Monday, June 19, 2017

Donegal Apprentices Mastered by Tyrone

The game nobody had envisaged unfolded in front of our eyes in Clones yesterday. Scores aplenty, barely a dirty stroke and anything but a tight, tense finish.
If Rory Gallagher had have been told yesterday morning that his team would post a score of 1-12, he would have expected an enjoyable return to the market town. It was anything but.

Gallagher and his backroom team would have been working on their masterplan for this game since the draw was made in October. Sometimes though the best laid plans come a cropper. Remember what boxer Mike Tyson famously said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Donegal woke up this morning having been punched in the face, having taking a beating.

While the obvious excuse for the loss is to suggest that the team are too inexperienced, in truth the tactical failures played as much of a role.
Tyrone managed to strike upon that state of being which every team strives for - your own half of the field is crowded and claustrophobic, the other end is an open prairie. How did they do it?

Unfortunately it is a recurring theme with this side but once again kick outs had a huge bearing on a Donegal match.
Rory's risk reward ploy on Tyrone’s restarts didn't work. Donegal pushed up on Niall Morgan’s kicks in the hope of gaining possession and using the energetic legs in the team to carry the ball towards goal.
This move appeared to have been anticipated by Mickey Harte and he instructed Morgan to go as long as he could with the Cavanaghs, Colm and Sean, waiting for the ball over the top of the Donegal press. This is hardly an unfamiliar tactic to us, having been a key weapon in the McGuinness playbook in beating Dublin three years ago.
The dividends this brought Tyrone was clear to see when the elder Cavanagh, Sean, tore through the middle into swathes of space not seen in a Donegal defence in years.
Ironically the game’s big turning point came from Donegal doing what Tyrone had been; a long kick out was played towards Michael Murphy, who claimed possession one handed before offloading to the onrushing Eoin McHugh. McHugh breezed past Mattie Donnelly, gave Morgan the eyes and sent him the wrong way but somehow put the ball wide of the post.

It wasnt only on Tyrone's kick outs that Donegal struggled as they were starved of possession on their own restarts, McHugh's chance apart. Tyrone mirrored Donegal’s strategy of pushing up on the kick out and it put pressure on Mark Anthony McGinley.
The netminder's first option is generally to go short with his kicks but with Tyrone blocking this off with their press he was forced long. A bit of hesitancy on his part didn’t help along with the lobbing trajectory of his restarts. The length of time the ball was in the air allowed Tyrone to swarm the break and Donegal struggled to breathe in the middle sector during the pivotal second quarter.
It was at this time that McGinley needed to change tack. Short and long are two options but there is a third. A mid-range kick to the wing dropping around the 45 with a player running onto it can give teams valuable possession; Stephen Cluxton has built a career out of perfecting this type of kick. This is where the players around the middle needed to help their goalkeeper out. For him to avail of this type of pass, someone has to make the run.

Reports of an illness afflicting Jason McGee in the lead up to the game didn't help the midfield battle; the Falcarrach giant had started the game well and was his side’s best competitor around the middle. Ciaran Thompson found the going tough and when he was handed an ice pack when substituted, it may have been an indication that all was not right there either.
At times Donegal had four or five players congregated at midfield, staying narrow, almost ignoring McGinley - presumably to leave space on the flanks for him to kick into. What good though is space on the flanks if no one runs into it?

This is where the basis for defeat moves from tactics to inexperience. Were players hiding? Did nerves take over? A few points down against a rival in the cauldron of Clones, its easy to pretend to make a run but not really make a run. We’ve all been there at varying levels of football; there are times when you’re praying for the ball to go to the other side of the field, for someone else to take responsibility.
Whatever about on-field responsibility, this part of Donegal’s play must get remedied by the management or it will be a short summer.

The result of all this was Tyrone dominating possession around centrefield and in response Donegal trying risky short kick outs and being penned in by white jerseys. They forced numerous turnovers as Donegal were overwhelmed during that devastating spell before half time.
Donegal flooded men back to try to stem the tide such was the monopoly of possession their opponents enjoyed but while they were back, they did not apply pressure to the ball. With ample space afforded to the Tyrone shooters, the Red Hands floated over one glorious point after another. They would have expected to be met with that signature Donegal ravenous defensive intensity but it simply wasn't there.

