Archive for September, 2012

It’s Close

I write this after too many beers, but what the hell.  Today’s the day.  An All-Ireland title is within touching distance for the first time in 20 years.  All talk of tickets, levies and homecomings will cease.  Some of us will drink and have the craic, others will hit the road early and head straight to their seat.  Either way, come 3.30pm today, most of us who care about this team will be getting ready to roar on Neil Gallagher as he reaches for the throw-in.

It’s been a long journey. Last year gave us renewed hope for sure, but only a few saw us in this position one year on from that (in)famous Semi-Final last year.  I’ll be honest and tell you that I was in the majority – I thought we would be found out or exposed along the way.

But momentum has built. For a few different reasons, I feared Cavan, and what might happen if we had to go through the qualifiers. How wrong I was.  I never fear Derry, but the ease of our victory was a surprise.  I think that was the day I started to believe.

Facing Ulster Royalty is never easy, and so it proved against Tyrone.  How different our season might have turned out had Paul Durcan not saved Martin Penrose’s late shot on goal.  Whatever – we were by far the better team on the day.

And then Down.  Total football.  The belief grew.  Sure Down weren’t very good, but it was an impressive display. Since when are Ulster titles easy won?  This one was no different.  An awesome second half display, which was televised, had pundits beginning to fawn over us.  It was the beginning of the end.

The Quarter-Final was all about the result and not the performance.  Beating Kerry was about more than just winning a game.  A statement was made, and this time in Croke Park.

And on to the Semi-Final.  My proudest day as a Donegal supporter.  And many others beside me or so I’ve been told.  I said afterwards that when we play like that, no team will beat us. We’re not unbeatable in case you’re wondering – I am assuming no team makes a quantum leap in their fitness, intensity and execution than Donegal, so for this year, we are unbeatable.

Here we are today. Getting ready for our first All-Ireland Final in 20 years.  The feeling is unbelievable – I never want it to end.  I’m weary of talk of hype but uplifted by the sights and sounds from Donegal these past few weeks.  We don’t often get the chance, why wouldn’t we go overboard during the build-up?

I want to thank each and every one of you who read and retweeted my blog posts this year.  I’d write this stuff no matter if nobody read it, but I’m very grateful to those of you who do.

I hope we do it today.  It’s not the end of the world if we don’t, but the opportunity is there.  Take nothing for granted.  Hopefully our players leave nothing behind.  There’s no reason to believe they would, but Finals make mighty men meek.  Not that this group of players will suffer from such an affliction.

Until Victory, Always.

Contain, Control, Conquer. How the All-Ireland will be Won.

I’ll come right out and say it. If Donegal play as well as they did against Cork we will win the All-Ireland on Sunday.  Of course, we’ll need a bit of luck as well, but I said after the Cork game that no team would beat us if we show that kind of form again.  But I’m taking nothing for granted.

I’m pretty sure Donegal’s template for victory will be similar to that we’ve come to expect.  The pattern has been largely similar – playing largely even for the first half, establishing dominance early in the second and then seeing out the game with their vastly superior fitness.  We’ve seen two caveats to that this summer.  Firstly, Donegal got a ‘surprising’ early lead against Kerry, thanks largely to a somewhat fortunate Colm McFadden goal.   They then retreated but Kerry was largely unable to punish them.  Secondly, we saw Mayo take a 10 point lead against All-Ireland Champions Dublin.  Donegal have not faced such a deficit in the past two summers and many analysts suggest that they would not handle it well, or at the least it would be interesting to see how they deal with it.

For years we’ve had supposed superstars who never quite lived up to their billing.  Nowadays we seem to have ordinary players doing extraordinary things.  I don’t believe that – we have plenty of very good players; we wouldn’t be in an All-Ireland Final if we didn’t.   With Andy Moran out, Donegal are likely to have the edge in terms of talent.  But Paddy McBrearty in particular needs to prove he can do it in Croke Park – after looking really good during the Ulster Championship, I’ve been a little disappointed in what I’ve seen from him in the quarter-final and semi-final.

I said after the Mayo Quarter-Final (when Andy Moran got injured) that while they would miss him, if they were a proper team, this incident would galvanise them and they would find a way to overcome his loss.  So it proved to be true – it didn’t seem like he was missed against Dublin.  But he will surely be missed against Donegal.  He’s a very talented and intelligent player – exactly the sort of player you’d want to see lining up against a team as well organised defensively as Donegal.  It’s a real shame we won’t see him grace an All-Ireland Final this year, but as a Donegal supporter, we’ll take all the breaks we can get, and make no mistake the loss of Moran is a huge break that has largely been forgotten about in the aftermath of Mayo’s win over Dublin.

