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.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Hyde Hopes for Donegal With Two Precious Points Secured

An important two points were secured by Donegal yesterday in a frantic match; just how much importance is attached to their worth will be known in the weeks to come. Certainly had the team been nought from four ahead of facing the All-Ireland Champions, signs would not have been good.

This was a strange game containing as many mistakes as moments of brilliance, exceptional scores allied to shocking finishes.

There was much talk about the new pitch at Hyde Park, relaid after infamously being deemed unplayable last year before Roscommon’s match versus Dublin. It looked the part before throw-in but wasn’t necessarily conducive for good football as almost every player on the field seemed to lose their footing at one stage or another. A fairly sparse covering of grass made the sod quite bare and players on both sides were never sure of their footing.

Following a summer of growth it will no doubt be a fantastic surface and the costs that have gone into it will reap dividends. Those costs have may have forced the County Board to tighten the belt elsewhere – thirsty Donegal folk in the clubhouse before the match were served cans of beer seven months past their sell-by date.

No matter, they were still consumed and anything was welcome in order to steel ourselves for the bitterly cold conditions that awaited once seats were taken in the stand. Rory Gallagher has brought manys a thing to Donegal – expert coaching, management ability both in the football and retail sectors but perhaps his greatest gift is the advent of the bobble hat. You rarely go to any match now, club or county, without a sea of yellow bobbles swaying in the breeze and they were almost as precious yesterday as the two points gained.

Roscommon elected to play with the substantial wind at their backs in the first half but Donegal seemed to adapt better to the elements and were quickly into their stride.

Ciaran Thompson looked a class apart in all aspects of his play and he was on the scoresheet early with an incredible effort into the teeth of the wind – the first of three points he’d kick over the course of the seventy minutes.

Michael Murphy meanwhile looked at his powerful best, driving from deep at will with the home side having very little in the way of answers as to how to stop him. His display was all the more remarkable given that he may have picked up a knock early in the game – the first score of the day was a Murphy free off the ground from distance but for every subsequent effort he opted to go short, a sign that all was not right with the big man? Thankfully for Donegal, all not right usually still results in a top class performance from the captain.

When Roscommon did settle they showed how adept they were in breaching the Donegal defensive barrier by jinking, weaving and sidestepping their way through, coping well in tight spaces.

The game soon developed into an end to end struggle though with so many turnovers at both ends of the field; it was an energy sapping affair.

Some intelligent work was witnessed from both teams carrying the ball forward but a slip, a misplaced pass or a lone foray without support led to a counter attack and so this continued up and down the field for long spells. Neither side seemed capable of holding the ball but it was definitely the visitors who were inferior in this sense.

Donegal, for many years, have produced fast, small players with low centres of gravity. They’re difficult to mark, hard to get near to stop and the direct running they bring to the table has long been a feature of our play.

At times yesterday though, players were dispossessed too easily and the scoring chances that were given up as a result made the match closer than it may have needed to be.

When this aspect of play works though, Donegal look incredibly dangerous.

Martin O’Reilly, so far Donegal’s form player, epitomises this. Another three points racked up, his finishing was excellent, his runs piercing and with so many newcomers in the side he has really stepped up to become one of the team’s go-to men.

It is not too long ago that the Mac Cumhaills clubman was a bit hesitant in possession, reluctant to take on his chances – just like those coming into the team this year. Its natural to play in a safety-first mode but the sooner these lads take on responsibility the greater the pace at which their inter-county careers will progress.

Jamie Brennan missed a gilt-edged goal chance in the second half but moments later he nailed a difficult shot off his left to split the posts, showing great character in the process. That’s what they need to do, forget about the misses and keep looking for the ball, keep wanting to be main men.

With O’Reilly and Eoin McHugh decked out in lime green boots, it’s sometimes tricky to tell them apart as they glide over the turf and eat up ground, leaving defenders trailing in their wake.