While Donegal’s overall kick out strategy was their ultimate undoing, McGinley's performance from open play saved the team from suffering an outright massacre. Twice he brilliantly saved from point blank range, rushing from his line to take command of the situation on each occasion.
Even for Tiernan McCann’s scruffy goal, the keeper could be seen intimating to Ryan McHugh to guard the far post and to cover that side of the goal; unfortunately McHugh gambled on McCann going to the other side and the ball trickled past him.
McGinley’s willingness to get out to meet the oncoming player was in marked contrast to his defenders. How many times did Tyrone bare down on goal with no defender going towards the man? Instead most of the defenders stayed on their designated men.
It’s another sign, like not making the runs to receive the kick out, of nerves and of not wanting to make a mistake - I’ll watch my man and if anyone else scores at least I did my job.

So all in all tactics and inexperience both played an overwhelming part in the loss; which came first is debatable. When tactics aren’t working, experience should take over and Donegal simply don’t have as much of that as they had in previous years. It will come of course, and it might not feel like it now but the players will take a lot from yesterday.
In order for them to develop as top class inter-county players over the coming years, plying their trade in Division One of the league is imperative and that’s why there was such a big emphasis on the early part of the year.
They still have plenty to learn and the qualifiers will give them a chance to do that, starting with a home fixture against Longford on Saturday week.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Donegal Surge Out of the Blocks but Tougher Tests Lie Ahead

Championship Sunday in May. First day out of the summer. Nothing like it.
Every county feels expectation and optimism at this time of year and there’s a sense that anything is possible. Reality kicks in for many teams pretty quickly of course but while that sentiment lasts it’s a level playing field for all.
Travelling from the North of the county to Donegal’s footballing Mecca by the banks of the Finn, the length of the tailback at the T-junction a couple of miles out from town tells you the significance of the match you’re about to attend. Half an hour before the curtain raiser's 2pm throw-in time, the sizeable row of cars ahead and behind made it clear that the Championship had arrived.

The minor match added to the atmosphere as a cracking tussle broke out amongst the mistakes and nerves on show from the young lads playing in the last ever minor championship.
Once the ball was thrown up for the senior game however the buzz died somewhat. Mac Cumhaill Park was as quiet as it’s been for some time; the primal, box office jousts against Dublin and Tyrone in the league a distant memory. There were plenty of scores early on but there was an inescapable mood that Donegal were simply going through the motions.

That particular phrase isn’t in the lexicon of one Michael Murphy though. Murphy continued his superb league form, putting in a man of the match display.
For the entire afternoon he had Sean McVeigh by his side and while the big Antrim man was game and did his best to nullify Donegal’s leader, it was an impossible task. It will be a different story of course if Donegal end up facing Tyrone next time out – that will give Michael and Justin McMahon a chance to renew their rancorous friendship.
From the off The Maestro bulldozed his way through the Antrim defence, winning frees and creating gaps from which others could profit.
Murphy's ability to break tackles around midfield is especially crucial in the opening stages of a game; when an opponent’s blanket screen is at its most stubborn and defenders’ minds are at their sharpest. As the game goes on more space appears, tiredness infests the limbs and runs aren’t tracked as they were. So early on is the most difficult time to breach a defence and the captain consistently leads the charge.

As we saw in second half yesterday, Donegal had the run of the place at the river end goal and picked off points and goals at their leisure. In this light, Donegal's porousness in their own backline in the first half was all the more unusual.
Paddy McGrath and Neil McGee were a wee bit more lackadaisical than normal, letting Antrim forwards get goal chances that, judging by their attempted finishes, they seemed shocked to have got. The inside duo of Tomas McCann and CJ McGourty caused problems with their movement but once Frank McGlynn got the call from Maxi Curran to drop back in front of the full back line, things tightened up considerably.
Jamie Brennan’s goal before half-time ended the contest and it was a great finish from a man making his debut at this level. His point soon after displayed his best characteristics – quick feet to get around his man in order to create space for a composed shot at the posts. There were other times when the Bundoran sharp shooter had chances to take his man on but opted to turn back and look for support. If he can add a bit more directness to his game not many corner backs will relish pitting their wits against his raw speed.

