Archive for March, 2014

Downward Trend

There’s not really much to say when you score 10 points in 75 minutes. 

The signs were there against Monaghan to be honest, we weren’t great and they were poor.  We got out of jail against Meath, thanks in large part to their failures and Michael Murphy’s brilliance, but there was no late reprieve in Newry on Sunday.

Down defended well, did well to slow us in possession by fair means and foul, and while we created enough chances to win, I didn’t think we deserved anything from the game.  We’ve seen the stats – 30 scoring chances to Down’s 21, 12 wides, 6 short, 2 blocked, but really, even if we had kicked half of our chances and won the game. I don’t know if anyone would have come away feeling that happy. Besides, I hate analysing a game in these sorts of terms.  If we win, I like to say that we could have won by more. When we lose, I just tend to say that we didn’t play well enough full stop.

Looking at tactics for a moment, the treatment afforded to Conor Laverty was puzzling. Might we have considered man marking their most dangerous player? He seemed to have the freedom of the park.  Of course, there will be an argument that says you don’t want to show your hand during the league, but you can’t win games if you ignore what’s happening on the pitch. 

In terms of individual performances, there isn’t much to say.  Neil McGee did quite well, especially in the first half, but other than that, I don’t think anyone stood out.  At the same time, I don’t think anyone played particularly badly, even if there were a number of below par performances from certain players.  It was very much a case of general lethargy – which might give some support to the one theory being proffered below.

Does this defeat do any long term damage?  Probably not, but two things – Jim McGuinness stresses that the League is about building confidence, so Sunday’s result has to be seen as a negative in that regard.  And, for the second week running, we struggled to overcome a team that set up defensively. 

In an effort to perhaps turn the tide, Paddy McBrearty and Darach O’Connor were deployed.  Ultimately, it accomplished nothing except putting two players who had bigger games to play in the coming days at risk.  Maybe no harm was done, but I just wonder what was the real motive behind these changes?  If it was really borne out of a desire to win the game, then I guess I can’t really argue, but if it was done for any other reason, then I am disappointed.  I thought at the time that Christy Toye and Brick Molloy had been doing ok, and Brian McEniff said as much in his piece in the Donegal Democrat, so it will remain a moot point.  Jigger did score a first minute goal for his school team on the Monday morning so maybe his cameo didn’t affect him, but, he was ruled out of U-21 action on Wednesday night with a hamstring injury. 

But, let me try some perspective.  In Division One, Tyrone and Cork were looking impressive in going unbeaten in their opening four games but were then beaten comprehensively by Kerry and Mayo in recent weeks.  That’s the nature of the league, but let’s not kid ourselves – Down are not in the class of Mayo or even a Gooch-less Kerry.  It’s not just this defeat in isolation that would concern me, it’s the trend.  Since the first day out against Laois our scoring rate has been declining and performances have seemed less fluid and assured.  Sunday was also the first game this year where we haven’t scored a goal, and to tell you the truth, I don’t recall us creating too many clear goal chances either.  Our scoring average is reverting to the same level that we managed in Division Two in 2011 – our scoring has declined in each of the last four games after we hit 2-19 first day out.

The popular, and a possible, explanation is that the level of intensity at training has increased.  Maybe, but none of us can really be sure of that without confirmation from within the camp.

In terms of the overall picture in Division Two, results in the last two weeks haven’t helped our cause, but it still remains within our own hands, largely due to our scoring advantage over Down.  For the record, I now expect Monaghan to finish ahead of Donegal as they have home games against Galway and Laois and have a scoring difference of +23 points (we currently sit at +25).  While in theory we could put up a big score against Louth, the way our scoring has dipped, I wouldn’t bet on it, and while I expect us to win in Armagh, I doubt we will score enough to cancel out whatever Monaghan can do in their remaining games.  Even if Down can beat Meath in Navan and then beat Laois in Port Laoise, I doubt they will make up the seven point differential we currently enjoy over them.  In the event all three teams are tied (as they are at present) head to head becomes irrelevant and scoring difference is what decides matters.  However, should Monaghan win both their games and Donegal lose to Armagh and Down lose to Meath (plausible), we could still sneak into the Division Two decider as there could end up being a four way tie for second with Donegal, Down, Meath and Armagh all on 9 points, but Donegal would still likely win a tie breaker on scoring difference.  Cue hilarious talk of the ‘abacus’ on the final day if any of this comes to pass.

