Archive for August, 2013

Hard Written

I don’t have any answers as to what has happened on Sunday. I wish I had, even for my own sake.  At the end of the day, you tip your cap to Mayo, who were awesome.  But, despite the fact that Donegal started with 13 of the 15 who started in the All Ireland Final of 2012, it did not feel like we were watching the same team.  I’m not angry.  I’m shocked and disappointed. I’ve rarely felt as bad watching a game as I did on Sunday.  I’d imagine that a lot of you feel the same way.  Maybe even the players and management too.  It’s hard to believe that anyone saw this coming.  The scoreline that is – there were more than a few of us who felt we would fall just short.  A few more feared the worse – that Mayo would win easily, i.e. by five or six points.  For a while, it looked like Mayo would win by 20.

Of course the warning signs had been there for the past three games.  In truth, we were further off the pace against Monaghan than the scoreboard suggested.  Down and Laois are far off the level of Mayo were at on Sunday.  I’m sure James Horan will have been watching those games and licking his lips.  We were obviously there for the taking.  His team exposed our failings in a ruthless fashion.

The Donegal ‘system’ was always dependent on having our players super fit.  In Mayo, we ran into a team that was operating at a similar level we were at last year.  Their display against Galway caught my eye – not just the scoreline but the intensity at which they played throughout the whole game.  From the throw in on Sunday, they were relentless.  We had no answer to the pace and the power.  The fact that they are obviously playing with such great confidence, as we were last year, gave them an edge.  We never looked confident this year and despite the great win over Tyrone in May, we didn’t seem to be building towards something this year.  Last year, we had momentum.  Whatever little bit we regained with the win over Laois disappeared very quickly after 4 pm on Sunday.

The cliché, ‘the players owe us nothing’ is being thrown about a lot at the moment.  This is true of course, but the players owe it to themselves to put this ‘right’.  They are better than they showed on Sunday, we all know that.  Normally, you’d love to have the opportunity to put this right as soon as possible, but that will have to wait until next year.  How many of those players will be around next year remains to be seen. Rumours and speculation are rife.  I’m not going to bother engaging in any further here, except to say that I want all our players to come back for another year at least.  The fact that Frank McGlynn and Colm McFadden have already come out and said that they are staying on is most welcome.  I’d love for this bunch to stick with it and at least reclaim the Ulster Title.

But, for all I want the current squad to stay together, I want to see changes, or at least a greater sense that there is genuine competition for places.  On Sunday, Mayo started with nine of the 15 that started the All-Ireland Final last September.  Donegal started with 13 of their starting 15, and likely would have started with 14 if Karl Lacey had been deemed fit enough to start.  In a year where we had so many injuries, and it’s likely that anything like seven or eight of the team that started on Sunday weren’t fully fit, was it really wise to persist with so many players were not operating at 100%?  Would you rather play with a host of star players at 70% vs a squad player who is 100%?  We mightn’t have been good enough to win on Sunday, but maybe we would have been more competitive.

Of course, our squad has been mooted as an issue all year.  My biggest issue with our approach to the League was always this – we didn’t get to see enough of the squad players – especially given the demands placed on our more established starters.  And I won’t accept anyone throwing stats at me for number of players used etc.  Few got serious playing time.  Maybe what we have outside if our first choice 16/17 players aren’t good enough, but it would be nice to see for ourselves.  It’s also worth considering how it feels like to be sitting on the bench for 70 minutes while the team on the pitch is taking a hammering like we saw on Sunday.  I doubt they felt great about things either.  It’s not just some of the more established players that might decide to call it a day after Sunday.

As for the manager.  There is only one man I want to see managing Donegal for the foreseeable future and that’s Jim McGuinness.  After Armagh beat us in 2010, we were at possibly our lowest ebb (although the defeat to Cork in 2009 was not a proud day either) and he was the man to restore pride and then some.  He learned the lessons from 2011 to take us to a first All-Ireland title in 20 years in 2012.  He will no doubt learn more from 2013 if he’s prepared to stay on in 2014.  I hope that the Donegal County Board say and do all the right things in that regard – it’s Jim’s decision of course, but I have no doubt that decision can be made easier by a strong message of support – in deeds as well as words.