Six others joined Brennan in making full Championship debuts and all acquitted themselves well. Granted the nature of the game, with the hosts pulling away comfortably after half-time, made things easier and didn’t give a true measure of the white heat of Ulster fare.
Jason McGee made a welcome return after missing several weeks of training due to concussion picked up in the U21 match with Dublin but he showed no ill-effects and produced an accomplished performance in the engine room alongside Murphy.
With that duo stationed at centrefield, there’s big men aplenty around the middle, which allows Hugh McFadden to provide the bulk in front of goal. McFadden spent most of his time in a county jersey up until this year in a defensive role but looking lean and fit he is relishing the chance to show what he can do in attack. He is much more inclined to take his shots on nowadays rather than pass on responsibility and his booming score in first half illustrated his ability in front of the posts.

There was plenty of other fine marksmen on show with the second half turning into shooting practice for the likes of substitutes Michael Langan and Karl Lacey.
When corner back McGrath pops up for his first ever goal, you know things are going your way. Paddy has been making that run for many years now yet he still seemed surprised to arrive in front of goal with ball in hand. A typical defender, the first instinct was to look for contact with the goalkeeper; after he bounced off Chris Kerr he had the wherewithal to get his foot to the ball before running straight through the goal line.

McGrath’s hit prior to his goal was one of the few incidences of physicality we saw in the closing stages such was the lack of intensity in the match by then. Things will definitely be different the next day – an expected Tyrone win over Derry at the weekend will lead to an Ulster Final rematch in Clones on June 18th.
If that comes to pass, we'll see more hefty belts in the opening five minutes than we saw over the entire 70 yesterday. Throughout the league, the displays of Rory's young guns have suggested that they have what it takes to represent the green and gold jersey - in four weeks we'll know for sure.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Donegal Lose the Heads and the Points in Castlebar

For the second week running Donegal dropped league points from a winning position and the campaign has ended on a little bit of a downer after the promise of recent weeks.

The report card still looks fairly healthy and Rory Gallagher’s charges certainly finish up in credit but the closing stages of the contests in Ballyshannon and Castlebar will grate with the boss.

There was plenty of talk during the week about the appointment of Cormac Reilly as the match referee due to his storied past with Mayo. He would have been hoping for a quiet afternoon’s work and probably wouldn’t have said no to a chance to give some hometown decisions in order to make friends with the green and red army again. He got his opportunity very early on and there was an amusing sense of inevitability around the ground as he awarded the hosts a penalty.

Mark Anthony McGinley’s stupid challenge on Cillian O’Connor was totally unnecessary as the ball played in had evaded the Ballintubber man. Their coming together seemed to take place outside the box but regardless O’Connor dusted himself down and found the net with ease.

Donegal had made a promising start prior to the goal with smart points from Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Cian Mulligan but Mayo found their rhythm quickly and added some fine points to O’Connor’s major.

They were quite direct in their play and seemed keen to exploit a perceived weakness in Donegal’s full back line. Long, cross-field passes rained down on Neil McGee and co and caused some unease but the storm was weathered.

The Donegal defence regained their composure and forced their opponents to shoot from distance. Shane Nally nailed the best of a few cracking points that Mayo managed but plenty more efforts drifted wide.

Stephen Rochford’s team persevered with their risk and reward high press tactic of recent years but it suited Donegal as they gained control of the game by getting in behind Mayo thanks to the likes of Eoghan Ban, Mulligan and Jamie Brennan. That trio all upped their performance levels above what they had shown in previous outings and if they can reproduce something similar for the U21s on Wednesday night an Ulster Final will beckon.

Brennan was more involved in the physical stakes than usual, steaming into tackles and tracking back diligently. He kicked a brilliant point off his left and it was just reward after winning the ball himself before beating a couple of men and slotting over.

Much of Donegal’s good work came from the right side of the attack with the returning Jason McGee foraging well around the middle to keep the supply lines open.

Alongside him, Michael Murphy was a colossus. Mayo were powerless to stop his surging drives forward from deep and his sleight of feet saw him twice twinkletoe beautifully around oncoming tacklers.

The visitors looked in good shape at the break, three points to the good having played into the wind but it all fell apart in a messy closing quarter of an hour.

Mulligan kicked two sensational points after the half time cup of tae but inexplicably not one of his team mates would join him on the second half score sheet.

