Archive for May, 2013

Under Pressure

You only have to look at the photo of Jim McGuinness taken at the final whistle on Sunday to see what this win means to him. And to the rest of us in Donegal. This win was as big a statement as Kildare in 2011 or Cork in 2012. We’re Ulster and All Ireland Champions and we’re not going to surrender either title without one hell of a fight.

Donegal played with the confidence of champions on Sunday. Despite being second best for much of the first half, a timely goal, brilliantly taken by Colm McFadden, meant that we actually led by two points at half time. Despite that, Donegal were the ones who were kept back in the dressing room at half time. I can only imagine at what might have been said to them by Jim McGuinness. Tyrone scored all of three points in the second half. The delay was worth it.

The fact that the Donegal goals came when Tyrone had their first lead and when they had tied up the game again was no accident. There was no opportunism involved; they were both very deliberate acts. Both started with quickly taken free kicks and both involved Paddy McBrearty. Think back to the All Ireland Final – Donegal have now scored four goals in their last two Championship games. Three of those four have come from what appear to be planned moves (Colm McFadden’s goal in the Final was pure opportunism). Jim McGuinness said afterwards that goals mean a lot in Championship football. They made the difference on Sunday and on 23 September last year.

In their last meeting, Donegal scored 12 points and Tyrone scored 10 points. This year, Donegal scored 2-10 and Tyrone scored….10 points. In fact, Tyrone have scored nine points, 10 points and 10 points in their last three Championship meetings with Donegal. Donegal were 33% better this year than in 2012 on the scoreboard. Tyrone may have looked good during the League, but they were running to stand still. Donegal are the ones who have kicked on in 2013. I said before the game that Tyrone were the team under pressure before this game, and so it was – Donegal won all the physical and psychological battles, and finished the game as the team on top, winning both halves.

We started without two All Stars, Karl Lacey and Mark McHugh. A third All Star, Frank McGlynn, didn’t look fit to start with and didn’t last long. Neil Gallagher and Anthony Thompson were not 100% either. Anyway, the point is that while Tyrone were able to field their first choice fifteen, Donegal weren’t really playing with a full deck. All this makes the victory even more impressive. When Karl Lacey especially returns to fitness, this team is capable of greater performances – even with the injuries, we weren’t perfect on Sunday, but showed we have the hunger that people. An awesome prospect and one which I don’t think any team will relish facing. If Tyrone were under pressure last Sunday, how will other opposition feel facing the All Ireland Champions?

Impressive too was the player who has promised much but not always delivered for Donegal. Paddy McBrearty came of age last Sunday. He scored 0-2, assisted for both goals, and bagged the man of the match award. Three years after he made his Senior début against Antrim on the same ground, Paddy showed me what I have been waiting to see for the past two years. I said that I wouldn’t believe he had it in him until I saw him to do it, so shame on me for not believing. Ross Wherrity too was impressive when coming on for Leo McLoone. I had my doubts about whether he was ready for the intensity or Championship football and I was disappointed he wasn’t chipping in with scores in the League. He proved me wrong on the intensity front and of course got on the end of Paddy McBreaty’s great run. More of the same please Paddy and Ross.

People will point to the fact that Tyrone had plenty of possession and shots at goal. True of course, but not necessarily a cause for concern. Sure, Niall Morgan had a less than stellar day, shooting 1 from 6 from dead balls, but not all of these chances were ‘gimmes’. The free that Stephen O’Neill missed was from a relatively acute angle (even though he was successful in making life a bit easier for himself as is usually the way with frees taken from the hands). Donegal don’t give away chip shots in front of goal. Fouls are given away in strategically significant areas. Nothing new there really, Morgan’s lack of success on Sunday is getting undue attention due in part to (a) his performance against Dublin in the League Final; and (b) the fact that he was dumb enough to react to the crowd. Donegal have faced free takers as accomplished as Morgan in the past (think of Cillian O’Connor in the All-Ireland Final) – they have yet to be undone by long range frees in Championship (under Jim McGuinness) at least.

We can only hope that Anthony Thompson is not seriously injured – what an important player he has become. Frank too – he seems to have been struggling with injury for a while. I am all for resting him for as long as possible. We can play Eamonn McGee at corner back and Declan Walsh can fill in at wing back. Not bad. If anything, I’d like to see Ryan McHugh get some time against Derry/Down – just to introduce him to the pitch of Championship football lest we need him later on in the year.

