Archive for July, 2012

My Momma Never Told Me

There’d be days like this.  Winning an Ulster Final by 11 points.  It’s surreal.  It wasn’t just the margin of victory but the manner of it. 2-15 scored from play.  11 different scorers.  Only one point from Michael Murphy.  Never in my life did I think I’d see the likes of it.  I don’t know if anyone did.  Well, maybe this guy did.  Sorry if this blog post is short on analysis; it’s one of those rare times when I’m going to focus on the positives.

Donegal had two points after 30 minutes of play and hadn’t scored for 15 minutes.  Over the next 45 minutes or so, they scored 2-16.  It was phenomenal.  The speed of movement and thought was unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a Donegal team.  If Donegal were strangely constrained against a Tyrone team that were badly exposed in Killarney at the weekend, they held nothing back when it mattered against Down.  They outscored their Ulster Final opponents 1-13 to six points in the second half.

Before the game and at half-time, TV analysts were talking about the possibility of a draw.  A draw!  The first half was tense and didn’t help my hangover that’s for sure. Down had their chances alright, but Donegal were playing against the breeze and yet still went in ahead by a point.  The reality was that they had Down right where they wanted them.  If the first half was tense, the second half was an expression of the power with which Donegal have played at times this year.

Donegal took some big hits on Sunday, but were more than able for anything Down threw at them.  The ability to take this kind of punishment will be needed more often in the weeks ahead.  This is something that maybe they were lacking last year.  The fitness was there, but the physical conditioning is at a new level this year.  The fitness this year unbelievable – the pace at which backs were able to break forward and get into scoring positions was perhaps the key difference between the two teams with backs (I count Mark McHugh as a back!) contributing 1-4 to Donegal’s total and there should have been more with Anthony Thompson wasting a glorious chance for a goal in the first half.  How’s that for defensive football?

One thing is becoming more and more evident to me – this is a special team with a very special manager.  Peter Canavan spoke on Sunday about how well managed they are – not just on the pitch but in how the players conduct themselves off the pitch – everything was ‘just right’ as he put it – right down to Michael Murphy’s speech.  I’ve noticed the same myself.  Even though the Derry game was the most facile of victories, there was no showboating, no baiting of the opposition.  It was a similar case on Sunday.  Donegal were respectful and modest in the aftermath.  Forgive me if I sound effusive.  I’ve seen and heard of plenty of wild celebrations on the back of modest victories and goading of the opposition on days when we had won nothing.  There’s no shame in winning with good grace.

Winning Ulster titles back to back and from the preliminary rounds in both years (Donegal are now unbeaten in eight games in Ulster) is historic, but the players realise that the Tyrone and Armagh teams of the past decade are the benchmark.  When you look at the Donegal squad profiles and survey the landscape in Ulster, you realise that there could and should be more days like Sunday if this panel stays intact and can bring the same level of intensity and fitness in future years.   I certainly don’t think supporters would get tired of that feeling any time soon.

I’ve heard the question a lot in the past few days.  Can Donegal win the All-Ireland?  Players and management were asked it in the immediate aftermath of the game on Sunday.  They said all the right things – their focus is on the next game but yes, they believe. With pundits, it’s very much a mixed bag.  It’s a question I’m not going to worry about for the moment – I’m going to enjoy where this team is at right now.   There will be plenty of time to think about September after the August Bank Holiday.

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Down with the Favourites Tag

So 12 months later, Donegal are back in the Ulster Final. They won’t take anyone by surprise this time, at odds of 1/4.  Some of the hype has died down in the media after a harder than expected fought semi-final win against Tyrone, but the consensus is that Donegal are among the favourites for the All-Ireland.

Unlike last year, when I felt apprehensive, I’m feeling confident this year. Maybe not 1/4 confident, but it would nearly be as bad as Antrim 2010 if we lose on the 22nd.  Nonetheless, witness the Connaught Final just gone – Mayo were similarly favoured yet Sligo pushed them hard and Sligo are probably not as good as Down (that may be a huge understatement).

Down are two years removed from a very narrow defeat in an All Ireland Final, which they reached through the qualifiers, after beating Donegal in the first round in Ulster in Ballybofey.  Of course back then they had the services of Martin Clarke, and as Dara O’Se wrote recently, Cork were probably a ‘point a man’ better than Down in that final.  12 months later, Down were back in Croke Park for a Round 4 Qualifier to take on Cork, but it was a much different story as they conceded 2-20 – a score not too dissimilar to that suffered by Donegal in 2009.  It’s fair to say that since that coming so close to winning it all, Down have hardly set the world on fire since.

