Sunday, July 31, 2016

McBrearty Breaks Rebel Resistance

Donegal have cleared the qualifier hurdle once again and are back in an All-Ireland quarter final. Its probably taken for granted a bit now, it being our sixth on the spin but its an important milestone nonetheless. The fact that Dublin lie in wait frames the magnitude of it.

At times it was a struggle and the inevitable Ulster Final hangover was evident early on. Once the line was breached with Paul Kerrigan’s goal, the Donegal players upped the ante and dipped into their vast reservoirs of experience, grit and determination to haul themselves back into the game. And of course, there was a certain man by the name of Patrick McBrearty to play a leading role.

From the first ball that Paddy got into his hands, he was in the zone. Regardless of distance or angle, he fancied everything he hit to sail over the bar. A case in point was his second half strike when he shot with his back to goal, instinctively guiding the ball over his right shoulder and splitting the posts. It was a sensational display to witness.

Part of the reason for the space McBrearty was able to find was due to Michael Murphy having two Cork players for company. Their sweeper sat in front of Murphy, leaving swathes of open country elsewhere in the forward line.

Usually when the team reaches Headquarters, Murphy gets freed from the claustrophobic marking of Ulster and flourishes in more space and more direct ball from his team mates. His displays against Galway and Mayo this time last year were vintage Murphy. Yesterday though, in the opening quarter, the lads out the field seemed over anxious to get the ball into him and ended up playing a lot of poor passes. Michael found the going tough thereafter and one party piece aside – a delightful point with the outside of his boot – he didn’t have a major impact on proceedings. Hopefully he’s saving something special for next week.

McBrearty’s brilliance kept Donegal in the match in the first half as the team found it difficult to win possession such was Alan O’Connor’s dominance at midfield. An obvious height advantage over Odhran MacNiallais allowed O’Connor to win ample ball when Cork went long with their restarts. MacNiallais did manage to break some ball but Cork’s runners were more alert and picked up most of these.

Donegal couldn’t cope with the second wave of runners coming from deep and Cork racked up some handy scores in a period of ascendancy. They found it extremely easy to cut through Donegal’s defence and this aspect of play will be Rory’s main worry as Dublin loom large on the horizon.

Cork simply ran up the middle with those in front of the ball carrier making made runs out to the wings, leaving the man in possession with ample space to drive in to. Straight forward enough ploy but it took Donegal quite a while to figure it out.

When Cork were forced to go short on their own kickouts, Donegal had a bit more joy and that led to a change of tact after half time. The instruction was clear – let them have it. Donegal retreated to midfield leaving several defenders free and this negated the Rebels’ aerial supremacy. It would be no surprise to see similar tactics employed next week.

Parity was slowly gained in midfield with Martin McElhinney coming to the fore, justifying his recall with an industrious shift in the engine room.

As the McBrearty show continued into the second half, it looked as if Kilcar was going to do it all on its own with Ryan and Eoin McHugh taking the game to Cork. The pair ended up five points between them, leaving the club’s total at a whopping 0-16.

As mentioned with Murphy earlier, some players generally up their game when they reach Jones Rd and, despite already hitting some impressive heights in this year’s Championship, Paddy McGrath did just that. He was fantastic tearing up and down the wing and also got his hands to some important clearances and interceptions in his full back line. His performance culminated in a courageous block towards the end of the game, flinging himself in front of a goal bound shot.

Incidentally, Neil McGee also came up with a crucial block to save a certain goal in the 1st half; his early departure from the field was hopefully just an exercise in breaking up play rather than anything more serious ahead of Saturday.  

One man whose introduction was greeted with huge cheers was that of Leo McLoone. Rory came under a bit of fire for not introducing Leo in the Ulster Final and certainly the support was delighted to see the Glenties man make such a positive impact on the game.

Donegal closed out the contest reasonably well and while there were some worrying moments, overall they always seemed to have that little bit more than Cork.

Little bits of anything wont do next week as it will take a full performance at full throttle to take on the Dubs. Croke Park will be heaving next week, in stark contrast to the early stages of yesterday’s game where the shouts and calls of the players could be heard in a library-like atmosphere.

Donegal famously delivered a masterclass to beat Dublin two years, in a result that surprised many across the land. It wasn’t a huge surprise to a lot of Donegal support though, who were quite happy to take the 8/1 and better on offer from the bookmakers.

The key then was belief. Donegal players and spectators believed they could do it whereas right now the overriding emotion is that of hope. That is what it looks like six days out.