Donegal had only one yellow card against Cork and conceded only one free within scoring range.  That’s quite extraordinary given the way they play the game.  In saying that, I felt that the game was refereed in a manner that suited Donegal, but not overly so.  A similar pattern in the Final would be most welcome.  I don’t recall every being too upset with Maurice Deegan, so I’m sure he will do just fine.  Against Dublin, Cillan O’Connor kicked seven points from placed balls, including three 45s, so Donegal will need to be wary of conceding 45s as well as frees.  Of course, both Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy showed that they too are well capable of long-range points from dead balls, but O’Connor is probably the most consistent free taker in the Country at the moment, save perhaps for Stephen Cluxton.

Donegal have beaten Tyrone, Kerry and Cork by two points.  Despite the quality of the opposition, the margin of victory is some cause for some concern.  A late goal in any of those games could have turned what looked like an emphatic victory into a heartbreaking defeat.  Against Tyrone, it almost seemed like Donegal lost focus.  Against Kerry, they played too conservatively once they had built up a lead.  Against Cork, they had a number of awful wides.  The goal was late, and came from some poor decision making from David Walsh, taking the ball into the tackle against three men, so was certainly avoidable.   Will they allow Mayo to be within a goal come the last few minutes?  Watching Seamus Darby’s late goal against Kerry in 1982 on Seo Spoirt tonight reminded me of possibly the most (in)famous occasion when a late goal did for heavy favourites.  Interestingly, that goal was scored by a Mayo man (in an Offaly jersey) or so I was just told….

In terms of ‘who they’ve played’ Donegal have by far the more impressive record in this year’s Championship.  If we ignore facile wins over Cavan, Derry and indeed Down, Donegal have still beaten Tyrone, Kerry and Cork.  Mayo have beaten Dublin and that’s about it.  Donegal have played tight games against quality opposition.  Mayo made heavy work of Sligo, who at the time I thought looked a tough team to beat, but Kildare pretty much put paid to that myth.  Of course, Sam Maguire is handed over to the winners on the day, so what has gone beforehand is slightly irrelevant, even if it does give us some feel for what might happen on the day.

Watching the Mayo v Dublin game, Mayo’s midfielders in particular were excellent.  Not so much in terms of their fielding, but in their work rate and defensive play.  Aidan O’Shea in particular had a big influence in the first half in sweeping up and turning over ball.  Alan Dillon was the other player I was really impressed with – a lovely footballer and well able to kick a score.  What I took away from that game after watching it for the first time tonight was that while Mayo played very well, the game got away from Dublin and Mayo built a lead that allowed them to foul at will and forced Dublin to panic and make some poor mistakes and kick some bad wides (something we’ve seen from them in the past).  If not for a great save from David Clarke with around five minutes to go, who knows what outcome we might have seen. Of course, Mayo had their own goal chances that might have put the game beyond reach.  They went nearly 22 minutes without scoring in the second half – a stat similar to Donegal in the first half against Kerry when we had built a lead.

It was a shame to see Ryan Bradley taken off so early against Cork, but the truth is, on some days the game just seems to pass him by.  He is not a good runner without the ball, so a mobile half back line will always cause him problems.  Midfield is probably his best position – he had his best game in the Ulster Final when Neil Gallagher was absent through injury.  But unless either Neil Gallagher or Rory Kavanagh sustain an injury, it’s highly unlikely that he will start there on Sunday. I would have seen the only selection dilemma would be whether to start him or David Walsh at half forward.  Well Donegal named their team today and Ryan Bradley is named to start, so maybe that answers my question.  Is Walsh perhaps suffering due to the late error against Cork?  Or was Bradley indeed carrying an injury as Rory Gallagher said today?  Bradley certainly seems to be a favourite of Jim’s, and I think that on balance his displays this year merit a start in the Final.  If he struggles however, Jim won’t be long making the change.  Martin McElhinney is likely to feature at some stage, and I’d love to see Christy Toye get a run.

As both the O’Se brothers have said, while you think you can prepare for Donegal, you have no idea what you’re really up against until you actually play them.  And this is a point I have been making for a while now – Donegal have been building up their intensity over a long period of time – since January at least – no team can bring themselves up to that level in a three week period.  In addition, I don’t care how intense the training sessions, Mayo cannot replicate what they will see from Donegal on the day.  The view of many after the Semi-Final was that Mayo were visibly tiring in the last 15 or so minutes.  If that is a fact, then they should be worried.  Donegal are a 70 + minute team – and the intensity from Donegal is likely to be twice as high in the last 10 minutes as it was in the opening 10 – whatever happened Mayo against Dublin, if they fade in a similar fashion again, Donegal will have far too much in the tank for them.

