Archive for August, 2012

Too Fast, Too Furious

Yesterday was the greatest day I have ever had as a Donegal supporter.  I was a bit young to really appreciate our success in 1992 (I remember more about the Semi-Final in 1992, even though I was at the Final as well) and hadn’t yet endured the sort of lows and despair I have experienced following this team since.  Yesterday, all those memories were consigned to history as Donegal dominated a team widely regarded as the best on in the Country.  The scoreboard showed us winning by two points, but it felt as if it could have been 20.

I said last night that this was going to be one of the hardest pieces I have ever had to write.  Why?  Because I’m struggling to find words to convey what a colossal performance we saw at Croke Park yesterday.

Make no mistake about it – what we saw yesterday was the culmination of a training regimen the ferocity of which I can’t even begin to imagine.  But it also reinforced the belief these players have in their manager and what he asks of them.  How else do you account for what we saw in the second half yesterday?  Keep in mind; this was against the favourites for the All Ireland title, not some Division 4 team or a formerly great team regarded as past their best.    Cork were hanging in there up to half time, but once that explosion of effort came in the second half, they couldn’t live with what Donegal threw at them.  Not only that, Donegal dominated at midfield (who saw that coming?) and had nine different scorers.  It was Eoghan McMonagle who threw the phrase ‘Total Football’ at me after the Ulster Final, and if that wasn’t its embodiment yesterday, I don’t know what is.

I’m not going to analyse the performance too much, but here are some interesting points that actually tie quite well with my preview.  Donegal only conceded one free within scoring range and Cork did not score from the placed ball all day.  They did not fall into the trap I feared where Cork’s marksmen would do for us.  We didn’t concede a goal until it didn’t matter (and despite how it seemed from the TV coverage, it sure looked like Eamonn McGee was fouled in the lead up to Colm O’Neill’s late goal), but of course people are pointing to the shot that hit the bar, suggesting that the game might have taken a different course had it gone in.  Donegal still led by a point at that stage – who’s to say we wouldn’t have got the next score?  Does anyone reading really believe that this team would panic?  That they would veer of the course that their manager has plotted for them?  Or indeed, that their vastly superior fitness and work rate wouldn’t see them through.  Those are pretty much indisputable facts at this stage.  Donegal will outrun, outfight and outwork anyone.  The only issue that denied us a Final appearance last year is that we were outscored!  But more on that at a later date.

There were so many good performances yesterday.  Right now, regardless of what else happens, Frank McGlynn, Karl Lacey, Mark McHugh and Colm McFadden will be All Stars – yesterday only served to confirm that.  Who knows how many more will be rewarded if we take the final step?  Karly Lacey may well be Footballer of the Year, a title that he deserves for not only his displays this year, but over many years, where he was a great player in a very average team.

At the end of the game, Lacey was presented with a by County Chairman PJ McGowan after playing his 100th game for the County.  Out of those 100, I don’t know if he’s ever played a bad game.  Later on that night, we learned that Glenswilly man Neil Gallagher had been named man of the match. Neil was the first player from the ‘Wee Club’ to play for the County and captained Donegal to our Division 1 League title in 2007 – sometimes easy to forget, but important to remember.  His display was awesome yesterday and he’s been playing the best football of his career in the past few months.  Karl and Neil have been there through the merely good and the very bad days.  Fitting that both are now part of what could be the greatest period in Donegal’s football history.  To fully appreciate the present, you need some understanding of the past.

Whatever else happens this year, take the time to treasure what we saw yesterday.  Enjoy each and every victory.  There will be plenty of time for looking forward in the weeks ahead.

Until Victory, Always.

The Red Menace

Three years ago, I looked ahead to the All-Ireland Quarter Final tie against Cork with a sense of trepidation.   Eight of the Donegal team that will likely start on Sunday started that day.  For Cork, as many as 13 of the 2009 team could start.  I feel better about our chances on Sunday, but I have an uneasy feeling about the outcome.  Cork are 8/13 favourites with the handicap set at one point – I can’t really argue with those odds.  2006 was heartbreak.  2009 was humiliation.   I suspect that the result in 2012 might resemble the former more than the latter.

But much has changed since 2009.  Cork’s half back line, which was rampant in 2009, are now all over 30 years of age.  Their experience, especially that of Graham Canty, will be important, but how effective will they be against what is probably the fittest team in Ireland?  Nicholas Murphy is 34 and is named to start.  Pearse O’Neill is 31 and will likely feature at some stage.  It’s unlikely that Donegal will field anyone over 30 years of age.  Age ain’t nothing but a number, but I’ve felt for a while that youth counts for a lot in the modern game.