Donegal - and the man in the middle Reilly – lost their heads thereafter and contributed to their own downfall during a frantic spell where Mayo obliterated the gap on the scoreboard.

The first half sight of green and gold jerseys swarming forward was now replaced with seeing them penned in with nowhere to go. Passes suddenly were being played under far more pressure than before and a malaise of apprehension spread amongst the team.

This is where Mayo’s high press tactic works so well; it is the ideal way to chase down a lead. Their problems have arisen in big games when they concede too many goals and persist with the press, even when leading games leaving themselves exposed.

One of Mayo’s great strengths is their attacking half backs but they remained largely anonymous for much of the game. Micheal Carroll was tasked with keeping Lee Keegan company for the day and had been doing a very good job on the current Footballer of the Year. Upon Eoin McHugh’s introduction the marking setup changed with Carroll being sent further forward. 

Almost immediately, Keegan boomed over a rousing point off his left and it could be argued this was the game’s pivotal score as it drew Mayo level and they sensed blood.

They didn’t let up on their way to the finish line with the excellent Tom Parsons and substitute Aidan O’Shea leading the charge. Much has been made of Donegal’s young guns and the vigour and energy they have brought to the team; Mayo countered that with old fashioned bulk and with 14 men, following Eamonn Doherty’s dismissal, Donegal found the going tough.

Since impressively holding onto a lead against Tyrone in Ballybofey, Donegal have now let two wins slip from their grasp, leaving three league points behind them in the process.

With Dublin and Kerry taking up the top spots in the final Division One standings Donegal remain, as one man said to me out the way out MacHale Park, in the long grass ahead of the summer.

Even though a day out at Headquarters for a league final and a crack at the Dubs would be appealing for a lot of supporters, as usual the players and management have eyes only for the bearpit that is the Ulster Championship.

Perhaps the long grass is the best place for us right now.

Monday, March 27, 2017

A Point a Piece in Ballyshannon Battle

Donegal only have themselves to blame after seeing a three point lead evaporate with Conor McManus’ coolly taken stoppage-time penalty in Fr Tierney Park yesterday.

The home team were in control for most of the second half, repelling the Farney attacks with relative ease while giving the umpire with the white flag enough to do at the other end.

The breeze played a big part in proceedings, as it usually does at the venue perched high above Ballyshannon below. Both team’s shooting was erratic with neither able to judge the wind with any degree of confidence.

Even taking the elements into consideration, there was no excuse for some of the poor striking technique on show. Donegal’s first half waywardness was in stark contrast to the economical nature of the returns garnered last week by the banks of The Finn.

Micheal Carroll’s early goal set the hosts on their way and it was a vital score to have in the bank such was the amount of subsequent chances squandered during the remainder of the half.

Carroll's effort and work rate off the ball has been encouraging in the games so far but in most games his finishing has let him down; he made no mistake this time, drilling the ball under Rory Beggan despite being fouled as he struck the ball.

Michael Murphy has mucked in at midfield alongside Carroll, doing plenty of selfless work but he was back in the familiar role of chief scorer. The big man finished up with 0-7 which included three delightful scores from play, his first from open country in 2017.

Monaghan didn’t let the early goal concession affect them though and with Jack McCarron on song they didn’t take long to wrestle the lead from their familiar foes.

McCarron gained the upper hand on Neil McGee and with the Gaoth Dobhair man picking up a yellow card before half-time a change was needed. McGee’s clubmate Ciaran Gillespie was introduced for his first taste of league action this year and made a terrific impact. He’s a tigerish defender, mad to attack the ball and now that he appears to be over his recent hamstring trouble, could prove to be an important player over the summer months.

Another man making his return from injury was Paddy McBrearty and he was gleefully greeted by the 6,000+ crowd on his introduction in the second half. This was the Kilcar sharpshooter’s first appearance since coming off with a groin problem in Hyde Park and he made up for lost time, stroking over two fine points.

McBrearty initially played quite deep which didn’t help the Donegal attack as it allowed Monaghan to push out and clog up the middle of the pitch. Time and again runners were turned over, with Eoin McHugh in particular losing possession several times. When McBrearty moved closer to goal he took a couple of defenders with him and Donegal built a decent lead in this period which should have been enough to see them home.

