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.


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