I travelled to Newry in February to watch Donegal take on Down in the opening league game.  It was a disappointing night in that we lost the game, but in truth, it could very easily have ended in a draw.  Down that night moved the ball quickly and the speed of their forwards was impressive.  Donegal looked out of sorts and were missing both Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden.  Paul Durcan was taking some of the frees, with no success.  So, like much of the rest of the league, it was hard to take much from the game.  Down of course went on to the semi-finals, where they were well beaten by Cork.

It’s hard to know how Down made it past Monaghan in the Ulster Semi-Final, but you have to admire their spirit.  They were reeling with around five minutes to go in the first half, but a penalty kept them in touch.  Then, late in the game, they conceded a cheap goal that had as much to do with poor refereeing than any Down weakness, but again, they rallied, and reeled off a succession of points to win by the narrowest of margins.  Of course if Armagh apologist Dick Clerkin had managed to take his chance to tie the game late on, who knows what might have happened next.

No doubt Down have in theory come through the easier side of the draw, but in truth, Donegal’s game against Derry may as well have been a challenge match. Cavan/Fermanagh are of a similar standard (witness the recent qualifier result between the two sides), but it’s fair to say that Tyrone presented a sterner challenge than Monaghan.  But both teams were tested in similar ways – Donegal came from behind and held their lead whereas Down had to repeat the feat twice.

The Qualifier results at the weekend tell us a bit more I suppose.  Tyrone were impressive albeit against a poor Roscommon.  Coming away from the game I couldn’t help but think ‘yeah, Donegal would beat them if we met again’ – and I really believe that the last five minutes of the Ulster Semi-Final were somehow mismanaged – it shouldn’t have needed to come to Durcan having to make the save he did.  On Sunday afternoon, Laois took care of Monaghan handily enough, which doesn’t really paint Down in a better light. Cavan were taken to school by Kildare – they were never in the game.  Donegal never looked as comfortable in the preliminary round game, but in truth, those sort of beatings aren’t really Donegal’s modus operandi and all we had to do was win that game – Kildare very much needed to prove a point against Cavan.  Conclusion?  None really.  If Tyrone beat Kerry on Saturday evening that will really give some further credence to Donegal’s ‘Top Three’ status.  Until then, I’m not sure that we can read too much into the weekend’s results in how they relate to Donegal.

Watching  Laochra Gael during the week, I was transported back to what I saw as the ‘Golden Age’ of Ulster Football in my lifetime – the early 90s when Down made the breakthrough for the first time since the 60s.  Dara O’Cinneide spoke of Down’s ‘tradition’ and Ross Carr talked of their lack of fear in the All Ireland series.  If the current team can harness some of that (and with James McCartan in charge they have a link to those glory days) then it counts for something.

It’s hard to know who should want this game more. Down are without an Ulster title since 1994 and haven’t even been to the final since 2003.  Donegal of course are the reigning champions, but are surely desperate to do what no Donegal team has done before and retain their title.  And, as Neil McGee pointed out in a recent interview, what Donegal accomplished last year pales into insignificance when compared with the achievements of Tyrone and Armagh over the past decade (five and seven Ulster titles respectively).  Last year was great – 20 years is a long time to wait, but that has only whetted the appetite for more success.  Being talked about as one of the top three teams in the Country is well and good, but failing to win on Sunday could quickly dampen that sort of talk.

So much can change so quickly. For much of the season, Donegal’s most consistent, if not ‘best’ player, was Neil Gallagher.  The Sunday after the semi-final win, Neil was taken off after less than five minutes of a club game with a worrying ankle injury.  His status for the Ulster Final was confirmed last Thursday night as Jim McGuinness announced that he would not be available.  This is a timely reminder that a successful season rests on the fitness and availability of many of our starting 15 – our squad isn’t that deep, and we have no-one else (that I have seen play) with the fielding ability of Neil, not to mention that he has been one of our most consistent players all season.  Such can be the fine lines between success and failure at the highest level.

Donegal’s team more or less ‘picks itself’ I guess.  The question is who will replace Neil Gallagher?  Martin McElhinney would be a direct replacement, but given the form of Leo McLoone, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him come into the ‘forward’ line and see Ryan Bradley ‘move back’ into midfield.  The other possibility I guess is that Christy Toye would come in for Neil, but given his lack of playing time lately that is hard to see.

Anyway, there’s hardly any earth-shattering stuff in the above.  I’m not sure we’ll learn too much more about Donegal after Sunday – unless they lose of course. I expect a win by perhaps 4 points or more.  I’ll sign off with something I heard last week – it’s not new as far as I can tell, but it struck a chord:  Hard work beats talent. When talent fails to work hard.