With McCarron’s influence waning and Paddy McGrath keeping tabs on McManus, the two league points looked a safe bet.

Holding a three point margin, Donegal became a wee bit lackadaisical in their shooting. A few shots drifted to the wrong sides of the uprights, many of them lazy efforts lacking in conviction.

There was nothing absent from McManus’ penalty, awarded following a Martin McElhinney foul on Kieran Hughes. Out of nowhere, Monaghan suddenly secured a point they scarcely merited. It meant Donegal GAA ended the week on somewhat of a downer following brilliant senior and U21 wins over Tyrone.

By that stage, the team had lost Ryan McHugh to an ankle problem and it’s unlikely he’ll be seeing any action in Castlebar next week. Once he’s fit and well for June, that’s all that matters. McHugh had a frustrating afternoon getting constantly dragged and fouled off the ball; he’s probably getting used to it at this stage but it still doesn’t make it any less infuriating.

McHugh was the second player carried off after a worrying incident early on when Ryan McAnespie collided with Hugh McFadden. McAnespie was taken to hospital with suspected concussion.

The wellbeing of sporting stars in the North West has been brought into sharp focus this week of course. There was an uneasy hush around Lansdowne Road on Friday night as the medics treated Seamus Coleman and the messages of goodwill that he has received since shows his standing in the game. Captain, leader and legend.

At the complete other end of the spectrum of tragedy was the passing of Derry’s Ryan McBride. A young man in the prime of his life taken away.

It makes no sense. Life often doesn’t.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Dominant Donegal Trample Tyrone

Donegal saved their best performance of the campaign for their fiercest rivals and were full value for a comfortable six point win in Ballybofey last night.

The hosts’ display was controlled and composed and despite re-awakening a little regret over the past and the Ulster Final defeat, ultimately the game provided confidence for the future.

In producing their spring best they laid down a marker with summer in mind.

The home support left Mac Cumhaill Park with a warm glow inside despite the biblical elements rendering them soaked from head to toe.

The conditions were awful but Donegal seemed to relish the challenge of facing into the wind and rain as well as the Tyrone defence.

Both teams play similar styles and set up in almost a mirror image of each other; you would think then a stalemate would ensue but after trading a few early points, the home side surged clear in the second quarter.

Ciaran Thompson was once again the leading light and right now he is as good a striker of the ball as there is in the country. His wand of a left foot can register points from any angle and any distance and the Glenties man added 0-3 more to his league tally.

While Thompson splitting the posts from anywhere isn’t that big a surprise, possibly the biggest roar of the night came when Paddy McGrath launched a missile from under the stand to score the point of his life.

McGrath is a cult hero for Donegal supporters, emptying the tank every single day he goes out to represent his county. He doesn’t do bad matches and he was once again a vital component of his team’s defensive effort.

Another of the stalwarts at the back, Frank McGlynn, had a brilliant opening half and hopefully his half time substitution doesnt lead to any major injury concern. While the young bucks have thrived this year, the likes of McGlynn and McGrath are still as important as ever.

The job of the defenders was made that bit easier by the unrelenting pressure applied by those out the field to the Tyrone ball-carriers. Michael Murphy, Micheal Carroll and Thompson got through a trojan amount of work around the middle and set the tone for everyone else.

Mickey Harte opted to station Sean Cavanagh and Mattie Donnelly, two of the finest footballers in the land, inside in the full forward line and in truth it proved a wasteful decision. Very little ball came their way and as a result both were out of the game for much of the opening half.

Any ball that did come their way was dealt with by Neil McGee and Eamon Doherty. McGee was at his brutal, brilliant, bullying best.

With Donegal fashioning a lead, they found themselves in the perfect scenario – ahead against Tyrone, in control, the game in their own hands – a carbon copy of the circumstances they found themselves in during the provincial showpiece last July. Would Rory’s charges relinquish another lead or keep their foot on Tyrone’s throat and see it home?

The lead was stretched out as half time approached, eventually becoming five at the short whistle and six in the second half. At no stage did Tyrone really look like they were going to close the gap.

Donegal led with an assuredness. There were no wonder scores from Cavanagh or Peter Harte, indeed McGrath’s black card came from an unforgiving drag down on the latter. It showed that he and his teammates were intent on holding onto their lead, by fair means or foul.

