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.

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