Reading Alan Foley’s wonderful piece on Mayo dads with Donegal sons in today’s Irish Examiner, Mick Murphy said one thing that I have been thinking and saying myself – the margins between winning and losing can be so fine.  I often think back to that night in Breffni Park over two years ago when Michael Murphy’s late late penalty hit the bar and Donegal lost the U-21 Final to Dublin.  That was the first time I’d seen a Jim McGuinness team play and I wasn’t that impressed, but little did I know that a fair number of the panel had been ill during the week.  If not for illness and woodwork, how different the result might have been.   Recall too Karl Lacey going off injured in last year’s Semi-Final and what that meant for the game- I think we’re better able to cope with such a loss this year, but I saw one bookmaker today saying that the odds would be very different if Lacey were not fit to start on Sunday.   So let’s hope that we can avoid injury or illness in the build up and on the day itself.

Dessie Dolan made a good point on the Sunday Game this week – echoing something I have been saying myself for a while.  It’s hard to know for how much longer the Donegal players can keep up this level of intensity in both their preparation and their performance – who knows what the cycle is.  They need to win an All-Ireland sooner or later or there is a chance that their motivation will fade. Now seems as good a time as any.

I’ll be there on Sunday.  Will you?

Until Victory, Always.

The Mind behind Mayo – Q&A with James Horan

After the recent Mayo GAA Press Night, Samsforthehills met with Mayo Manager James Horan away from the hacks and the hangers on for a real interview.

SFTH: James, the hype in Donegal has been something else.  Pretty much any village with a pub has been calling to host the homecoming.  How many sheep have been painted in Mayo?

JH: Well it’s the strangest thing; you’d swear we weren’t in a Final at all!  I have heard tales of some Nigel fella from Castlebar running around like a lunatic bleaching sheep and buying up all the copies of the Mayo News he can get his hands on.  But I’ve not met anyone who’s actually seen him.

SFTH: Mayo fans see you as a cross between Jack Bauer and the ‘Jed’ in Jedward.  How do you feel about that?

JH:  I’d say it’s about right.

SFTH: You won 2 All-Star awards back in the day – does this make you twice the man of Jim McGuinness?

JH:  Yes, of course, but I would have given at least one of them up if I could have had curls like Jim had back then.

SFTH: There have been rumours that Conor Mortimer was actually dropped from the squad because he was too fond of dropping the soap in the shower?  The other players weren’t tempted, but you felt it was becoming a distraction.

JH:  Well, I can’t really deny that.

SFTH: So to Andy Moran’s ‘injury’.  My sources tell me that Andy is actually ineligible to play for Mayo, being from Ballaghadereen in Roscommon.  The shame of a Roscommon man actually being the Mayo captain got too much for you and you ordered Ger Cafferky to hobble him?

JH: That’s a lie.  It was Colm Boyle who carried out my orders.

SFTH: What role do you see Ciarán McDonald playing on Sunday?

JH: We see him as the ideal man to track Neil Gallagher. He has the legs for it.

SFTH: Billy Joe Padden said he left Mayo to go to Armagh because you told him he just wasn’t cynical enough to play for your Mayo team.

JH: Yeah, we see ourselves as a cut above Armagh in that respect.

SFTH: Word on the streets of Westport is that you are thinking of bringing in Liam McHale as a Maor Uisce, allowing him to reprise his role as enforcer (if the need arises) that saw him sent off in the 1997 Final Replay.

JH: Well if Pat Shovlin steps out of line, we’ll take him down.  I’ll say no more than that for now.

SFTH: So James was your proudest moment leading Ballintubber to their first ever Mayo Senior Championship or beating the All-Ireland Champions in last month’s Semi-Final

JH: Well Sam, I’d actually say it was getting the Airport for Knock back in the day.  It was a great way to get people from all over to come and pray for Mayo.  Hasn’t done us much good mind…

SFTH: Still, people from Ballyhaunis can get to Birmingham quicker than they can get to Dublin.  There are bound to be externalities.

JH: The Knowledge Economy the man from Islandeady wants to build calls for an airport in Knock.  It will have paid for itself by the next time Mayo wins an All-Ireland.

SFTH: Is it true that Pee Flynn has promised you one of his many houses if you win on Sunday and Louis Walsh has said that he’ll let you get behind the mic on X-Factor?

JH: Yes, Pee has promised me a nice mews in Rathmines that will come in handy when I’m up at various meeja events in the Big Smoke next year.  And it’s always been a dream of mine to make it in the music business.  I do a great version of ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ that I reckon could be my golden ticket out of the distribution business and into the big time.

