Archive for February, 2014

A Win out West but a Showdown in Letterkenny Looms

It’s almost like our last game was part of a different season due to the two weekends that have passed with no game, but I’ll write briefly about Galway before moving on to Monaghan.  Thankfully the game went ahead after multiple pitch inspections across different venues. After that, I was happy to get the win.

But, it wasn’t really a great game. There were some nice moves by Donegal in the first half, including the one that led to Colm McFadden’s well taken goal. We were well on top at midfield – Galway made two changes to their midfield before the throw in as far as I could tell. I was happy enough at half time given that we were playing against the wind and Galway only seemed to be able to hit us on the break.

The second half was kind of odd. Galway probably played better than they had in the first. I guess the pitch didn’t help, the going was heavy and players slipped quite a bit as well.   In interviews after, Jim reckoned that the lads tired in the second half.  We could sense that from the stands, and, on a heavy pitch, it was no surprise that there was a drop off in intensity as the game went on.

I don’t think anyone really stood out over 70 minutes, but Martin McElhinney had a good game. Brick Molloy didn’t do much wrong. Anthony Thompson had a really good first half, but seemed to tire as the game went on. Christy didn’t play as well as he did last week and one or two things he tried didn’t come off. Karl Lacey was good, mostly in a defensive sense. Neil McGee played pretty well. Paddy McBrearty came on and kicked three good scores. Big Neil made his return, which was good to see.

It seems kind of significant that Hugh McFadden has got twenty minutes or so in each of the first two games.  He’s a guy that has a lot of talent, and the physical size that could be an asset.  Jigger got the game time in the McKenna Cup, but McFadden wasn’t fit.  If I had to wager on one of them to make an impact this year, it would be McFadden, although seeing Jigger in action for the Senior team intrigues me.

Ryan McHugh struggled at corner back and was switched with Frank McGlynn. He also blew a great chance for a goal and didn’t even get a point out of it. Still, he’s got a good engine.  And, he did kick a point later in the second half.  Like Odhran MacNiallais against Laois, he didn’t let his head drop after his miss.  And, think back to his point in last year’s Ulster Final.  The lad doesn’t lack confidence that’s for sure.

People (including me) say that Division Two won’t test us and that Jim McGuiness won’t know what he has with the younger players until we reach the Championship.  To a certain extent, that’s nonsense as I’m sure Jim knows what he has, it’s the rest of us who need to see it to believe it.  But, I do have a concern that certain players are getting away with things in these games that they will not get away with in the heat of a Championship summer.  We know that the Frank McGlynn’s, Neil Gallagher’s, Mark McHugh’s and Michael Murphy’s of the world have done it in the Championship before – some other lads haven’t yet and Laois and Galway in February are not the measure of what we will face this summer.

Out of all the supposed top teams in the Country, Donegal have probably been playing with more of our first line players than any other contender.  So we should be doing well.  It’s good to win games – last year we lost too many and our performances in the league were largely disenchanting.  We bet the farm on the Championship and it didn’t work out.  Next up, we have one of our conquerors from last summer and a traditional nemesis.  Monaghan will undoubtedly present us with more of a test than either Laois or Galway has in our first two games.

By the time Monaghan come to town, the first choice fifteen may become clearer.  Eamon McGee will have returned from suspension.  Neil Gallagher should be fit to play a full part.  Paddy McBrearty should be in contention to start and has been going well in the Sigerson Cup. I assume that these three lads are still part of our first choice team, although I do wonder if Eamon McGee starts when everyone is fit again.  He wasn’t the only one, but he looked very out of sorts against both Monaghan and Mayo last year. This is perhaps reflective of the overall issue that affected Donegal last year – the collective failure put our full back line under more pressure than they had been subjected to in 2012. I’m hoping that when he comes back my niggling doubt about him from last year will be put to rest.

If I think back to last summer, my recollection is that Monaghan were fortunate enough to beat Cavan and looked pretty average against Antrim.  They certainly didn’t disgrace themselves against Tyrone, but they never really looked likely winners either.  The Ulster Final was the one game where they looked truly impressive, but we need to temper that by acknowledging that Donegal were a shadow of their former selves that day.  I was impressed with them, but on reflection, I’m not convinced.  If we are to lose any of our home games in Division Two, this could be it however.

For anyone who wonders why I would refer to Monaghan as our nemesis, here’s a reminder of our pretty horrible recent history against the Farney men.  2013 Ulster Final – lost (when chasing a historic three in a row).  2008 All Ireland Qualifiers Second Round – lost at home by one point.  2007 All Ireland Qualifiers – hammered in Omagh.  Our last win of any consequence (and this is arguable) was in Division 2A in 2004.  Only Armagh have given us a worse time in the last twenty years.