People will say, and I will agree, that Donegal now are light years away from the team that took the field three years ago.  But Cork have kicked on themselves.  In 2009, Kerry were too cute for them in the Final.  In 2010, they reached the Promised Land, and despite the narrow victory, I would tend to agree with Darragh O’Se when he said that Cork were probably a point a man better than Down but didn’t prove it on the day.   Last year, they went out with barely a whimper to Mayo at the Quarter-Final stage.  But injuries decimated their forward line and in any case, it’s hard to win back to back All-Ireland Football titles these days.  Make no mistake about it, this will be the hardest test we have faced in the past two seasons.  And to pick up on O’Se’s main point, don’t doubt Cork’s willingness to engage in the type of cynical football that will rival anything popular opinion would have you believe is exclusively the trademark of Ulster teams.

Both teams have faced a common foe in Kerry in Championship action.  In both cases, Cork and Donegal were worthy of victory, and the circumstances were somewhat similar – Kerry had to face Cork without Brian Sheehan and lost him at a key stage in the game to Donegal.  Cork’s manner and margin of victory was more comfortable than that enjoyed by Donegal, but they looked more open at the back and more likely to concede a goal.  Other than for 10-15 minutes against Kildare, Cork haven’t been tested outside of their Munster Semi-Final clash.  Any of the teams Donegal have faced are far superior to Clare and it’s hard to say if Kildare are better than Down or Tyrone.  Donegal come into this game more battle hardened for sure.

Cork scored one point from play in the first half against Kildare but still ended the half with 2-5. They have an array of place kickers and can hit the placed ball from near or far, left or right.  Donegal will need to be disciplined in the tackle and referee David Coldrick fair in his interpretation of the rules.  Donegal cannot afford to let Cork build a lead through frees and will need to watch for early goals – Cork had a fair degree of luck with both goals against Kildare, but when presented with good fortune they seized those chances with the sort of clinical opportunism that is characteristic of winners.

There’s a lot written in this piece by Chris McNulty that I agree with, especially his views on the easy ride Cork had against Kildare.  The loss of a man hurt Kildare for sure, but in reality Cork had the game won before Eoin Doyle saw red.   Watch for Cork to go for goals early.  Stop the goals, keep kickable frees (anything inside 50 yards) to a minimum and contain the rampaging of their half backs and Aidan Walsh and you have a fighting chance.  Donegal are well set up to defend against the goal threat at least, with Kieran Donaghy’s mildly controversial effort the last time out the only goal we have conceded in open play this summer.  Ryan Bradley will need to work had to curb the influence of Aidan Walsh who has become a real tyro for Cork.  No better man.

There is a real danger that Cork’s high fielding ability could see Donegal wiped out at midfield.  Joe Brolly would argue that this doesn’t matter, and it has been mooted elsewhere that like last year against Dublin, Donegal will be happy to let Cork win their own kick outs, but I disagree.  You might be able to afford to cede primary possession to lesser teams, but you cannot grant it to superior outfits such as Cork.  The fitness and performance of Neil Gallagher will be crucial, but so will Paul Durcan’s ability to hit the likes of Michael Murphy and his half backs from quick kick-outs.  Also, Alan Quirke showed enough carelessness in the opening exchanges against Kildare to suggest that it will be worth keeping an eye on the short kick outs as well as going toe-to-toe at midfield.

Twice in the space of a few hours today I’ve heard/read that Cork can beat Donegal by targeting key individuals – Karl Lacey, Michael Murphy and Mark McHugh were mentioned by both Darragh O’Se on Newstalk (via podcast) and Declan Darcy (in conversation with Sean Moran) in the Irish Times.  That would be interesting as while I don’t disagree that any of these three are very important to Donegal, it has been Frank McGlynn, Ryan Bradley and (at times) Paddy McBrearty who have starred for Donegal this year.  There is a widely held belief (that I don’t subscribe to) that Donegal’s system is greater than the sum of its parts.  That’s a something of an insult to our players, but I doubt they mind, as this interview with Michael Murphy gives some insight into the thinking of the Donegal players – sacrifices are being made for the greater good.  While there’s no doubting that the loss of Karl Lacey in last year’s Semi-Final was of huge significance to the final outcome, I have seen enough this year to believe that we have 20 players that are capable of great things.  Of course, one of Cork’s strengths is their depth – Dara O’Cinneide writing in today’s Irish Examiner feeling that this will be their telling advantage.  We can’t both be right!