Come 6pm Saturday though, Croke Park will be teeming with optimism and defiance from those in green and gold and that wee voice inside will whisper, ‘you know, we might just be able to pull this off’.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Tyrone Stand Tall in Ulster as Donegal Wilt

Donegal’s bid for a fourth Ulster title in six years ended in disappointment and of the three recent final defeats, this one hurt the most.

In a frenetic period of stoppage time, Peter Harte sent over a sensational point to put his side ahead after Donegal had led for almost the entire game. 

The previous decider losses to Monaghan had seen Donegal playing catch up throughout but it was roles reversed today as Rory Gallagher’s team looked accomplished for long spells and led by four at one stage.

After that lead was established though, Tyrone racked up a tally of 0-9 to their opponents 0-3. They were composed and patient in this spell and a far cry from what they were in the first half – erratic and ill-disciplined.

Donegal on the other hand had total belief in what they were doing early on. Chances were carefully created and taken. Ryan McHugh’s performance was simply stunning. He terrifies defenders with his pace so Tyrone stood off him to ensure he couldn’t run at or around them. With this space offered to him, the Kilcar man was quite happy to take on his shots and he made hay while they sun shone high in the Clones sky. It’s a sign of a footballer of the highest intelligence when he can read what’s going on around him and take decisive action in reacting.

Odhran MacNiallais had brought his shooting boots too and he helped his team into a three point half time, which was a fair reflection of how things had transpired.

Tyrone’s inside forwards hadn’t posed much of a threat and generally most of their scores would be expected to come from the counter attack. That left the Donegal full back line with the task of starting attacks rather than shutting down Tyrone’s. Neil McGee got on a huge amount of ball and carried with purpose into the opposition half of the field.

Donegal had kept their heads while Tyrone seemed to be losing theirs. Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane went off on black cards while player after player hacked woeful shots into the clouds. In the claustrophobic setting, it was Donegal who were finding room to breathe.

Then came the half time whistle. After that it seemed to be a clich̩-strewn disaster for Donegal. Half time came at the wrong time; a game of two halves; whatever was said in the Tyrone dressing room worked Рtake your pick.

Michael Murphy brilliantly created a point for Paddy McBrearty straight from the throw in but then Tyrone proceeded to wring the life out of the men in green and gold jerseys. They waited and waited, content to let Donegal have the ball. They waited some more and once the slightest error came they pounced.

Donegal just could not get through their defence and rather than take on pot-shots against the breeze they pressed and probed, hoping an opening would come. When it didn’t they were turned over and hit by waves of Tyrone attackers.

There will no doubt be frustration amongst Donegal supporters at how insistent the team were in holding onto possession in the second half. Certainly there was a case to be made for more shooting, even if it resulted in more wides than points, but such was the reluctance to offer Tyrone chances to counter, they felt it was simply a case of ‘when we have the ball, they can’t score’.

It is likely though that the only way that the retaining the ball plan would have worked would have been to keep possession much deeper, retreating back and in doing so force Tyrone to come out. Or would it have been better to simply give Tyrone the ball and set up the defensive screen as they had done?

Despite being behind, Tyrone’s tactics were that of a team defending a lead – sit back, wait for a mistake and then swarm forward. Donegal meanwhile were ahead but played the match as high up the pitch as they could.

Interestingly, it was the victorious minor team who managed to hit on the right gameplan. They defended their lead deep and with magnificent ball players and runners like Niall O’Donnell and Aidan McLaughlin they tagged on the extra scores they needed to win.

As frustration grew, Donegal resorted to running at the Tyrone defence in the hope of drawing frees but none were forthcoming from David Coldrick. This reinvigorated the Red Hand men and their leaders came to the fore with Sean Cavanagh in particular producing an immense second half. The gloriously decorated Moy man proved again that he is one of the game’s greats; his two points off his right boot were nothing short of spectacular.

With Tyrone pushing up on Mark Anthony McGinley’s restarts, thus forcing him to go long, Donegal were then ironically starved of the possession that they had almost sole control of for so long. Cavanagh junior, Colm, lorded the midfield battle and what Donegal would have given for Paul Durcan and Neil Gallagher to be on the field for those closing minutes.

Instead it was thousands of Tyrone fans who raced onto St Tiernach’s Park to celebrate at the full time whistle and they can now dream big for 2016. They have placed themselves in the hot seat as Dublin’s main challengers and should those two sides meet further down the line, it will make for a fascinating encounter.

For Donegal it’s the back door again and the record of beaten provincial finalists over the past few years wouldn’t fill anyone with too much optimism. We’ll be heading back to Croke Park in a couple of weeks but not via the planned route.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Six of the Best as Donegal Reach Final

“Donegal are back!” So uttered Dessie Dolan on RTE Radio after last night’s encounter at Breffni Park. 