In that decider in Clones, Tyrone were patient in the second half despite being behind and waited on their own 45m line for Donegal to make a mistake with the ball before pouncing. Donegal were ponderous and unsure. This time around, Tyrone were forced out towards the opposite 45 to try and win the ball back such was Donegal’s calmness and confidence with the ball; they were happy to keep it and move it around looking for an opening.

The mindset was the difference. There is a big contrast between knowingly wanting to hold the ball and being hesitant with it.

The U21 joust between these two teams last week was similar. Declan Bonner’s team looked for fast breaks when they were on but they weren’t in any rush to commit men if they felt there wasn’t a high percentage chance of a score. When an attack had to be slowed down and the ball retained that’s what they did.

Teams are so consumed with getting in behind a team before the defensive shape is set that they often mess up scoring chances by displaying too much eagerness and not enough composure.

Cian Mulligan produced an impressive cameo off the bench in that U21 match in Omagh and he did so again in Ballybofey, capping off a productive spell on the field with a well taken point. He’ll certainly be in the mix for a starting jersey for the replay on Wednesday night.

One man who never has to worry about getting a jersey is Ryan McHugh, who was magnificent once again. His intelligence in possession is wonderful and is a player that Tyrone simply cannot cope with. Both teams have set man markers that are generally used when the sides meet – we saw the latest instalment of Justin McMahon’s staring contest on Murphy – but Tyrone have yet to figure McHugh out.

There were more rows than scores in the second half but the outcome was decided long before the final whistle sounded. After securing their place in next year's Division One against Cavan, this win suddenly puts Donegal in with a chance of reaching a league final.

Who knows, maybe there could be a repeat of this fixture next month? Either way, they will meet again.

That can wait as the battles keep on coming – Monaghan next up.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Donegal Impress in Cavan Coast

Donegal secured a win away to Cavan on Saturday night in an extremely efficient, no-fuss manner and in the process took a huge step in cementing their place among the elite of Division One for next year.

Barring the period before half-time, when Cavan closed the deficit after being outplayed up until then, Rory Gallagher’s team were utterly professional in their display and swatted aside their opponents.

Donegal’s dominance emerged from a superior midfield platform and it was evident that much work has been done on the training ground this week on claiming possession.

For every kick-out there were several Donegal men on high alert in anticipation of any impending breaks. Noticeably, there were no clean catches with players electing to bat the ball down to the waiting posse rather than claiming it themselves or driving a fist through the ball. They stuck to the plan and reaped the rewards although there were a couple of instances where a ball could have been caught and a mark claimed.

Whenever Cavan did manage to pick up any scraps around the middle they found it difficult to translate that possession into scores; frees from Seanie Johnston just about kept them in touch such was the meanness of the visitors’ rearguard.

One recurring theme with Donegal over recent years is the oft-seen failure to put teams away when on top. A gap of two points at the break did not reflect Donegal’s complete supremacy; the lead should have been closer to double figures. It took Cavan twenty-two minutes to register their first score and they shouldn't have been anywhere their opponents at the short whistle.

This wrong was righted in the second half but it is a facet of the game that must improve, particularly against more illustrious foes. If you are in the ascendancy against one of the big guns then it must show where it matters – on the scoreboard.

Caolán Ward rightly received plenty of plaudits nationally for his performance against Dublin last week and he followed it up with another polished display. Twice in the first half, he thwarted Cavan point-scoring attempts by putting the shooter in question under pressure, causing their kicks to skew off target. Ward is an accomplished defender who does the basics well but his main strength at present is his ball carrying. He formed a dynamic half-back line along with the outstanding Frank McGlynn and livewire Eoghan Ban Gallagher.

Killybegs’ Gallagher was involved in the red card incident and that moment provided possibly the greatest insight from the night.

Michael Murphy has been county captain for six years now but with so many of the old guard exiting the stage his leadership is even more vital. He provides it in his play and attitude every day but last night when he felt one of his men had been recklessly scythed down he wasn't taking it; his new found friends in Clermont would approve of his actions.

Murphy, followed by his men, piled in to engage in some handbags, pushing, shoving and all the rest; he was making a very clear point that despite the inexperience of some of his players, they are not to be taken lightly and will not be taking a backward step.