McHugh was the man to take the onus on at the end to kick the winning point and in doing so he also brought his tally to 0-3. All told, the trio in the half-forward line contributed a hattrick of points each. McHugh could have potentially had even more as he was stripped of the ball quite a few times and things didn’t seem to be going his way which makes his closing winner all the more admirable.

It was goals rather than points that kept the Rossies in the contest, raising two green flags and in truth they could have had a few more. One effort flashed past the post in the closing stages while at the death, on the cusp of winning the game, Ronan Stack inexplicably went for goal instead of taking his point with Mark Anthony McGinley smartly smothering his effort.

McGinley had another shaky afternoon from the kicking tee but when called upon to defend his goal he’s up to the task.

Even with the goal chances, the rearguard had a more serene look to it in the second half, thanks mainly to the introduction of Frank McGlynn. The Glenfin man looked out of sorts last week and was possibly not even due to see any action, only doing so because of Neil McGee’s illness on the morning of the game. McGlynn though was back to his usual self when introduced at half-time, bringing his renowned calmness and serenity to the Donegal back-line.

Donegal conceded just 1-2 in the second half and in the end it was enough to hold out for a win.

In the grand scheme of things, victory against Roscommon would have been anticipated. Not many will give Rory’s charges a chance next time out against the all-conquering Dubs, particularly if Paddy McBrearty is ruled out after coming off injured yesterday. The fixture in a fortnight is effectively a free hit; give it a lash and see what happens. It might be closer than expected.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Donegal Young Guns Forced to Learn Fast Against Slick Kerry

Transition is the buzz word around Donegal football as we embark on another league campaign and the its rare that a team are described in the positive when in this state.

Kerry were much too efficient and polished for Donegal yesterday but they’ve beaten us by an aggregate of seven points in the last two Spring meetings and that was with the older guard in tow.

Yes Rory Gallagher has lost some wily campaigners, some rightly lauded as county legends, from his squad but this happens to every side every year; the team goes on and the backside hasn’t fallen out of Donegal football just yet.

Another sobering perspective with which to view the weekend’s action was the venue – Donegal have a miserable record of late in Letterkenny and once Kerry surged ahead in the second quarter, there was no doubt that that wretched run would go on.

A huge crowd packed into Eunans’ home patch and were witnesses to a high scoring game and, despite the margin at times, saw some new faces acquit themselves well.

The Kerry contingent travelled in luxury on their way to the North West, a 171-reg Kennedy coach glistened in the blinding February sunshine parked up alongside the O’Donnell Park clubhouse. The luxuriousness continued on the field as the men from the deep South brushed aside a sluggish Donegal easily in the ten minutes before half-time.

Donegal's first score was a brilliant counter attack, started by Caolan Ward and finished by Patrick McBrearty. That's how we get most of our scores from play and it is a  vital part of Rory Gallagher's plan.

In order to counter you first have to win the ball back and yesterday we saw an illustration of what happens when a counter-attacking side are starved of possession.

Donegal's defensive cordon usually lines up between the 45 and the edge of the D, the space in behind the pot of gold sought by the opposition. Kerry plundered plenty of it though, they seemed to be able to break into the space at will and pick off easy points. This wasn’t the fault of the defence though, the damage was being done further out the pitch by the Kerry midfield.

Paddy McGrath and Caolán Ward were excellent at the back, both marking All Star forwards in James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney. McGrath was at his tigerish best against O’Donoghue.

Donegal's defenders were perhaps a bit too honest - trying to mark diligently, get a hand in, doing the basics. Kerry on the other hand are adept at fouling smartly off the ball and can generally do this whilst escaping the referee's attention. Its an acceptable tactic these days but the frustration is that the referee appeared to have the ability to see every supposed off the ball misdemeanour going the other way in second half. The home support lost count of the number of times a Kerry wide was followed by a signal from Maurice Deegan that he was awarding a free-in.

Along with speedster Eoghan Ban Gallagher, removed from his natural half-back line habitat, the trio in the full back line contained the visitors’ inside line as best they could. Such was the platform, or lack of, around centrefield for Donegal, Kerry’s dominance was constant.