SFTH: Well James, It’s been a pleasure. Thanks very much for your time.  I’d wish you all the best for Sunday, but I’m not a very good liar.

JH: No bother Sam, sure we won’t need luck, we have this one in the bag.

Note to readers: There is no such person as Samsforthehills, so at least half of this interview is pure fiction.  The other half is completely made up.

Do You Come Here Often?

Next Sunday’s All-Ireland Final is a novel event in so many ways.  It’s only the second ever meeting of Donegal and Mayo in Championship action; it’s the first Ulster versus Connacht pairing since 1948 when Cavan beat Mayo and of course it’s only Donegal’s second Senior All-Ireland Final appearance ever and their first in twenty years.  For Mayo, Final appearances are a bit more common place, with 12 appearances in all.

Mayo reached back-to-back finals in 1996 and 1997, with the 1996 replay going down as perhaps one of the most infamous finals ever, with Meath proving too cute for Mayo, for whom Liam McHale saw red for one of the oddest looking attacks on a GAA pitch I can ever recall (certainly outside of the club game). Of course, the consensus at the time was that Mayo left it behind them after the first game when they frittered away a six point lead, but they also had a nice lead in the replay.  Rightly or wrongly, it is perhaps these two games against Meath that have given rise to an unwanted label in Mayo.   Read between the lines for I won’t go into it any further here – no more than Donegal supporters like hearing the jibes of ‘party animals’ or latterly the sort of ‘anti-football’ nonsense that has been spouted, folk from Mayo don’t deserve to hear any such lazy stereotypes applied to their team.

In 1997, they lost to Kerry by three points, with the manner of defeat less agonising than in 1996 perhaps, but a final defeat always hurts, especially when it’s your second in a row.  Mayo left themselves too much to do after a first half when they only scored three points, and had the misfortune to run into Maurice Fitzgerald in fine form while at the same time losing their own Maurice (Sheridan) to injury during the game. It’s worth noting that current Mayo manager James Horan was a sub that day, despite winning an All-Star the previous year.

In 2004, Mayo were back in the Final after overcoming surprise package Fermanagh in the Semi-Final, but a hungry Kerry team, hurting and motivated after suffering at the hands of Tyrone and Armagh in previous years were too much for them, running out eight point winners.

In 2006, after producing an amazing comeback to beat Dublin, a game which many of us took great delight in watching, Mayo again let themselves down badly to a Kerry team who it has to be said were perhaps at the peak of their powers, or very close to it, losing the final by 13 points after both teams scored three goals apiece in the first half.

Of course Mayo won All-Irelands in 1936, 1950 and 1951 – I’m not forgetting about that, but not being around at the time it’s hard for me to say much about them.  If someone wants to share their insight into those years, I’ll happily publish it here.

I do hope that I don’t need to give Donegal supporters a similar run through our recent history.  It consists of one game that everyone reading should be familiar with at this stage.  Of course, on the way to that Final in 1992, we beat Mayo in a game that was a ‘classic’ semi-final – everyone largely remembers the result and not the game itself, which is probably just as well as far as I recall.

In terms of the overall honours table, Mayo leave Donegal in the shade to be honest.  Three All-Ireland titles to one. Four Under 21 titles to two.  Six All-Ireland Minor titles to none for Donegal.  And 44 provincial titles to Donegal’s seven.  Even in the National Football League, Mayo have won 11 titles to Donegal’s solitary win in 2007, which of course came when they defeated Mayo.

All Ireland titles from 20 or even 61 years ago are likely to be of cold comfort to today’s supporters.  Both teams will feel that they didn’t do themselves justice in last year’s Semi-Finals, although the manner in which both teams exited the Championship was very different, with Donegal going down in infamy for their approach against Dublin and Mayo living up to a different sort of stereotype in losing to Kerry by nine points.  Still, one has to remember that both Jim McGuinness and James Horan were rookie managers last year and what they accomplished represented tremendous progress that has sown the seeds for this year’s success.

As managers, they have much in common – both have taken their club sides to County Championship success based on a system that relies largely on collective effort rather than individual brilliance.  Both are now feted as heroes, but not everyone in their respective Counties bought into what they wanted to do when they were first appointed.  It could be argued that both took over when each team’s stock was at a very low point – Donegal had just been hammered by Armagh in a first round qualifier while Mayo had been dumped out in a shock defeat to Longford at the same stage.  With even a little bit of luck, some progress was likely.  However, provincial titles and then All-Ireland Semi Finals for both rookie managers were likely to be seen as a bonus.  And perhaps that was reflected in the Semi-Final performances last year – there was a real danger that a Final appearance could be too much too soon, similar to Down in 2010 perhaps.