Monaghan let Down come back to draw with them in their first game but then ‘put a hurting’ on a Meath team that racked up 3-18 in their first game.  Donegal have a perfect record and seemed to have got some of their mojo back.  This game in Letterkenny feels like the defining game in the Division.  Win well, or even win a hard fought game, and we will continue to feel good about things.  Lose, and a re-assessment of what we’ve seen up until now will be in order.  Things aren’t that simple of course.  Recall that in Division Two in 2011, we actually drew two home games (against Sligo and Kildare) and lost to Laois away.  We subsequently won the Ulster title and came within a kick of reaching the All Ireland Final.  Even in 2012 our league form wasn’t wonderful, winning only three games and having to beat an Armagh team in obvious state of decline at home to stay up.  That was the year Laois embarrassed us in Letterkenny live on TG4.  So, it’s far from a foregone conclusion that we will beat Monaghan, or indeed that we will go all out to do so.  But I’d like to think that we will.

Donegal let off the Laois

We must temper any analysis of the Laois game by saying that the opposition were poor – probably worse than we faced in Carrick-on-Shannon last summer.  But, you could not but help be delighted in what you saw if you are a Donegal supporter.  First off, 2-19 is more than Donegal have ever scored in the league under Jim McGuinness – albeit only a shade more than we managed against Derry in March 2011 (2-18, but we conceded 2-11).  And it could have been more.  Next, the performances of Odhran MacNiallais, who helped himself to 1-1, but did blow another great opportunity for a goal, and Hugh McFadden, who contributed two points when coming off the bench and broke ball effectively at midfield, were encouraging for newcomers to the playing squad.  It was great chasing back and a turnover generated by MacNiallais that led to one of the McFadden points.  It was great to see two newcomers combining so effectively.

Anthony Thompson had a very good game, setting up the first goal and taking a point himself.  Mark McHugh looked fit and played very well.  We clearly missed Big Neil at midfield, but he’s on his way back and Rory Kavanagh is carrying an injury, so we’ll get better in that sector.  Martin McElhinney, while not a great fielder in traffic, got through a lot of work and helped himself to two points late on.  Even if the deadly duo Murphy and McFadden helped themselves to 1-9, including a brilliant goal from Colm, we still ended the day with ten different scorers which was great to see.

But, the most pleasing thing was undoubtedly the return the starting line-up for the first time in nearly two years (his last start came against Dublin in a league game in March 2012) of Christy Toye.  And it was not run of the mill outing; Christy was involved in so much of what was good about the Donegal performance on Sunday.  For a man who many believed wouldn’t pull on a County jersey again, it was great to see.  And I’m sure it was emotional for him as well, showing his frustration when a facial injury (in no way serious) ended his afternoon.  The travelling support rose to acclaim his performance when he was withdrawn.  We know what Christy has done for this team in the past and the possibility he can play a part again this year has me excited.

A word of caution however.  Sunday was Christy’s 122nd game for Donegal (via Chris McNulty) – it’s amazing to think that Christy made his league debut back in 2002.  There are a lot of miles on the clock, even if he missed over two years of football from 2009-2011.  Even in 2012, he was only used as a substitute.  Sunday’s game had nowhere near the intensity of a Championship match and so it’s too early to know for sure what he will bring come the summer.  Still, even if he does nothing else this year, it was a joy to see him play in Portlaoise on Sunday.

Any negatives?  Well, as said, Laois were poor.  This was not a good enough test to show us where we’re really at, and, looking at the result and stats from the game in Navan, we might be none the wiser after our trip to Salthill.  Still, we looked fit and focused.  But, we didn’t see enough of Karl Lacey to know if he’s truly back to his best.  Hopefully that will come in time, but, doubts will persist until we see evidence that he’s capable of the likes of the run and point against Kerry in 2012.  I also felt that Leo McLoone still needs to prove himself at centre half back – he was culpable of running into contact when bringing the ball out, which is something that needs to be addressed.  And, he wasn’t really tested defensively.  I’m not trying to look for problems, but I’d like to see him being run at before May.

So, we move on to Salthill, assuming that it hasn’t been washed away before we get there.  This is our first meeting in the league since Division One in 2009 when Donegal were undone by Michael Meehan (1-9) in Salthill on the way to our relegation.  Despite the relative ease with which we lost that game, we still managed to get our revenge fairly quickly, winning by a single point later that year in an All Ireland Qualifier in Markievicz Park.  On Sunday, Donegal will likely start with seven of the men that played that day, whereas Galway will start three, maybe four (Michael Meehan’s fitness is in doubt), reflecting their ‘team in transition’ status, with up to six of last year’s All Ireland U-21 winning team expected to be in contention.

We face a team that scored almost as much in defeat as Donegal scored in victory, and this without the services of Michael Meehan through injury and then Sean Armstrong, who was lost to a black card.  They also had a penalty saved, but still managed to score 4-11.  Impressive eh?  Sure, but when you lose the game and concede 3-18 from play and when Meath racked up 15 or so wides, something is badly wrong.  Donegal don’t lose high scoring games, so unless Galway manage to reinvent themselves within the next week, or, Donegal implode in the same fashion as we did last August, it’s hard to see anything other than a win.  Sure, I predicted we would lose when I did my preview, but, I reserve the right to flip flop on this blog when I feel like it!

Until Victory, Always.