Kerry had a 100% record on their own restarts in the opening half and weren’t far off that mark on Mark Anthony McGinley’s. Donegal committed numbers to try and win breaks but as soon as Kerry mitts were on the O’Neills, the hosts were on the back foot.

With Kerrymen running towards them, the defenders were unsure as to whether they should stay with their own man or leave him to challenge the ball carrier. Either way, the scoreboard ticked constantly upwards for the visitors as the short whistle approached.

David Moran had an outstanding match, lording the skies. He was shackled somewhat in the second half with Hugh McFadden doing an admirable job when switched onto him.

Newcomer Jason McGee had the unenviable task of marking Moran early on and he couldn't have been handed a much tougher assignment. McGee stuck to his task and enjoyed being a bit freer after the break, showing his array of foot passing and seeing plenty of the ball. The Falcarrach man, along with the other debutants, can only learn from days like this.

What do the management learn? Unfortunately the same problem which beset Donegal last year is still very much evident - kick outs.

You can be sure that the coaching team have done a huge amount of work on the training ground in trying to get their strategy right so it is certainly not for lack of effort but it just doesn’t seem to transfer to matchday.

There’s plenty of talk about replacing the most recent crop of retirees but of more immediate importance is finding a way to replace the incredible platform that Paul Durcan used to provide.

Durcan’s arrow like restarts enabled smaller players to claim possession and start attacks, negating the need to challenge for 50-50 balls in the air.

Yesterday McGinley’s kicks, with their high, loopy trajectory suited Moran and even when a Donegal player was picked out, the shape on the kick enables an opposition player to come from behind with speed and break the ball.

There remains a hesitancy about restarts and while it’s easy to blame the goalkeeper, those out the field aren’t making the correct runs or aren’t doing them at the right time.

Something is amiss and deciphering the puzzle correctly will go a long way to determining what level of success Donegal can achieve in 2017.

Neil Gallagher would solve a lot of the current problems so here’s hoping the big Glenswilly man’s fitness concerns abate and we see him before the end of the league.

Gallagher would also be useful to have around for his distribution. Similar to the kick outs, a lot of slow, hanging ball was played into McBrearty and Jamie Brennan in the full forward line. The pair had to compete for balls over their head when a fast ball to the chest was what they wanted. The main man who could benefit from this type of service is Michael Murphy but frustratingly, with the captain playing around the middle, he was the one player who could consistently deliver the good quality, forward-friendly ball that the inside two required. Who’d be a manager eh?

Even in defeat, there were plenty of plus points to take from proceedings.

Martin O'Reilly thrived in a deep lying attacking role, the No 6 on his back indicated his offensive starting position rather than defensive responsibilities.

Despite the gulf in class in the opening half, Donegal dropped three scoreable efforts short and could have been closer at half time. Geaney’s second goal was the real killer blow and there was never much doubt about the outcome from then on. The boys battled on though and didn’t let the heads drop.

Donegal looked like a team who have trained hard over the last few weeks but who haven't seen a football in a while, evidenced by some of the sloppy handling and pick-up errors.

Kerry alternatively can often leave their heavy training until after the league due to the vastly inferior competitiveness of the Munster championship compared to Ulster. If the bookies are to be believed, the Kingdom will be playing on League Final day on April 9th; that would leave them 11 weeks until their first meaningful Championship test in a Munster Final in early July.

Whatever stage of his career or fitness regime Murphy is in, he is still the go-to man; he was Donegal's battering ram as they chased down the Kerry lead, exceptional in the closing stages. He was causing havoc running at the Kingdom rearguard and eventually the aristocrats were forced to simply haul him down when he bore down on goal late on (oddly enough, this incident of cynicism didn’t make the highlights reel on RTE's wrap-up show last night). In spite of their reputation, Fitzmaurice’s squad can puke it with the best.

What the young lads may have lacked yesterday in experience and speed of thought they made up for in attitude and endeavour. To a man, the team displayed great character and stayed going until the end.

Staying in Division One is Rory’s aim; six points will likely be enough for that and with twelve still on offer, there’s plenty to play for yet.