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.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. […] Aside from that, there just some standard stuff on the team announcements and a piece in the Irish Independent with Barry Moran which has obviously been simmering in the pot since the press event on Sunday night.  Martin Carney, once again a man with a foot in both camps, plumps for us in his match preview on RTE.ie. The Donegal GAA blog, samforthehills, also shies away from predicting a win for them in its match preview. […]

    Reply

  2. […] Our record against Laois under Jim McGuinness is played four, won two and lost two.  Last July, we beat them in Carrick-on-Shannon, but were truly on a hiding to nothing.  That game was totally unremarkable on the pitch, with the […]

    Reply

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