Well Dessie, we hadn’t gone anywhere ya know!

Donegal have qualified for a sixth successive Ulster Final and that is a terrific achievement. Four of those of course were under Jim so for that streak to carry on as it has, Rory deserves huge credit. This was also his first time beating Monaghan since he became manager, at the fifth time of asking.

As one point wins go, this was a fairly comprehensive one; Donegal led inside a minute and bar a brief period where the sides were level after Conor McManus’ penalty, they led throughout.

Donegal made hard work of the victory in a contest where they were always the better team. The first goal was a crazy one to concede as everyone fell asleep once a free-in was awarded. Some of the players even went over to the sideline to get instructions from Rory as if there was a break in play but with the ball in his hands McManus was the most alert man on the field.

The second goal was certainly contentious – inside or outside the box? Black card or not? Anthony Thompson or Eoin McHugh? The black card was surely the harshest out of all the calls; there was no doubt that a foul was committed but a deliberate act of cynical play? It was guesswork from Maurice Deegan and his guess went against Thompson, who appeared to do his best in trying to get a hand on the ball.

Aside from the goals, the first half belonged to Donegal. It was as good a thirty-five minutes of football as we’ve seen in the Championship since the famous win over the Dubs.

They ran incessantly at the Farney defence, finding plenty of gaps and crucially took their chances through the likes of Rory Kavanagh, Thompson and Martin McElhinney.

There could have been even more joy on the scoreboard as on numerous occasions, Donegal attacked down the left wing but usually ended up with a right footed player on the end of the run, unprepared to take a punt off his weaker left.

The middle sector of the field, where most of Donegal’s surges came from, was dominated by McElhinney, McGlynn and Martin O’Reilly. The latter has improved steadily since Rory took charge but he managed to find another level of performance, finishing the game with 0-3 and was the outstanding player on the field. O’Reilly also played a vital role in negating the effect of Karl O’Connell and his subdued evening was a major factor in his team’s demise.

McGlynn gave yet another masterclass in how to play against modern defences. He has the innate ability to know when to hold onto the ball and when to slow the game down. Then suddenly in an instant, he can inject some pace, change the angle of attack, move up a gear or two and pierce a hole in a defensive line. His intelligence in possession makes him such a valuable player and he is reminiscent of the great Denis Irwin – Mr Consistent. McGlynn rarely, if ever, dips below a seven out of ten rating and very often goes beyond that.

One man who did as much moving as anyone, when he was let, was Maxi Curran. It was a bit like Paddy McGrath’s battle with McManus as the linesman played the role of the back, not letting Maxi out of his sight. 

The sideline official didn’t fare as well as McGrath though as several lapses in concentration let the Downings man run free across the Breffni pitch, much to the angst of the Monaghan crowd in the stands.  

A particularly pleasing aspect of the win was that the team was able to produce such an accomplished performance despite a number of frontline men being kept reasonably quiet in open play. Michael Murphy, Paddy McBrearty, Odhran MacNiallais and Ryan McHugh were all well marked but the supporting cast stepped up to the plate.

Ryan was shadowed throughout by Ryan McAnespie, who generally ignored the ball and instead eyeballed McHugh and did everything he could to block his runs and time on the ball.

Eoin was also stifled to a degree and indeed it was the elder statesman of the McHugh clan, Mark, who made the biggest impact on proceedings following his introduction when replacing Thompson. He scored a fine long range point early in the second half and put in a huge shift of running up and down the field.

In spite of all this, there was a sense that Donegal could not shake Monaghan off and some fantastic scores from distance kept Malachy O’Rourke’s team right on the coat tails of their rivals.

For the closing stages, as the pressure was ratcheted up, Mark Anthony McGinley sent nearly all his restarts down on top of Murphy and Vinny Corey and it was the Glenswilly man who got his hands to most. A few fumbles and dispossessions though from his teammates and Monaghan were able to attack from deep and with five minutes of added time announced it made for a tense finale. Five minutes this week and six last week – another example of the GAA making a mess of something they try to improve, the idea being that each substitution now leads to time added on but with twelve replacements permitted it will lead to every game having four of five minutes added, which is too many.

It would have been daylight robbery had Donegal not come away with the win and they now deservedly take their place in the provincial showpiece in a fortnight’s time. Murphy commented afterwards that this display wont count for much unless they can repeat it in the final.

It will be an early start for the faithful on July 17th with the minors pencilled in for a high noon start against Derry. Its a great problem to have though, two teams in Clones on Ulster Final Day.