While these incidents are usually described as ‘unsavoury’ and ‘not what we want to see in the game’, they do get spectators off their seats and also tell a lot about a team’s psyche. We’re fascinated at looking at new players, formations and tactical nuances but just as important is the state of a team’s spirit and togetherness behind the scenes.

Regardless of what level you play at, you want your mates to back you up and thats exactly what Murphy did.

Jason McGee encouragingly got stuck into the mini-melee as well but didn’t last too much longer after coming out second best in a 50-50 shoulder charge. Hopefully there is no serious damage although early indications suggest that Declan Bonner will have to plan without the Cloich Cheann Fhaola giant for the upcoming U21 Championship opener against Tyrone – the last ever U21 championship, with the U20 version coming in for 2018.

Once Cavan had lost Killian Clarke to a red card for that challenge on Gallagher, they were left behind in Donegal’s slipstream as the points were added to their tally with more regularity. Ciaran Thompson kept the score keepers busy with an exceptional display of shooting.

A green flag was raised through Eoin McHugh, the major coming about after a blistering raid involving six players from halfway and into goal scoring territory.

That score showed how the manager's tactics in creating space worked a treat.

Barcelona famously adopted what became known as a ‘false 9’ system under Pep Guardiola’s stewardship, which essentially meant their striker dropped into midfield leaving their forward line empty; all attacks and therefore scoring threats came from deep. Opposing defenders didn’t know whether to hold their position or follow their nominal marker. Guardiola became Gallagher in Breffni Park, with Rory adding his own slant to the tactic.

In the continued absence of Paddy McBrearty, Donegal are lacking a killer forward inside so the majority of scores are going to come from runners entering the opposition attacking third. Playing with no forwards though would leave a lot of traffic to be negotiated in the middle third.

Hugh McFadden and Darach O’Connor were left with the tough job of making runs that were rarely, if ever, going to be used. Their job was to occupy Cavan’s full back line, make them mark the forwards even though the damage was being done out the field.

Rory employed a similar scheme to great effect in the first half of last year’s Ulster Final. Then it was McBrearty and Murphy who occupied Tyrone’s defenders and their accompanying sweepers, allowing Ryan McHugh to run riot further out the field, scoring three stunning first half points.

Last night, after the hard yards had been run by McFadden and O’Connor, and Cavan’s defenders energy had all but dissipated, Jamie Brennan was able to capitalise and helped himself to 0-3 upon his introduction. The Bundoran youngster has found it difficult to find space in his outings thus far but coming off the bench suited him and he showed his finishing abilities.

All in all, this latest league outing for the team was a good one. Many had predicted a relegation battle before the league got underway but with five points on the board the side are in good shape. There is plenty more to learn for this young team and with Tyrone up next they will learn what a real bruising Ulster derby is all about.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Donegal Derive Deserved Draw in Dublin Dogfight

In pure numeric terms, yesterday’s contest delivered a league point but in years to come the bounty may be priceless. Rory’s Rookies stood up to the All-Ireland champions and showed that they belong at this level and that they can be relied upon when the going gets tough.

The rain that had pummelled the Mac Cumhaill Park sod in the lead up to throw-in ensured that the contest would be scrappy and a dogfight; that the young guns survived in such an environment is all the more pleasing.

The soundbites emanating from the manager’s media briefings during the week intimidated that Donegal would be transformed into an all out, kamikaze attacking unit - fat chance of that against the mighty Dublin. The absence of Paddy McBrearty through injury meant an extremely inexperienced forward line so the plan had to be to sit deep and try to hit Dublin on the counter attack at lightning speed.

Eoin McHugh and Jamie Brennan were assigned the tough task of winning the little ball that came their way. Without McBrearty we had no-one to get their hands on dirty ball, hold onto it and wait for the cavalry to arrive.

The visitors had a similar plan themselves and the most anxious moments for the home support were when the ball was lost in opposition territory. Dublin broke forward, stretched the pitch as wide as they could and more often than not found a blue jersey in space.

The rate at which Donegal turned the ball over was somewhat alarming; time after time the ball was lost following a sloppy hand pass either played too far ahead or just behind the receiver. 

Composure was lacking once Donegal crossed the halfway line and there was certainly a few 
scores left behind through wastefulness.

