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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One response to this post.

  1. […] you try to decide on who will win on Sunday, think of Donegal’s potential, not last year’s Ulster Final performance. Forget about that game, forget about the league game in Letterkenny earlier this year and forget […]

    Reply

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