A lot of people are consoling themselves with the fact that we have had a great few years and that “we’ll be back in 2014”.  That is only half true at this point in time.  A lot remains to be seen as to who will be back in 2014.  I’m not writing anyone’s appreciation or obituary at this point, so you won’t hear any expressions of appreciation or wistfulness from me at this stage, I’ll wait until I get confirmation as to who is doing what before I start looking back to happier times.  For now, all I have is a feeling.  Not a good one I’ll admit.  Think happy thoughts folks.

Until Victory, Always.

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Just Coming up Short

There was an air of redemption about Carrick-on-Shannon on Saturday night.  That and the smell of vodka and Red Bull.  Donegal went to Ireland’s party town, we travelled with them in our thousands, and we got back on the road to September for another week at least.

After getting out-hungered by Monaghan, it was good to see that the lethargy from the Ulster Final had gone.  There was much good about this performance.  The McGees had their mojo back.  Neil Gallagher was a colossus at midfield.  A week after he was largely cowed by Monaghan, Colm McFadden fought hard for every ball that came his way and finished with six points.  Ryan McHugh didn’t disappoint in deputising for his injured brother.

Many will say it was all about the result – in Championship football it tends to matter alright.  But for me, the performance was nearly as important.  I wanted to see signs that we are in fact able for the massive proposition that awaits us in Croke Park on Sunday.  It was far from perfect, but maybe that’s a good thing.  We’ll need to show something more if we want to beat Mayo.  Saturday was not the time to give away any hint of how we might play next weekend.

Laois set up very defensively and we struggled to create opportunities, not dissimilar to how we fared against Down.  In the second half, we seemed to commit more men forward, perhaps in an effort to overwhelm the blanket, and this left us vulnerable on the break.  It’s going to be fascinating to see how Mayo set up on Sunday – do they play their own game or use the template employed to great effect by Down and Laois?  Like Monaghan, Laois tried the diagonal ball at times, but they just weren’t good enough. I do believe that we won’t face a duo like McManus and Hughes for the rest of the summer, so maybe the diagonal ball is not as big a concern as it would appear after watching the Monaghan defeat.

What else. It was good to see both David Walsh and Leo McLoone scoring.  And indeed Neil McGee.  When your inside forwards are bottled up, others will undoubtedly find space to shoot.  It was great to see all three of our full forward line scoring from play – but Paddy McBrearty’s three points from play really stood out.  Six points from players other than Murphy or McFadden is a good return.  I’d be happy with the same on Sunday.

Despite the positives, there are still many concerns.  We still haven’t seen 70 good minutes from Karl Lacey.  It seems odd that he was deemed fit enough to start against Monaghan but yet was left in reserve for 55 minutes on Saturday – when Rory Gallagher had declared that he had been ‘flying in training’ I immediately felt that he was unlikely to start.  But it’s all quite odd.  And probably more worrying is the fact that Michael Murphy doesn’t seem to be himself.  Whether he is injured or not is unknown, but he was, by his own high standards, virtually anonymous for much of the game on Saturday – although he did score a fine point in the first half.  Being deployed in a deeper role didn’t help, and I understand that he can have an impact in areas of the pitch other than on the edge of the square, but it’s hard to see us getting past Mayo without Michael having a big game.  Cast your minds back to last September.  Who were the key actors in Donegal’s opening goal?  Having neither Karl nor Michael at 100% is huge.