And speaking of Michael Murphy, wouldn’t Sunday be the ideal time to see a return to the form we’ve seen in the past?  He had the ball in the net after 12 seconds against Cork in March and was impressive in a losing cause in 2009.  A recent club outing against Gweedore hinted at a return to the sort of scoring form we have come to expect.  It’s great to think we can win without him scoring 1-5 or whatever, but the thoughts of a dominant performance from our Captain sends a frisson of excitement round the County.

One thing is for sure – Donegal support will outnumber Cork by perhaps four to one on Sunday.  It’s to the Cork footballers credit that they don’t seem to rely on their support to get them over the line when times are tough, but hopefully the Donegal faithful can be the 16th man on Sunday.  I don’t know anyone who’s missing the game – what a day it could be if we win.  One of the most galling things about 2006 was that most of their supporters were more concerned about the outcome of the hurling the following day rather than beating Donegal.

When all is said and done, while you can make the case for Donegal, Cork are rightfully favourites for this game and for the All-Ireland itself.  I have a feeling that we might have to taste more heartbreak before attaining the ultimate prize – in a way I hope that it’s not in the same fashion as 2006 if we are to lose.

Who am I kidding.  Unlike 2009, there is no sense of illusion with this Donegal team.  They are what their results say they are.   They are here in an All-Ireland Semi-Final for a second consecutive year on merit.

Come on Donegal. We can win this too.

Kerry Made to Look Ordinary

To be the best, you have to beat the best.  Are Kerry still the best?  No, almost certainly not.  But they have been one of the best in the recent past, are perhaps the best of all time, and are still likely in the top five or six teams in the Country.  Last Sunday’s result was another huge step for this Donegal team in their quest to be the best.

Yes, Donegal had their share of luck on Sunday.  We managed to have everyone fit or largely fit and also scored a fortunate goal.  Them’s the breaks.  It’s not like we were rolling around in four leaf clover.  Any objective pundit has written that Donegal were the better team and any result other than a Donegal win would have been a travesty of sorts.   In saying that, this was a hard game to analyse after watching it again this morning.  Donegal played well, but the feeling at the end was as much of relief as it was of joy.

There was definitely a degree of white line fever on show in the last ten minutes.  Not surprising really, Kerry are one of the giants of the game and Donegal became only the fifth team to beat them in their first Championship meeting.  Much like the Tyrone game earlier this year, the victory should have been more comfortable.  But it was Donegal who kicked the last score, and I’ll bet there was more wind in those sails if it was needed.  Donegal are a team still largely about economy of effort.  It would have been nice to beat Kerry by 10 points, but I’ll settle for two.

Down have largely been written off as a poor team after their display in the Ulster Final, but fact is that they managed the same score against Donegal as Kerry managed on Sunday.  Are analysts/critics now going to write off Donegal’s victory on the basis that Kerry are no good?  Some might.  The test the next time out will likely be harder still, but I’m not going to dwell on that now.  Donegal had the hardest tie of all the provincial champions in the quarter-finals and have come through – maybe not as impressively as Cork or Mayo, but that’s fine.

Kerry might have kicked some bad wides, but don’t underestimate the amount of pressure that was being out on them as they went to kick.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many attempted blocked shots.  Yet again, it was a defensive masterpiece – and this was due in no small measure to the tenacity of tackling and ability to win turnovers rather than just getting men behind the ball.  That sometimes gets lost in the analysis when people choose to focus on what they perceive to be the main reasons for Donegal’s success.  Thankfully, our defenders got the recognition they deserved when last year’s All-Stars were announced.  It’s not just the system folks. We are not a ‘manufactured team’.  To hell with anyone who would say so.

But in saying that, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that when Donegal built leads on Sunday, rather than kick on as they did against Down in the Ulster Final, they withdrew and invited Kerry on to them.  It’s a risky tactic, as we saw in the All-Ireland Semi-Final last year.  You have to admire their composure in holding their nerve, something that was alien to this team in the past, but we finished last season saying to ourselves that we would need to develop from here if we were to make the next step.  Our sweeping attacks from deep are welcome evidence that there has been some development this year, but to me, the overall approach is still largely the same.

Sunday was yet another indication that this team has the ability to think on their feet. The goal came about from a quickly taken sideline ball (similar to the quickly taken Ryan Bradley free to set up Leo McLoone against Down) and while it had a touch of luck about it, make no mistake that Colm McFadden’s intention was to set up Michael Murphy for a goal attempt.  There was a degree of fortune in the final result, but the intention was clear.  This is something that I didn’t notice last year (if it was present at all), and it certainly wasn’t a feature of Donegal teams in the past.  Great to see as this sort of trait is one of things that separates great from good, or at the very least, success from failure.

