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.


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