Mayo too have had their injuries.  Lately, they have lost both their goalkeepers.  Michael Conroy is not back.  Andy Moran, after suffering a devastating season ending injury during last year’s All Ireland Quarter Final, is back, but like Karl Lacey, has been out for so long that his fitness is probably holding him back.  Cillian O’Connor made his return against London, but it’s not certain that he will start, nor is the stability of his shoulder.  Donal Vaughan and Barry Moran, both of who played in last year’s Final have missed time this Championship season.  They are not necessarily in a much better place than we are in terms of physical well being.  But, they have had a week of downtime, which can only help their walking wounded get at least a little better.

Most of us will acknowledge that Donegal are not playing as well as they did last year.  We’re still not quite sure why that is.  It could be the series of injuries to a sizeable number of players, none apparently very serious, but enough to cause disruption.  Lacey’s absence is affecting so much of what we did well last year.  We probably lack real competition for places and real impact from the bench.  Perhaps, just perhaps, Jim McGuinness has asked too much of his players this year – it still seems a plausible explanation for what we witnessed against Monaghan.  I was always uneasy about the claims of an additional 20% from this group of players and how this was going to be achieved.  Many things that commentators and analysts have said about the issues we would face in retaining the All Ireland title are probably coming true to a large extent.

What makes Sunday’s game so intriguing, apart from the fact that both teams met in last year’s Final is the fact that both were highly fancied to meet at the All Ireland Semi-Final stage even before a ball was kicked in this year’s Championship.  Donie Buckley, the man many would credit with the perceived increase in Mayo’s performance levels in 2013, was in Ballybofey to watch Donegal take on Tyrone in the first round of the Ulster Championship back in May.  He was not there for the spectacle.  You can be sure that even if he wasn’t planning for Mayo before we defeated Tyrone, Jim McGuinness’ thoughts would have quickly turned to the challenges we were likely to face down the road (the ‘one game at a time’ mantra looks a little hollow after the Ulster Final defeat).  Both sides will have been analysing each other’s strengths and weaknesses at length over the past few months in the expectation of this game, albeit at a different stage of the competition.    I suppose my hope is that Mayo will hold no surprises for us, but we have something in reserve to deal with them, something we didn’t show in Castlebar in March or during the Ulster Championship.  Sunday would be a great time to show it – assuming that we have it.

Here are the most worrying stats if you’re from Donegal.  In 2012, we averaged over 17 points a game (1-14 to be more precise).  In 2013, we’re scoring just over 12 points a game (and have only scored two goals in four games, with those two goals coming in our first game against Tyrone).  Keep in mind that, in 2011, when we managed only six points against Dublin in the All-Ireland Semi-Final, we were scoring, on average, 13 points a game.  We were a point better off than we were this season.  And in 2011, we were scoring goals too, very slightly more, on average, than we did in 2012 even.  We’re still defending well enough to win games; it’s the attacking phase of the game that is letting us down.  You can of course argue that this is down the sort of defences we have faced since our opening game against Tyrone, but equally you can say that we should have seen this coming.  No, I’m afraid all signs point to one conclusion – Donegal have regressed, resembling the 2011 version, which everyone would agree was incomplete, more than the ‘Total Football’ we witnessed at times in 2012.  I have no doubt that we can keep Mayo to something like 14 points.  I’m just not sure that we can score enough to win the way that we’re playing.

One of my thoughts this week has been – how do we know if Mayo have improved since 2012?  That for me was always going to be the key to their aspirations for 2013.  You don’t win an All Ireland by standing still.  The addition of Donie Buckley has apparently been key to their improvement, but it’s hard to judge based on what we’ve seen in the games they have played so far in Championship 2013.  I was impressed with their intensity in their facile win over Galway, but then again, it seemed like they were operating against a team playing at a much lower level.  However, I have no doubt they (Mayo) will not want for hunger, intensity, desire, whatever you want to call it on Sunday.  I hope that we can at least match them on that score.  Again, it hasn’t been apparent that we can so far this year.

For the first time in a long time, I’m not predicting a Donegal win.  And I don’t think it will be a draw.  Make of that what you will.

Until Victory, Always.