Sad to say it, but the more I see, the more Michael Murphy this year it doesn’t seem to look like he’s capable of scaling the heights of recent years.  His presence is still a positive without a doubt due to the attention he attracts from opposition defenders (and to be fair he was the ‘nuisance factor’ in the Donegal goal last weekend).  His point from play after seven minutes was the sort of thing we really need to see more of in the weeks ahead.  His missed frees at the end of the first half and after 55 minutes were especially worrying – those are the sort of chances we cannot afford to miss (well, as it turns out we could afford to miss on Sunday, but I hope you know what I mean).  If you wanted to be kind, you could say that Aidan O’Mahony played him very well, but as each game passes I grow more concerned.  I’m not being critical; I’m just calling it as I see it at this stage.

There were many fine performances and while it was hard to single any one player out, I can’t argue with McFadden for man of the match. This is the same guy I was calling for to be dropped at the start of the year. What do I know? Even if Donegal don’t make the All Ireland final he might win an All Star.  Yet another example of the sea change in the attitude an application of these players in the past 2 years.  Players of course get the credit for what happens on the pitch, but again, it’s the management that has been the agent for change.  I’ll criticise when they get things wrong, so I’ll continue to praise where I see evidence of good things.

As one of my colleagues said today, there’s just the right amount of doubt in the media about how far this team can go to keep them grounded ahead of the semi-final.  Although all this may do is annoy supporters – there has never been any sense at any stage that this team is anything other than grounded.  Contrast the Donegal players and management’s reaction after the final whistle on Sunday with that which we saw from Kerry after the Tyrone game.  This was a big win for Donegal, but it was only a quarter-final.  We’ve been here before.

Like last year’s Quarter-Final, Christy Toye came on and had an immediate impact.  Christy is one of the guys who was there for many of the bad days.  It’s great to see him contributing during the good times.  All the changes worked very well on Sunday – and so did the non-changes.  Based on what I (and others I think) saw in the first half, I would have given Rory Kavanagh the hook at half-time or early in the second half.  But, Rory stayed on, grew into the game and was the man who won the crucial possession that led to the game clinching score for Karl Lacey, as well as making several other valuable contributions.  Easy knowing why I’m not the manager.

Keys to the Kingdom

This is probably the most apprehensive I’ve been since last year’s All-Ireland Semi-Final.  The sense of expectation is heightened but Donegal start as underdogs for the first time in this year’s Championship.  They haven’t got it wrong as far as Donegal are concerned so far this year.  There’s a first time for everything I guess, but I really don’t know what outcome to expect this time around (I’ve predicted a Donegal win in every Championship game so far this year – not that I’m claiming to be Nostradmus).

Not to dwell too much on it after my gushing praise last week, but this excellent piece from Chris McNulty gives some insight into the unity of purpose in the Donegal camp.  That sense of unity will be fully tested on Sunday when Donegal will have to do more than just contain the opposition, which is essentially all they tried to do in their last Championship visit to CrokePark.  Much has been written about that game, and much has been written since about how Donegal have changed their approach in the meantime.  This game will undoubtedly be the acid test of whether or not Donegal have mastered the art of ‘Total Football’ enough to defeat one of the giants of the game.

Much has been made of the Kerry result/performance v Tyrone and Donegal’s performance against the same opposition in the Ulster Semi-Final.  Perhaps Jim McGuinness had his side playing cagey against Tyrone first time out as there was always a chance we’d run into them again later in the competition (if they had beaten Kerry, they could well have found themselves drawn against Donegal on Saturday evening).  Equally, will Kerry be in a position to summon the same kind of passion and energy they showed against Tyrone for a game against a side where they have no history of bitter Championship memories? (Indeed they have no Championship history of any sort against Donegal, but their record against sides they have never faced in the Championship before is pretty impressive, with only Dublin and Cork in the 1890s and Down and Derry in the 50/60s have beaten them in a first Championship meeting).  In the same way, Tyrone played at a very high level against Donegal in the Ulster Semi-Final – an intensity they couldn’t maintain or summon again.  In truth, I feel that Donegal were more comfortable in that win over Tyrone than the scoreline suggested.  So, while I wouldn’t disregard each County’s respective performance against Tyrone, but it’s far from the deciding factor as to who will actually win on Sunday.