Many Donegal supporters, and nearly all neutrals, would love to see Micheal Murphy play at full forward. I would too, but he may actually have more of an impact when he plays further out the field. It was his long free that found Paddy McBrearty who flicked the ball on to McFadden for the first goal. It was also him who was there to make several important interventions in defence late in the game. Would you rather if he was loitering around the opposition goals with no ball coming his way? That is likely to be the alternative in a lot of games. But he’s still available to move into the edge of the square to great effect, just like he was last September. Let’s trust that Jim and Rory know best how and when to deploy him.

Anyone who knows me and has talked to me lately knows that I am confident that we will win the Ulster Championship again this year (or rather I believed whoever won on Sunday would win Ulster). Some might call it arrogance; others have referred to it as ‘disrespectful’ to potential opponents. I am taking nothing for granted, but I prefer to think of it as realism. We’ve beaten the only other team anyone was talking about as potential Ulster Champions. It would be a huge shock and a massive disappointment if we don’t win a historic provincial three in a row.

You won’t hear any of that kind of talk coming from Jim McGuinness. The focus will be on Derry or Down. In all the interviews since, there have been so many great quotes. The one that stood out was a reference to ‘next year’. That has lifted the spirits even more. We’re lucky to have him in Donegal. The fact that he’s one of our own makes it even better.

Until Victory, Always.

Ready for the Red Hand

Which is harder? Winning a first All Ireland in 20 years, or retaining the All Ireland for the first time ever? I guess we will soon find out. No matter what happens in 2013, we will always have a magical summer from 2012 to remember. Let’s savour that for a minute before looking ahead.

I’d really like Donegal to win this game well. Paul Durcan’s incredible save is pretty much everyone’s recollection of last season’s encounter, whereas my own view is that Donegal were more on top than the final score line and last few minutes of the game suggested. But, does the score line and performance really matter? The result is surely all that matters, right? Right. Compared to Antrim and Cavan, Tyrone represent the sternest challenge Donegal will have faced in the opening round under Jim McGuinness. Getting back into winning habits after a lacklustre League campaign is the most important thing – the sparkling performances can come later.

Many pundits maintain that Donegal were ‘lucky’ in 2012. Well, we are already lucky again in 2013. When Donegal were last All Ireland Champions in 1993, we made it as far as the Ulster Final before losing out to Derry (who of course went on to be All-Ireland Champions) on a wet day in Clones. This year, we face one of our biggest challenges in our first game – no point in trying to be coy, if we can beat Tyrone, we should go on to win the Ulster Championship. But even if we lose on Sunday, this team gets a second chance – something that Molloy, McHugh and Boyle were denied back in 1993. Nobody is thinking about the Qualifier route, but after watching Armagh and Galway last weekend, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Donegal will still be involved in the Championship come August. So even if we lose to Tyrone on Sunday, It’s not the end of the world (I can’t promise I won’t sound like it is if we do lose).

I had a blog drafted in the wake of the drawn game with Dublin that led to Donegal’s relegation to Division Two. I never got round to finishing it, and it’s probably just as well. But for a kick of a ball, or perhaps another team getting a result, Donegal would have retained their Division One status, and would have been no better or worse off versus their position in the 2012 National Football League. Recall as well that in 2011, when we played in Division Two, we made it to an All Ireland Semi-Final and could well have gone further. Jim McGuinness has been consistent in his message and his methods throughout the spring – the focus is always on the Championship. The same is true of any team that views themselves as a contender I guess, but the truth of it is that Donegal’s game plan requires a level of fitness that no team came close to matching in 2011. There are no half measures with Jim’s approach – it appears to be all or nothing. We saw literally nothing during the League. It has all been saved for the Championship.

I guess one thing I would have liked to see in the League (aside from staying in Division One…) would have been the emergence of one or two players who could challenge our starters, or at least fit in seamlessly should a key player go down with injury. Both Ryan McHugh and Ross Wherrity saw significant game time, but does anyone feel confident that either would be worthy of their place in a Championship XV? Ryan maybe, but Ross still looks like he needs further development. To be fair, Declan Walsh played in two Championship games in 2011 and played quite well during the League, and indeed talk on the podcast is that he has been playing very well for Malin in the All County League, so if Karl Lacey is not ready to go on Sunday, we should feel confident that Declan Walsh can do a job in the half back line. But the bench is not as deep as the one which Mickey Harte will have at his disposal. If David Walsh is available, we’re in better shape.