Win both our remaining games and we are pretty much guaranteed promotion.  With winless Louth visiting on Sunday week, having conceded an average of nearly 19 points a game, we have a great chance to put our scoring woes of recent weeks behind us.  We have very little recent history against Louth, with our last meeting taking place in a Division Two Final replay back in 2006, when we lost.  I don’t recall that day or indeed the first game too fondly, so hopefully my day trip to Ballyshannon will be more fruitful than recent trips to Ballybofey and Newry.  A good performance and a win always makes the road home seem shorter.

Until Victory, Always. 

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No Need to be too Down about Meath Performance

Donegal beat Meath in Navan in Jim McGuinness’ rookie season in 2011.  Both sides have improved since then, but Sunday’s result felt like a bit of a letdown after the first three games in the 2014 edition of Division Two.

We were very poor in the first half and fell well behind, with the deficit as large as five points. But, as has happened in every game so far, we got a goal, and that got us back in the game, even thought Meath went right up the other end with amazing ease and pulled one back.  The overall performance was such that I wonder if perhaps training might have intensified in recent weeks, although we were able to lift our intensity in the second half, and created more than enough chances to suggest we could have won easily on another day.

We led on only two occasions – the initial score and then with around ten minutes to go. As said, we created a host of good chances in the second half but our finishing was very poor at times. Meath played very defensively in the second half – that’s not a criticism, just an observation – all 15 green jerseys were in their own half at times.  

Biggest issue, aside from the missed chances, was our kickouts. What on earth were we doing? We seemed to be making an effort to create lots of space, but then nobody was running into the space, save for maybe two times when Murphy managed to get free, but Meath were able to negate this by dropping a man back. Durcan didn’t look like he knew what he was doing, or his execution was very poor.  Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say that it was evidence of work in progress.  While Rory Kavanagh and Martin McElhinney did ok at times on Sunday, Meath’s big men illustrated why we need Big Neil back in the line-up.  He took the field to the now customary cheer and was effective, earning praise from Jim McGuinness afterwards.

Christy had a good game. Created several turnovers, his was always looking to give a pass and he scored two points from play. He looked like he was struggling towards the end, but as Jim says, the pitch was heavy (and this is an issue at this time of the year). Hopefully when the ground hardens up Christy might find it easier going, but the nagging doubts about his ability to last the pace will remain until we see him at the pitch of Championship football.

Ryan McHugh had a good game, although he gave away a free due to an extremely poor/lazy attempt to tackle and he was clearly at fault for his black card, which I had no issue with. And it didn’t really change our game plan too much as Jim had said beforehand that Karl Lacey would be getting some game time at some stage on Sunday.  Some of his Mark McHugh’s distribution was very poor, but he probably improved a bit in the second half, and in a change in approach from the first half, he was pushed up into a more traditional half forward role.

Jigger showed well when he came on, he tracked and tackled hard, but he failed to convert either of the two chances he created for himself.  We missed Paddy McBrearty yesterday, given that he has contributed at least two points from the bench in each game so far.  On Sunday, none of the subs used scored, although it’s worth nothing that David Walsh won a free in front of the posts and hit the post with shot for a point. It was good to see him back in action, at worst it is good to have him available to use as a sub, but I’m not sure I see him as a starter at the present time.

Ok to come back to a familiar theme, Leo McLoone was solid enough on the ball yesterday, but a further weakness was exposed – his tackling is shocking. He’s just not good enough for centre half back at this level in my opinion.  It will be interesting to see if McGuinness persists with him through the rest of the League as that would suggest to me he will also start come Championship.