Dublin’s goal, a wonderful flowing move from deep finished by the excellent Niall Scully, came about following a slack handpass played to a static Michael Murphy.

There is never a lack of composure when Ryan McHugh is around though and his goal (yet another against Dublin) smacked of it; a delightful finish pebble-stoned into the corner of the net. Seconds earlier he had displayed his dogged determined streak when keeping the ball in play, showing incredible skill with foot and hand in the process.

The anxiousness with the ball will of course be eradicated as the year goes on; hands will become softer, the ground firmer and accuracy will increase.

The determination to move the ball quickly is a specific and necessary tactic. This Donegal team has all of a sudden become quite small so attacking into space before opponents have a chance to get their defensive screen set is the best way to create scoring chances.

Over the last decade and a half we have had a plethora of big forwards – Colm McFadden, Adrian Sweeney, Ryan Bradley, Christy Toye et al. Now the physical make-up is different.

We have an abundance of small, nippy, highly-skilled footballers – similar to the glory days under Brian McEniff – and a dearth of big rugged lumps of men. When you are faced with a wall of defenders, you need big, powerful men to drive through tackles.

Martin McElhinney’s return will help matters in this regard but generally there aren’t too many like him around in green and gold and we lost one of the greatest during the week with the retirement of Neil Gallagher.

His clubmate Murphy’s simple tribute spoke volumes, “some man for one man.” Gallagher was some man for Donegal football and his like may never be seen again. There are however some striking similarities between him and the most likely heir to his throne, Ciaran Thompson.

Both have this unerring ability to play the game at their own pace. They never seem to be in a hurry yet you rarely see them getting caught by a challenge or dispossessed. Thompson has been flagged as a top class inter county player for a couple of years, particularly since his tour de force against Cavan in the U21 Championship, but even still the speed with how he has taken to a leading role this year is remarkable.

He rarely wastes possession, kicked a couple of frees yesterday in McBrearty’s absence, is wonderful in the air and got the better of his duel with Brian Fenton.

Jason McGee also put in a huge shift around the middle third, capping a memorable display with a return of 1-1. His opening skyscraper of a point set the tone for the day and sent a message that despite facing the best team in the land, Donegal’s future, and indeed it’s present, is in good hands.

Jason is a fine soccer player and when the ball eventually landed back to him following some 
pinball around Stephen Cluxton’s goalmouth, between himself, Martin O’Reilly and Jamie Brennan, he slotted the ball home.

The two goal blitz from McGee and McHugh turned the game on its head, providing the hosts with a scarcely deserved lead.

A three point surplus at the short whistle brought a familiar challenge. The last time Donegal had such a lead in a big game was last year’s Ulster Final.

As on that day, the first score plundered after the restart pushed the lead out to four.

As on that day, the lead did not bring victory.

Have the team and management learnt their lessons? Is the team capable of defending a lead and turning it into a win?

In fairness, the team kept looking for scores yesterday and it was more their handling and decision making that let them down. So the signs were encouraging. Against Tyrone on that sweltering day in Clones, the team didn’t seem to know whether to attack or defend, to stick or twist and in the end they blinked first.

Caolán Ward was one of those who kept surging forward, kept bringing the game to Dublin. He has been impressive in all the games thus far and his clubmate, Eamonn Doherty, did likewise during his cameo late on. Both men are strong on the ball and against the wind in the second half, this was no easy task.

Most of the crowd would have taken a draw as 2pm approached and they were certainly glad of it as the clock ticked past 3.30pm.

Murphy’s brilliant free, which looked routine from the stand but was far from it considering the breeze he faced, secured a draw and kept a seven-year unbeaten run in Ballybofey intact.

Whatever about registering a third league point of 2017, the most important aspect of the day was that the team refused to wilt. Behind with a few minutes to go, it would have been easy to accept a narrow defeat and think ‘well we did grand, didn’t disgrace ourselves’; the players though collectively, young and not so young, refused to be beaten.

Next week will be a different type of test. In many ways it's easy to get revved up for a match in front of a big home crowd against the All-Ireland Champions. Now the players need to show that they can apply the same focus and attention to a Saturday night in Cavan - a bigger game in relation to Division One survival.

Two points next week and Donegal will be looking up rather than down.