Archive for July, 2013

Keyser Soze and the Clones Horror Show

It was Kevin Spacey who used the famous phrase ‘the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist’.  In the light of what we witnessed in Sunday’s Ulster Final loss to Monaghan, Jim McGuinness might have come close pulling a Verbal Kint.  What’s far from clear is whether this feat has been accomplished by accident or design.

Congratulations to Monaghan on their first Ulster title in 25 years.  The scenes of joy at Clones on Sunday brought back fond memories of 2011 and 2012.  They had us (me anyway) all fooled.  At no point while watching their Semi-Final win over Cavan did I feel that they had what it took to beat us.  In my preview, I said that they would get to 12 points at best, and privately I felt that they would get 0-9 or 0-10.  Still, we haven’t conceded more than 0-13/1-10 in Ulster under Jim McGuinness.  But on Sunday, 13 points may as well have been 30 as we never felt like getting close to Monaghan.

I had a bad feeling from the word go on Sunday. Despite my happy and positive countenance on BBC, I was wary after Monaghan had made a great comeback to beat Tyrone to win their first Minor Final in 68 years.  From the time the ball was thrown in, my worst fears were confirmed.  It’s unkind to say that Donegal didn’t turn up yesterday, but they left something behind them wherever they last trained, or never got out of second gear.  No disrespect to Monaghan, they played very well, but our lads clearly weren’t playing at the Championship level of the past two and a half summers.

I’d have to question some of the decision making.  First off, Marty O’Reilly for David Walsh appeared to be a tactical switch as Walsh was considered fit enough to replace Mark McHugh after 10 minutes.  O’Reilly was taken off after 25 largely ineffective minutes, even though he seemed to be more involved than Leo McLoone, who was also replaced (again) before half time.  Next, Neil Gallagher should have started – he certainly looked fit enough.  He was our most effective midfield player when he came on, but it felt like the game had already slipped away from us that that point.   Lastly, Karl Lacey was clearly not fit.  Monaghan seemed to sense this, as they operated at will in his area for three of their first four points, running directly at him for two of those scores.  In the context of the game, this was huge.

It’s a mystery to me as to why Lacey started when so obviously not fit.  One theory is that he needed the game time, irrespective of the result.  That would make sense in the context of the overall performance.  The other one of course is that once we started him, we dare not take him off for fear that Monaghan would get a lift.  I think this is less likely, but given we were never out of the game on the scoreboard, it could be plausible, but it would seem to hinge slightly on Jim underestimating Lacey’s fitness.  Does this really seem likely?

Even when Big Neil was breaking the ball, we were typically second best at gathering possession.   This is being touted as a sign of a lack of hunger.  It’s certainly a worrying sign that with our Ulster title and a three in a row on the line our performance was so lethargic.  Has the hunger declined since last September?  We certainly didn’t seem to lack intensity when beating Tyrone back in May.  But the signs were there against Down and were very evident on Sunday.  Is this a sign of a general mental malaise, or, as some have suggested, has Jim McGuinness succumbed to looking beyond Ulster to the greater challenges ahead?

The loss of Mark McHugh didn’t help.  But the reality is, he was on the pitch when we conceded the first four points, and three of these involved Neil McGee (twice) and Eamon McGee being isolated against Ciaran McManus and Kieran Hughes respectively.  So he didn’t appear to have been doing an effective job as a sweeper up to that point.  Of course, he would have had plenty of time to recover (had he not needed to be replaced), and his ability as a link man was of course sorely missed, especially with Lacey obviously hobbled.

But the most shocking statistic I have seen from Sunday is this.  Not only did Michael Murphy not score, but he did not even have a shot on goal.  You cannot afford to have your Captain, your talisman, your best player reduced to such a marginal role.  All credit to Monaghan as they didn’t even concede a free that would suit a right footed kicker.  But serious questions have to be asked as to how Donegal could not find a way to bring him into the game.  It would be nice to think we can win games without Michael, but we’re clearly not capable of that feat at this stage.  Colm was given a torrid afternoon by Drew Wylie and was even amiss with his dead ball shooting.  Paddy McBrearty wasn’t effective – he had chances, and yes he was under pressure when shooting, but those are typically the kind of chances you need to be able to take at the highest level, and Sunday’s game might not have even fallen into that category.