Both teams now find themselves on the verge of All-Ireland glory in the second year of what is likely to be a three to five-year cycle.  Ahead of schedule perhaps, but it’s hard to argue that both Counties aren’t the best teams in the Country at this point in time.  In both cases, who is to know when we will see either team in an All-Ireland Final again – I know for sure I am not taking it for granted after suffering through the last 20 years of disappointment.  Defeat will not be the end of the line for either of these fine young managers, but they too will know that the time is right for their team to claim the ultimate prize.

The scenes of celebration will be fantastic no matter who wins next Sunday.  Both sets of supporters are famous for their good nature and passion.  There is no bad blood or ill will towards the other on either side.  The banter and the build up will be something to savour over the next week.  We should all enjoy it as such occasions are here to be savoured – we are not Kerry or Kilkenny, where All-Ireland Final appearances and successes are as common as a shower on a summer’s day in Ballintra or Ballina.  Whatever the result, I’m looking forward to a great day out next Sunday – the sights, the sounds, the sense of occasion that I have envied while watching on TV over the years.  We can talk about the game itself later in the week – for now it seems almost secondary to everything else that will happen in the next seven days!

Illegitimi non carborundum

So I since I’ve been on my ill-deserved holiday, the following has happened:

  • Brendan Devenney embarrassed himself and the County on Off The Ball and Championship matters, ensuring many who probably wouldn’t care otherwise will be cheering for Mayo on September 23rd.
  • The Homecoming – I won’t describe it as a row, because I guess I’m a pedant – but whatever it was hasn’t helped.
  • The story of Pat Spillane being physically attacked by Donegal supporters has emerged.

To be honest, it’s all very depressing.  I was annoyed after the Semi-Final by the moaning about ticket prices and availability – anyone who has been a GAA fan for more than the past two years should know what the situation is with All-Ireland Final tickets – it’s the same for Donegal as it is for any other County.

But now there are real reasons to be annoyed.  Instead of enjoying the build up, Donegal supporters are seeing and hearing the opinions of someone who was either drunk or has no sense of decorum or a story that has been spun by a ‘media outlet’ I won’t even name here and now the Spillane story – a story that will no doubt turn more people against Donegal supporters, whatever about the team.

If anyone didn’t hear it, this was Brendan Devenney on Off The Ball.  Seriously – if we had to listen to this sort of arrogance coming from someone from Mayo, wouldn’t Donegal supporters feel slighted for their team by hearing such comments? The worst of it is, Devenney would be close to many players on the current panel – you would think he would have the cop on to keep a lid on these sorts of comments.

The Homecoming story has created issues beyond the chattering classes.  The County Board and Jim McGuinness both felt the need to comment on it, even though they didn’t need to in my view.  This is surely an indication that they were worried that it had the potential to affect the players in the lead up to the Final itself and indeed would give James Horan some ‘bulletin board’ material for his preparations.  Shame on Letterkenny Chamber of Commerce for raising the issue at this stage, but shame also on those who spun the story to make it seem like there was a ‘huge row’ in the County or that ‘the People of Letterkenny’ were the ones who behind this ridiculous distraction.

I have no doubt that Jim McGuinness will do an excellent job of keeping his squad focused ahead of September 23rd, but if the negative media atmosphere around the team continues, sooner or later it will filter through to the players.  I only hope that for the next two weeks, things will improve, or at least revert to some ‘normal’ state.  There is much to celebrate about this team, and indeed about this Final pairing to occupy the minds of the media and the supporters of both Counties in the weeks ahead.

As for the Spillane story, well, whatever the man has said, he doesn’t deserve to be physically attacked.  I have issues on what he has said about Donegal before – I went as far as making a complaint to RTE about his ‘Taliban’ comments last year, but I won’t try and defend the idea that he deserves anything worse than a bit of mild verbal abuse, which was as much as we had been led to believe that he had suffered initially.

Anyway, I’m hoping we’ve turned the corner as regards the sort of coverage we’ll see in the build up to the Final.  I’ve just listened to an unedited interview with Jim McGuinness from this week’s Press Night.  It’s cheered me right up.  I’m going to sign off by leaving you with the following – isn’t it great to be in our first All Ireland Final in 20 years.  Who would have thought we’d be in this position in 2012 before Jim McGuinness took charge.  Let’s hope we can all enjoy the next two weeks – never forget that it could be 20 years before we’re in another All-Ireland Final.

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of pieces in the lead up to the Final.  I promise that the next one you read will be much more positive in outlook.

Until Victory Always.