Odhran MacNiallais and Brick were only ok at best yesterday and both were subbed. MacNiallais is still looking like a possible starter, but you have to figure that when Paddy McBrearty is fully fit and available, he will take the corner forward spot that the young Glenties man has occupied frequently so far in 2014.

Leading in injury time, Meath will be disappointed that they didn’t hold on to win. Fair play to Donegal for sticking with it, but honestly, Meath gave us every chance to get the draw – Michael Murphy’s wonderful equaliser came about when Meath delayed taking a sideline ball and then fouled the ball from the resulting hop ball.  And prior to that, they had kicked into Paul Durcan’s hands when it seemed easier to put the ball over the bar for a two point lead.  All in all, while we might be disappointed with yesterday’s result and aspects of the performance, Meath came desperate for a result and put much more effort into their tactics and performance than Monaghan had the week before.  We were tested, but held our nerve and weren’t beaten. Take those as positives and hope that we can learn something from the mistakes.

It was of course a great score under pressure from Murphy to get the draw, but it’s the second game in a row he hasn’t scored from play. Is this an issue? I’m not sure as it’s never really mattered to me who gets our scores and how as long as we get enough to win.  Thinking about it earlier today, maybe we should move away from the popular notion that Michael is best deployed on the edge of the square and can in fact be a more effective playmaker when he’s played on or around the 40.

As far as the recent League record goes, Donegal beat Down handily in Ballybofey last year, but lost in Newry in 2012.  Down are after losing to a wretched Galway team and had only two scorers all afternoon – free taker Donal O’Hair and the outstanding Kevin McKernan.  They had to battle against a weakened Monaghan team to salvage a draw in Newry and needed a late late Mark Poland goal to get past Armagh in a monsoon at the Athletic Grounds.  Their one convincing performance to date was their win over a Louth team who are likely headed for Division Three when they racked up 4-16 in Newry, including two goals from veteran sub Benny Coulter, who I am kind of surprised to see is ‘only’ 31.  Like last weekend, Donegal should win, but in truth any result wouldn’t surprise me, save for maybe Donegal taking a hammering.

Before I finish, on to off field matters for a moment.  It is disturbing, but maybe not surprising, to hear and read of a lack of communication and co-operation between the Senior and U-21 management teams.  At U-21 level, Donegal have a team with no little talent (Paddy McBrearty, Ryan McHugh, Marty O’Reilly, Hugh McFadden) and a relatively kind draw, facing Fermanagh in the first round and if successful, a semi-final meeting with either Antrim or Armagh.  At the least, we have a great shot at reaching another Ulster Final and it would be a pity if internecine issues make things more difficult than they need to be.  Add to that, the growing dissent at club level around fixtures that seems certain to drag Jim McGuinness in.  This blog is mainly concerned with the County Senior team, but it saddens me that our other teams and our clubs aren’t really being given a fair shake.

Until Victory, Always.

Donegal Easily Pass their Mock Exam

When Donegal were relegated from Division One last year, I felt that we might find Division Two tough going if we weren’t at the races as it may well be more competitive, even if the standard is lower.  Well, after three games, I don’t know what I was worried about.  Donegal are taking themselves seriously, which should be obvious based on the teams that Jim McGuinness is selecting and the margins of victory we are enjoying.  A win down here might be less impressive than a win in Division One, but one thing is for sure – we are building confidence again after our annus horribilis that was 2013.  And Jim McGuinness is on record in talking about how much he values building confidence.