No, even after watching the game again, I still can’t pinpoint exactly what went wrong on Sunday.  My final word on it is that I think it was a perfect storm of a ferocious Monaghan performance coupled with a below par showing from Donegal, who, even taking the Tyrone game into account, haven’t approached the levels we did in 2012 (the stats on shots taken and shots from play are enough to help explain why.  As Darren Hughes said in the immediate aftermath on Sunday, Monaghan have had two years to watch Donegal and pick out the chinks in our armour.  In addition, they were able to prepare for the final as overwhelming underdogs, a fact they have acknowledged helped them greatly.  Throw in the fact that they hadn’t won an Ulster title in 25 years and have never seemed to fear playing Donegal, and then maybe Sunday’s outcome shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

So where do we go from here?  Well, to Carrick-on-Shannon on Saturday evening is the simple answer.  There is no time for the kind of serious introspection you would feel we need after Sunday.  The Donegal players look like they could do with a week off, but there is no rest for the defeated.  I’m not even going to bother analysing Laois as I don’t have any footage of their Championship games this year and I clearly learned nothing from watching Monaghan’s previous game.  No, this game will go as Donegal go – if we play like we played against Monaghan or indeed Down, we will lose.  Monaghan will have given Laois great hope and some idea of how to beat Donegal and given their manager played on a team that had their way with Donegal for many years, he will have of his own ideas as to how to tackle Donegal.

Mark McHugh is out of Saturday’s game –we know that for sure now.  It’s really hard to know what we’ll get from Karl Lacey.  Was Sunday’s game a help or a hindrance in the ongoing battle to get him back to full fitness?  I have been bothered by the Lacey issue all year.  He missed too long a time away from training before the Tyrone game, and then had the keyhole surgery setback.  Remember than when he was voted Footballer of the Year in 2012, he had been training non-stop since November 2011.  It’s getting harder and harder to believe that we’ll see him approach his best in 2013.  Time is against him, that’s all.  Sunday’s struggles don’t diminish his status as one of our greatest ever players.

Even during the National League, no-one was able to fill the void left by Mark McHugh, when out injured, as the dynamo in the Donegal team.  We face the same problem on Saturday.  Is his brother up to the task?  He looks like the most likely candidate.  Marty O’Reilly or Leo McLoone could in theory do the job, but haven’t looked up to it based on what we’ve seen this year so far.  Neil Gallagher has to start after his display last Sunday – he certainly didn’t look short of fitness on the 50 minutes or so he was on the pitch.

After that, it’s hard to know.  Jim McGuinness tends to show tremendous faith in the group of players he selects, and no doubt this is part of the reason why they have committed so much to him.  I doubt we’ll see wholesale changes in reaction to what could just have been a bad day in the office.  No, I don’t think the fifteen we see on Saturday will be hugely different from that which started on Sunday.  I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Most analysts take the considered view that Donegal haven’t gone away.  Some feel they will come roaring back.  I am not so sure – I just find it hard to know where we are at this year. Last year, we were very clearing gaining momentum with each game.  After the euphoria of beating Tyrone at home, we have had two very flat performances, the latest of which denied us the chance to make our own bit of history in Ulster.

When all is said and done, we are still Champions, still contenders and still capable.  We still have great players, a great team, and a great manager.  Don’t forget that in a hurry.  Donegal to win.  I think.

Until Victory, Always

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Steady As She Goes

What’s the saying ‘Semi-finals are there to be won and nothing else’ – or something along those lines.  Donegal’s semi-final performances in Ulster have typically been underwhelming.  Last time out against Down was no different from 2011 or 2012 really, although you could argue that Tyrone in either year (despite injuries) were superior opposition to Down.  The notion ‘survive and advance’ seems particularly well suited to the Ulster Championship.

Let’s deal in facts first.  Donegal started without Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey and 2012 All-Star Neil Gallagher.  All Star half back (and scorer of a wonderful goal against Down in last year’s Ulster Final) Frank McGlynn departed the field in the first half with concussion, and one of our best players from the Ulster Final last year Ryan Bradley followed him to the sidelines with a similar malady.  Throw in the fact that Paddy McBrearty attended a dentist in Cootehill (would you envy him?) late the night before and played with a dose of pain killers and Anthony Thompson was not at full fitness after going off injured against Down and it’s clear that Donegal were not playing with a full deck.

No matter.  The game was won.  It wasn’t pretty, but the job was done with some efficiency (a 67% success rate from shots on goal, same as it was against Tyrone), and, the consensus was that while Down gave Donegal plenty to think about when Donegal were attacking, Donegal were fairly comfortable throughout – I think when you hold any team to nine points (three from play), you have a good chance of winning the game.  Given the weather, and the players we lost before and during the game, a less than sparkling performance wasn’t perhaps a surprise.

Ok, enough facts.  Facts can be boring at times.  Let’s engage in a little supposition.  Suppose Down actually had an offensive plan for Donegal?  Their whole approach was predicated on defence first, and that was about it. Think Donegal in 2011 against Dublin.  Fair play to them, they had a plan, executed pretty well, but ultimately Donegal never looked too far out of their comfort zone.  No surprise given that Down had played nothing like the way they played against Donegal in their exciting and high scoring win over Derry.  It takes time to change your approach – if Down continue on that path, then maybe it will yield results, but what we saw in the Ulster Semi-Final was more like a work in progress.  Suppose too that Down had Benny Coulter playing rather than the Ghost of Benny Coulter.  That would have made things interesting.  And suppose too Martin Clarke was lining out for Down rather than sitting on the fringes of an AFL squad in Melbourne.  Any chance we could see him return to the Mourne County again next year?  I guess what I am trying to get at is whether or not the Donegal performance against Down would have been good enough to beat a more complete team?  I’m not sure that it would have – but that’s probably neither here nor there at this stage.