The Grind

‘Grim efficiency’ was how @tommymartin77 described it.  Hard to argue with that. Martin McHugh commented on the intensity in the 1st half as told to him by Paddy McBrearty.  The level of intensity was pretty evident from being there.   This is unfamiliar territory for Donegal – generally the intensity was pretty one-sided last year (although I didn’t see the Kildare game in person, so can’t say if that was similar to Saturday) – Donegal were the ones who brought it.  On Saturday, we came up against a good team that was willing to play us at our own game for long stretches of the game.  Of course, part of the reason Donegal are successful is there physical conditioning and fitness – you can try and match the style, but executing it for 70 minutes is not for the faint hearted.  Tyrone seemed to flag in the 2nd half, allowing Donegal to take control and see out the game.

Before the game, there was a lot of talk in the media that Donegal had added an attacking dimension to their game that was not present last year.  Was this new approach (average of 19 points in previous 2 Championship games) evident on Saturday afternoon?

My fears about our scoring were somewhat realised against Tyrone. 12 points (and not many wides – 6 in total and only 2 in the 2nd half) is a fairly low return for Championship football.  Now, let me caveat that.  Firstly, Tyrone played very deep in the 1st half (this isn’t a criticism of Tyrone – they are entitled to employ whatever tactics they desire) which made it hard for Donegal – ball carriers ran into a lot of cul de sacs and there were quite a few turnovers.  I don’t know if we’ll see any more good teams employ a similar tactic against us this year.  Donegal adjusted to this after the break, even though our scoring was only marginally better (7 points in the 1st half vs 5 points in the 1st), but they moved the ball quicker and had more support runners ready to shoot.

Secondly, as long as we outscore the other team, what’s the problem?  In theory, there isn’t one.  12 points would have been more than enough to win last year’s All-Ireland Semi-Final.  The question is, can we defend as well if we have to take more chances?  I don’t think we can suddenly become a better attacking team without sacrificing some of our defensive strength.  So far, Jim McGuinness has done a great job at finding the right balance – I still feel he got it wrong in last year’s All-Ireland Semi-Final, but it was a very marginal thing.  As the quality of the opposition increases, so does that task. 

As I said during the game and as I’ve heard since, the game this year was quite similar to last years – Tyrone were on top for large stretches of the 1st half, but Donegal stayed in touch and were the better team in the 2nd half. Aside from the relatively low score for Donegal, the other thing that would concern me was the goal scoring opportunities created on both sides – I made it 3-0 in favour of Tyrone.  Now, maybe that’s a sign of Donegal’s development – last year we scored 2-06 (8 scores) – relying on goals to get us over the line – and I don’t recall too many wides. This year we had 12 scores and managed to keep Tyrone to 10 points (vs 9 last year).  Ok, the whole ‘number of scores’ view is a bit weak – the highest score wins games regardless of whether that comes from goals or points etc. But maybe it was a more assured win this year (despite late save from Durcan required to prevent Penrose goal)? 

According to the match report filed on gaa.ie Donegal kept Tyrone scoreless for 32 minutes on Saturday.   That’s impressive.  But by the same measure, Armagh didn’t score for 26 minutes in the 2nd half against Roscommon. So was this a great defensive display or a sign of poor opposition?  The truth lies somewhere in the middle I reckon.  Tyrone are far from a poor team, but you have to question the standard of any team that goes nearly a whole half of football without scoring.

Donegal didn’t score from the 63rd minute (after McFadden’s terrific point). There was still 10 minutes left in the game at the stage (there was 3 minutes of added time).  Donegal were 3 points ahead when Paul Durcan made an outstanding save from Martin Penrose’s well struck shot, so there’s no telling how the game would have gone if Tyrone had levelled that late on.

One thing that bothered me from browsing some stats in Monday’s Irish Times was that Donegal conceded 26 frees – twice as much as Tyrone in fact.  Only one team conceded more frees this past weekend – Armagh.  It would be hypocritical of me to ignore this given my views on the cynical nature of Armagh football over the years – I hope that it’s not going to become the norm for Donegal.  There’s a difference (to me) between defensive tactics and cynical tactics – I have no problem with the former, but don’t approve of the latter.

In short, it was a very good win, and the manner of it will have done us a power of good as neither Cavan or Derry provided anything like the sort of challenge we got from Tyrone. In addition, some of the hype and hot air might die down for a few weeks, no harm as we prepare to do what no Donegal team has done before and retain the Ulster Senior Football title.

And finally, the more I see of him, the more I’m convinced that Patrick McBrearty won’t be the scoring forward I had hoped, but he is a very good footballer.  As Oisin McConville says here,  he rarely takes the wrong option.  In addition, he’s a very unselfish player.  How about him as our playmaking half forward and leave Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden inside where they both can do the most damage?