stern examinations to follow. 
Dublin and Monaghan provide the opposition in the remaining fixtures with the results destined to determine the final result - either mid-table respectability or a semi-final berth.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Ugly Encounter Ends Donegal Winning Run

Well we thought last week was feisty! Compared to events in Austin Stack Park, the Mayo game looked like an underage squabble set against the often brutal fare on show yesterday.

Kerry, from the get-go, were intent on showing Donegal that this was their home patch and they don’t always take kindly to guests. A crowd of Ulstermen stepping off the visiting bus usually gets that kind of reaction from the locals.

While Donegal wouldn’t be known to shirk a challenge, having three league wins banked prior to throw in possibly meant that the minds weren’t totally in tune. The hosts took advantage of this, getting some early points on the board and despite losing a man in the midst of the first set of melees, it didn’t deter them too much as the scores kept coming.

Donnchadh Walsh, one of the key men in this Kerry team, was hugely influential in the opening period. The wing forward rarely seems to have a bad outing, his work rate and composure is terrific and as he showed with his final tally of three points, he’s an accomplished finisher.

That first flashpoint started with a hop ball between the totemic forces of Michael Murphy and Kieran Donaghy. When Murphy didn’t release the ball after a free was awarded against him, Donaghy took matters, as well as Michael’s throat, into his own hands and flung him to the floor. Mayhem ensued around midfield and within seconds another skirmish began in front of the Donegal goal. Neil McGee got a box to the nose after he had been making a nasty nuisance of himself in testing out the flexibility of new Kerry full forward Alan Fitzgerald’s fingers.

The red card shown to Fitzgerald by Eddie Kinsella was the only big punishment meted out and the man who started it all, Donaghy, got away scot-free.

The Kingdom carried on regardless and kept the scoreboard ticking over whereas Donegal struggled to make any headway against a severe wind. Murphy and McBrearty did hit the target but such was the stiffness of the breeze, shooting from any kind of distance was ambitious. The slickness, fluency and pace of previous games wasn’t quite there and Kerry’s defence were effective in shutting out Donegal.

There were a couple of excellent passages of patient possession, the ideal tactic when battling against the elements. Any Kerry effort from inside 80 yards could be deemed as score able so starving them of the ball was the right thing to attempt. Donegal were unlucky with a couple of shots that rebounded off the upright - the efforts of Rory Kavanagh and Hugh McFadden would have been apt rewards for the tiring, energy-sapping periods of keep-ball.

The second major commotion saw Leo McLoone shown the line and he was quickly followed by a pair of Kerrymen who left the field having been brandished black cards. Leo’s red seemed harsh, reprimanded for a swinging arm which wouldn’t have earned a point in a boxing ring while others on both sides got away with jabs and punches.

The short whistle had four points between the teams but in truth with the gust at their backs, Kerry may have felt that they could have been further ahead. They used very little of their traditional long ball but with Neil Gallagher entering the fray at the break, Donegal were quick to try it out.

Almost immediately, McBrearty brought a good save from goalkeeper Brian Kelly after collecting a punt from out the field. Frees from the KIlcar man and further scores from the Glenswilly duo of Gallagher and Murphy had Donegal level but all that good work was undone after the team fell asleep at a free kick. Bryan Sheehan dropped a quick ball into Donaghy and Peter Crowley was allowed to ghost in on goal unmarked, finishing well to put some daylight between the teams.

The home team kicked on again and added to their lead, the pick of the bunch a gloriously flighted placed ball from Sheehan.

An infuriating aspect of the match from a Donegal perspective was the number of times Kerry had frees moved up by Kinsella following mouthing from the visitors. With an expert such as Sheehan on the opposing side, a free closer in is a gift. A similar situation arose in last year’s league encounter with Dublin, Dean Rock the beneficiary on that occasion and it played a vital part in The Dubs securing a win. As tetchy as the game was, the team has to keep its cool; conceding gimmies is inexcusable.

Now six points in arrears, Donegal looked dead and buried but they used the long ball again to good effect, as Murphy crashed home a fabulous goal to put life back into their challenge. Michael and his men though never really clicked into any of the high gears and the game petered out thereafter to an inevitable Kerry victory.

A final tally of 1-8 included only one point after Murphy’s net buster, a poor return. Perhaps there was a certain complacency amongst the players with their passes and shooting - a strong wind always has a big bearing on a football match but it has yet to kick a score or block a goal-bound shot. It cant do the job for you but it can assist. The late wides from McBrearty, Murphy and Odhran MacNiallais were sloppy and suggested that they did not take the requisite care in taking the breeze into consideration.

The main worry that would have occupied Rory Gallagher’s mind on the long trip home was how for the second week running Donegal were outdone at centre-field for lengthy spells. The speed, or lack of, at which the restarts were taken, was the primary reason for this.

Peter Boyle, in all other aspects of play aside from kick outs, was excellent; he pulled off a brilliant save down low to his left from Sheehan early on and also dealt expertly with one particular high ball into his square, getting a crucial fist on the ball ahead of two Kerry attackers.

The main differentiator at inter county level for the modern ‘keeper is how quickly he can deliver his kicks and how varied they can be. Boyle is a relative newcomer to this level and it will take him time to become accustomed to the demands of the position. 

The thoughts and Summer plans of one man in Qatar will become more and more significant as Championship draws closer. Paul Durcan will of course be back on Irish soil inside a fortnight, as he takes to the sacred turf of Croke Park on All-Ireland Club Final Day with Ballyboden. Rory will be hoping that it wont be his last trip home of the year.

Ironically, Dublin also found the going tough this weekend and that was because their machine was shorn of its most prominent and vital cog, Stephen Cluxton. He and Durcan are the standard bearers for the likes of Boyle, Rory Beggan and Cluxton’s deputy Michael Savage - its only when the duo are missing from their respective teams is their full worth revealed.

Roscommon roll into town next week on the back of three straight wins and their tales will be up. However, there’s nothing like a bit of annoyance and thickness to get a team to perform and while the points weren’t overly important in Tralee, the bruising manner of the defeat will ensure a response from Donegal next Sunday.