No, Donegal advance, and now we face Monaghan with a chance to win a historic third Ulster Championship in a row.  It’s been done before and relatively recently, but the achievement would be massive in the context of Donegal’s history in Ulster.  Despite their underdog status, it would be nice to beat Monaghan – people recall Armagh in Crossmaglen and Cork in Croke Park, but Monaghan gave us a fair hammering in Omagh in 2007.  Indeed we have not beaten them in a Championship match since 1983 (meetings between the two Counties at this level are fairly rare all the same, but the record in the last 20 years is 3-0 to Monaghan).

In many respects, this year’s Monaghan team resembles the Donegal of 2011 in many ways.  They lost Ulster Finals to Tyrone in 2007 and 2010.  They lost to Kerry in 2007 and 2008 when they might have won in either year.  They are a mix of the relatively young and the quite experienced.  They have a new manager and won promotion in the League.  Their last Ulster title was in 1988.  They likely won’t fear us before the throw in.  I’m not exactly thrilled at the thought of facing them on Sunday, but, it’s a novel pairing, and if we win, we’ll have beaten five of the eight teams in Ulster since Jim took over.

I forced myself to watch their semi-final win over Cavan (I’m not having a go at either team, it just was hard to watch given I wasn’t watching it live).  It didn’t really offer any great insight into how they might beat Donegal – indeed Cavan will look back and wonder how they lost that game, with the key moment the Christopher McGuinness goal from a very poor Cavan short kickout.  They are primarily defensive and despite having Eoin Lennon and Darren Hughes at midfield, they struggled to win ball in that area, winning less than 50% of even their own kick outs against Cavan. Ciaran McManus is their obvious danger man, scoring 10 points out of their 1-21 total in the Championship to date.  Guys that you might remember like Tommy Freeman, Dick Clerkin and Paul Finley are still involved, but their influence is more marginal than Donegal’s veterans.  Darren Hughes doesn’t look as effective at midfield as he does in defence – whether he plays there against Donegal remains to be seen – if he was moved to wing back with Dick Clerkin starting at midfield I wouldn’t be surprised.  I would be happier if we had Neil Gallagher to counter Monaghan’s captain Eoin Lennon, but that doesn’t look likely, with Big Neil only named on the bench.

Back to Donegal.  Given that he missed the last two Ulster Finals, it would be fitting to see Eamon McGee shine on Sunday.  He and his brother have been immense so far this year. You’d also like to see Leo McLoone step up and show a bit more than he’s shown in the past two games.  Hopefully we see no more injuries as we have suffered enough this year, even if none have yet to end a season.   I think it’s fair to say that we haven’t kicked into gear yet this year, but with Karl Lacey named to start on Sunday, perhaps we’ll start to motor. It was the second half of last year’s Ulster Final where we began to show the form that carried us to All Ireland success.  No need to show our hand on Sunday, but it would be nice to see Karl Lacey put in a good shift – the cameo against Tyrone gave us a lift for sure, but we’re going to need more than that this summer from our Footballer of the Year.

It feels like this game might be very similar to the Down game, although the conditions will be much changed, with temperatures likely to be over 30 degrees on the pitch and virtually no wind.  It’s hard to know who will be affected more by the heat – I’d say that as the underdogs, it might just favour Monaghan, but that’s just my own theory.  Despite being outplayed by Cavan, Monaghan hung tough and scraped over the line.  It’s hard to believe that Cavan – although they are a team on the rise, or indeed Antrim, who are probably the worst team in the province by some margin, will have given Monaghan any taste for what they will face on Sunday.  Having the belief you can beat Donegal is one thing, only when the ball is thrown in will you begin to appreciate what you are up against.  I don’t think Monaghan are at our level, not for 70 minutes anyway.

Trying to look at this with a cold logic, Monaghan have scored 0-11 against Antrim and 1-10 against Cavan.  1-10 /13 points is as much as Donegal have ever conceded in Ulster under Jim McGuinness (1-10 against Cavan last year and 13 points in last year’s Ulster Final against Down).  And in both cases, these totals were conceded in the course of easy victories.  Add to that the fact that it’s hard to see Donegal making the sort of mistake Cavan made to gift Monaghan their goal in the other Semi-Final.  So, I think Monaghan get to 12 points at best on Sunday.  Donegal have scored 2-22 in two games so far this year, or an average of 1-11.  Last year in Ulster, we managed just under 1-15 a game.  Split the difference and I would expect us to score at least 1-13 on Sunday.  Doesn’t a scoreline of 1-13 to 12 points in Donegal’s favour seem realistic?

Put your money on it.

Until Victory, Always.