Does anyone think perhaps that Donegal are finding ways to win without Michael Murphy as a tactic?  He was double marked for much of the Ulster Final (but still assisted for Frank McGlynn’s goal as well as two more points).  Much is being made of Michael’s lack of scoring – some people forget that he is not that long removed from surgery and hasn’t played a game of club football all year.  I’m not worried, but I feel that Sunday would be an ideal time for Michael to step up and become the pivotal point of the attack again.  At the same time, it’s not important who gets the scores; all that matters is that we score enough to win.

Two key tactical questions I feel Donegal may have to deal with on Sunday are the following:

  • Kerry pushed Killian Young onto Peter Harte to limit his effectiveness as a deep lying playmaker – will Kerry do similar to Mark McHugh?  Not only has McHugh been outstanding as a playmaker, he’s also been chipping in with scores.  If he is nullified, Donegal will need to find an alternative outlet from the back.  Karl Lacey would be the obvious choice I suppose, but you can see him being used as more of a man marker on Sunday.
  • Will Kerry allow Donegal’s backs to break forward as they did against Down?  If you remember watching Armagh in the past, you will recall they had ways of dealing with runners off the ball.  If anyone watched Laois beat Meath at the weekend, they will have seen similar tactics employed.  Long touted as exponents of the ‘beautiful game’ Kerry have shown that they are not above such

As I recall, the game in Killarney went something like this. Donegal stayed in touch for around 20 minutes but as the frees started to mount, Bryan Sheahan built a Kerry lead.  Then we had the first goal, and it was essentially game over. Donegal cannot afford to give away too many frees inside 40 yards on Sunday.  The final score from Killarney in March was 2-16 to 1-08 – Dublin also scored 2-16 against Donegal in the League, but much of the damage was done late in the game whereas Kerry started slowly and then it was largely one-way traffic when they got on top. It’s hard to see Donegal winning if they concede a similar score on Sunday.

Kerry scored 12 points in their Munster Championship defeat to Cork.  That’s the sort of score that Donegal could hold them to on Sunday.  However, two caveats.  Firstly, Bryan sheahan was missing from the team that day in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.  Sheahan scored 1-7 from placed balls against Donegal in the League earlier this year.  Secondly, Kerry spurned several good goal chances in that game.  In short, the score might easily have approached 2-16, which was the same total Kerry ended up with against Donegal in the League.   Of course, that was ‘only’ a league game, but the facts are that Donegal fielded a full strength team in Killarney whereas Kerry started without Gooch and Tomas O’Se yet ran out easy winners.

Here’s a quote from Jack O’Connor (taken from an Irish Examiner match report) that I thought was interesting:

“No matter how much you get bodies back, with a bit of clever rotation of the ball you can always get men free. We worked very hard and spoke a lot about that this week, about being clever on the ball and shipping the ball to the support runner,” O’Connor said. “Moving the ball quick is vital in a game like this, if you start soloing the ball into tackles and losing the ball, obviously that’s playing into their strengths. Our use of the ball was clever today.”

I don’t disagree with the point he’s making, but he does sound rather smug doesn’t he?  I would hope that Jim McGuinness will have an answer for Jack on Sunday – at the very least I would expect a different approach to that which we saw in last year’s All-Ireland Semi-Final.  But I’ll be happy if we win, regardless of how we do it.  Indeed eight points to six in our favour would do just fine.

Against Down, Patrick McBrearty, Michael Murphy and Anthony Thompson were all guilty of the sorts of misses that could be the difference in a tight game.  We cannot afford this kind of waste on Sunday.  Teams like Kerry that are habitually successful thrive on the inability of inferior opposition to make the most of their chances.  If Donegal wish to demonstrate superiority, they need to be clinical.

Down got through the Donegal defence more than once – on another day, they could have scored 2 goals.  Indeed, the same could be said of the Ulster Semi-Final when Tyrone had goal chances but did not convert.  To attribute Donegal’s amazing record (2 goals conceded in 10 Championship games) merely to outstanding defending and a defensive system would be folly – Donegal have had their share of good fortune too.  Witness Tomas O’Connor’s incorrectly disallowed goal in last year’s Quarter-Final and Cavan hitting the woodwork early on in this year’s Preliminary Round.  This isn’t to suggest that Donegal are riding their luck, but the odds are increasing that they will concede goals at some point in this year’s Championship.  Let us hope they do not come at the wrong time.

As I was walking around the Streets of London this week, I thought a lot about the upcoming game with Kerry and how glad I am to be able to be there.  I don’t approve of this ‘Nothing Beats Being There’ shite, which is just a marketing slogan, but there is some truth in it.  I really hope that we get as much support as possible in CrokePark this weekend.  Jim McGuinness has given us hope and a team we can be very proud of.  Hopefully the people of Donegal show their support in a way this team deserves on Sunday.