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.