So how will Tyrone win this game? If you recall the 2011 like I do, you felt that Tyrone lost the game that day due to their poor accuracy from the dead ball (as well as two timely goals from Donegal). Last year they didn’t fare much better. While Donegal scored six out of seven (with the only miss coming from a sideline), Tyrone only managed three from eight. Unless Morgan gets a case of the yips (this did happen on more than one occasion this year), expect that Tyrone will kick any relatively straightforward frees and indeed any 45s. Donegal will need to be extremely disciplined, and not just in fouling, but in dissent etc as well – recall from the National League game in Omagh how Joe McQuillan moved a free forward after Neil McGee prevented a quick free being taken allowing Morgan to slot over. Add in the return of Sean Cavanagh, and Tyrone have, in theory, improved enough on paper to close the gap from the end of the 2012 meeting.

So Tyrone have improved. Donegal have not yet shown that they have improved. Indeed, despite Jim McGuinness’ assertion that this team could improve by 15-20%, I’m not sure how much more we can expect to see this year. Even getting back to the level we were operating at last year would be a wonderful achievement in itself. With the injuries to Karl Lacey and nagging concerns over Mark McHugh and Frank McGlynn, this could be a tall order for Sunday. But, if you recall, Michael Murphy started off last year’s Championship short of fitness, and truth be told, it didn’t seem like he was himself until the All-Ireland Final. His displays in the Sigerson Cup hinted at a great season ahead, but his form in the League was more subdued. The truth of it is, Tyrone have no-one who can dominate like Michael can dominate. If he was being deliberately held back during the League, an unstoppable force could be unleashed at MacCumhaill Park on Sunday. And there’s your 20%.

Karl Lacey’s lack of game time might be a concern. But it would appear that his rehabilitation programme was tailored to making it back to fitness for this game. There was never any talk that he would make a cameo in the League. If Karl can give us 60-70 good minutes on Sunday, surely we can rest him for an Ulster Semi-Final if we win – whoever we meet would not present the same challenge as Tyrone. I think when you have the best player in the Country available; you will want to have him play in what could be a defining moment in your season. My instinct (and that’s all it is) is that Karl will play on Sunday.

So, the starting 15 on Sunday should be the same as that which took the field on 23 September last year. With eight All-Stars, and a few more who can reasonably feel that they were unlucky to lose out, so let’s not worry too much that we haven’t got the ‘fresh faces’ many seem to feel are necessary for renewed success in 2013. Trust in the players that got us to the Promised Land last year. Trust in the man who directed their journey. Forget everything that we saw or didn’t see from Donegal during the League. Believe that this group of players and their manager will be every bit as good this year as they were last year.

Jim McGuinness has ‘Bitegate’, the County Board’s reneging on an agreement regarding fixtures, some of the posturing by the Tyrone players during the National League game in Omagh, and the general consensus in the National media that Donegal can’t repeat their success of last year ‘just because’ to use as motivation for his team. Not to mention Donegal now have the chance to win an unprecedented third Ulster Championship in a row. Whether he actually needs of any of this as motivation is another matter – Jim’s mantra of self-improvement might be enough for this group of players.

I think that this will be a tight game and probably a low scoring affair. A scoreline of something like 0-14 to 0-12 feels about right. A draw wouldn’t be a surprise. While I don’t necessarily think that defeat will do our All-Ireland prospects much harm, I shudder at the thought nonetheless. The backlash after Donegal’s attitude towards the National League and the whole notion of ‘Jimmy’s Spinning Matches’ will be fierce – I’m not sure I’m ready for that just yet.

But given that we have the best manager and the best player in the Country, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t feel confident. The pressure is on Tyrone, who are facing into a third successive Championship defeat to Donegal. They are the ones who need to up their game to our level. Tyrone seemed to take such satisfaction from their win in Omagh, with much posturing after scores. Tyrone have been hearing about how Donegal have been focused on the 26 May all year.

It’s that focus and the fact that I believe this team still has more to give that makes me believe we will overcome Tyrone on Sunday.

Until Victory, Always