On Sunday, we were very sloppy at times during the first half. But, for the third successive game, we took our goals well, with Odhran MacNiallais’ finish especially impressive (as an aside, I wonder when was the last time a Donegal forward not called Michael or Colm scored 1-3 in a game?  Chris McNulty reminded me that it was Paddy McBrearty against Cavan in 2011, on a day when Michael Murphy saw red from Marty Duffy early on and one of Paddy’s scores was from a free whereas MacNiallais scored 1-3 from play). Martin McElhinney appears to have done everything to be considered a nailed on starter now, putting in another industrious performance and adding a fine point for good measure.  Karl Lacey is looking good at corner back, well, he looks good to me, others have different views, suggesting he struggled, but I think Ciaran McManus would test any defender.

My immediate verdict in the aftermath was that we were comfortable without being convincing. It was a bit like last summer’s Championship win over Tyrone – the goals were the difference. First off, you have to acknowledge that Monaghan were missing seven or eight of their first choice 15. Owen Lennon and Darren Hughes were massive losses at midfield and while they managed to plug the gap with Kieran Hughes, moving him out weakened their forward line. The lead was six at half time and the game was as good as over when MacNiallais struck first and sweetly at the start of the second half.  Despite a few sorties from the full back line from Fintan Kelly and then Drew Wylie that led to points, Monaghan never got close enough to suggest anything other than a Donegal win was likely and the challenge I was looking forward to seeing from Monaghan never seemed to materialise.  Still, Donegal took care of business which is always good to see – can only beat what’s in front of you etc.

The positives – Ryan McHugh, McElhinney and MacNiallais all played well. Right now, you would have to say that they should be in our first choice 15 but Jim has come out and said he sees the starting line up as more fluid than was previously the case so we’ll see I guess. One criticism of MacNiallais (and I saw this against Galway too) – he coughed up possession a little too easily in the lead up to Monaghan’s first point.  There was another very impressive cameo from Paddy McBrearty for the third game running. I haven’t checked, but I think he’s scored at least two from play from the bench in each game so far. It was also good to see Jigger in action, he did well, although probably should have taken a score himself late on instead of passing.  The one concern I have of course is that all these lads look good in Division Two which isn’t necessarily an indication of how they will perform come May.  Not to be unkind, but many of us would have felt that Brick Molloy wasn’t good enough for intercounty football, and yet he has impressed in what we’ve seen so far.  I hope that he has improved as much as it would appear, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The areas for improvement – well, there were a few. Michael Murphy probably had one of his poorer games in the gold and green and only had one point from a free to show for his efforts, but, he did assist for MacNiallais goal and there was one brilliant trademark flick at the death to set up a score for Declan Walsh. After a very encouraging return against Laois, Christy Toye’s performances seemed to have tailed off in the last two games, but perhaps that is not suprising given how much time he has missed and the fact that pitches are heavy at this time of the year. Launching Neil McGee as an attacker didn’t really work well, and I’m pretty sure he turned the ball over twice in the Monaghan half. Leo McLoone continued his habit of carrying into contact and looked fortunate to get two frees. I wonder – if/when everyone is fit, could we play McElhinney at centre half back? My concern is that he seems like more of an attacker than a defender, but he is stronger in possession, or at least better at avoiding contact than McLoone.

Hopefully Frank McGlynn isn’t badly injured – Jim didn’t seem to think so, but with Eamon McGee available again (I don’t know why he didn’t get a run on Sunday), I’d like to see Frank get a rest next weekend, even if we are short on cover at corner back with Paddy McGrath still missing.

After last summer, Meath appeared to be a team on the rise again.  They put it up to Dublin and Tyrone last summer, and in Donal Keoghan and Mickey Newman, have two very fine young footballers at both ends of the pitch.  They started their National League campaign by running up a big score against Galway, albeit they conceded heavily in the same game.  Since then however, their poor run of form continued against Ulster teams.  When you consider that Monaghan on current form ran up twenty points on them, you start to feel confident.  And, to throw away the lead at several times at home to that Armagh team and you feel more confident, even if Meath come getting desperate for points.  Donegal have home advantage – and Ballybofey is where we seem to have started building some kind of home advantage and so I expect us to win.

Until victory, always.