A Final Failure

Of course, I had most of the below written before today’s significant news, so the opening paragraph is a late addition, but let’s get the elephant out of the room.  It seems that Mark McHugh has left the Donegal panel.  Of course, three other players (Gary McFadden, Antoin McFadden and Thomas McKinley) also have appeared to opt out and no harm to them, but I don’t think any of us expected them to figure at any stage this summer.  Only one of them, Gary McFadden, had seen any time during the League, and he had seen a grand total of two minutes against Louth for his efforts.  No surprise then that these lads would walk away at this stage of the year.  Mark McHugh is another story of course.  The Democrat had the scoop earlier today and we got a bit more detail via the Donegal News this evening.  Damien Diver acknowledges that his form has been ‘indifferent’, which I think most of us would agree with.  The reasons for quitting aren’t exactly a surprise given what we hear about the intensity of training and the level of commitment required, but it’s undoubtedly a blow to our Championship preparations.  We can’t afford to lose someone who was an All Star in 2012 and played a key role in our All Ireland success, and of course this will bring more heat on McGuinness, especially in light of Sunday’s performance.  And, you would wonder – is Mark McHugh the only Donegal player ‘disillusioned’ with football after three hard years under Jim?  I sure hope not.

Anyway, back to business as usual, and it’s a longer than normal blog this week.  This is what happens when we lose, I typically have more to say than when we win.  Most people are struggling to keep perspective given our display on Sunday.  I think if we had had lost a competitive game by the odd point, we might not feel as glum.  But the fact is we looked well off the pace and I don’t think many of us expected to see such a lethargic performance with four weeks to go until the Ulster Championship.

Monaghan’s intent was pretty clear from the throw in on Sunday.  Starting Colin Walshe and Darren Hughes told me that that much.  Paudie McKenna was also a late addition to the Monaghan starting fifteen and he had a fine game.  For Donegal, most of us would have been surprised to see Luke Keaney starting at this stage of the season given his lack of game time to this point – he had played one minute against Galway and one minute against Louth.  He was named as a Colleges/Sigerson All Star earlier in the year, so I would have liked to see him get more time during the League, but Declan Walsh looked to be our first choice back up in defence.  On Sunday, he replaced Keaney after 65 minutes.  An odd call by Jim McGuinness.  Stranger still was the sight of Conor Classon replacing Odhran MacNiallais after forty six minutes.  Classon had not played one minute during the League this year, and as far as I can make out, his last appearance for Donegal was in February 2012 in a League game in Newry.  Why does he suddenly appear now, ahead of, say, Marty O’Reilly or Hugh McFadden?  I guess we can’t say for sure who has looked good in training etc. lately but it seems inconsistent with what we have seen so far this year.

We started well enough, with a fine point from Paddy McBrearty and then a free to go two up. But Monaghan levelled through two fortunate enough scores. Their first score came via a Rory Beggan 45 (he has a very languid style, it almost looks like a chip shot, even from that distance) after Luke Keaney appeared to block Kieran Hughes, but replays suggest there was no contact, and Keaney himself wasn’t taking credit for the block.  Monaghan’s second score came via a Darren Hughes ‘Hawkeye’ point came after it seemed to me Rory Kavanagh had been fouled while carrying the ball out of defence.  Watching the game you can see Rory getting a fairly raw deal from the referee throughout, something which may well have contributed to his frustration that may have contributed to his actions leading to the sending off in the second half.

But this was a common theme for the afternoon – Monaghan continually hit while tackling.  Donegal got a few advantages, a few frees, but the effect was calculated.  They certainly played to the margins of the rules, but that’s not a criticism, just an observation.  Indeed watching Monaghan on Sunday I could not help but think of how we played in much the same way in 2012, which seems like longer and longer ago now.  Monaghan were faster, fitter, more focused.  It’s nearly two years since we’ve seen anything like that from Donegal.  Aside from our game against Laois earlier this year, can anyone say when we last played with the sort of verve we recall from 2012?  And Laois aren’t where it’s at.   One thing that I can’t say anymore is that Donegal are better than Monaghan.  Whatever the circumstances, they have now beaten us twice comprehensively in recent ‘trophy games’.  Ignore the result from Letterkenny earlier this year. They have our number for sure.

I guess one positive was that we managed to score as much in the first half on Sunday as we did in 70 minutes in Clones last July.  But the rest of the stats make for ugly reading – 1-14 to 0-04 scored from play and 11 different scorers (seven different Monaghan players scored in the first half).  At half time, the wide count was 7-2 in favour of Monaghan (according to TG4, the Irish Times had it as 5-2).  Missing in that statistic are the three balls that Donegal dropped into Rory Beggan’s hands. This was reflective of the strength of the wind we played against in the first half perhaps, but not something you want to see, especially when up against a team that was so effective on the break.  But I counted two more in the second half as well as two balls caught by Monaghan defenders in the square.

The stats are ugly enough, but watching the game back it is worse still – much like it was watching the Ulster Final last year after attending.  When viewed on TV, it almost seems like Donegal weren’t really trying all that hard on Sunday, at least in the first half.  At least in the second half we looked like we were interested.  The sending off might have derailed our usual third quarter surge, even if we did get level via a dubious penalty.  Regarding the sending off, I have no argument with the red card for Rory, but how any Monaghan escaped some kind of censure for that incident is frustrating, but largely irrelevant.  On Rory, I have seen quite a bit of negative comment regarding his undoubted stupidity, but I’m pretty sure no one is more disappointed than the player himself.  He’s been our most consistent performer this year and now he misses what is the biggest game of the year so far, and what could well be his last game in the Ulster Championship.  We’ll miss him on 25 May for sure.

It was hard to pick out anyone who played well for Donegal on Sunday.  I thought our inside forwards worked hard in difficult conditions – due to the Monaghan tenacity in defence, but also due to the quality of the ball they received, and the ponderous build up play.  While you could look at the 1-14 conceded from play and think that the defence played badly, it’s hard to lay the blame solely at their door when we were turning over the ball so much further up the field.  Our defensive system relies on having bodies filter back at pace – when teams play us at our own game and we don’t react quickly enough, that system breaks down.  Any analysis is made more difficult by the fact that there seemed to be several switches made during the course of the game so it was hard to track who was playing where.  But, I think it’s fair to say that Neil McGee had a tough afternoon when matched up with Ciaran McManus.  And, we struggled, again, to contain the influence of Kieran Hughes, who seemed to be everywhere.  Luckily for us, he had something of an off day in front of goal, even if he did end up with 1-1 from play.

It’s hard to say why Martin McElhinney and Christy Toye were hooked so quickly and simultaneously.  McElhinney had turned the ball over on several occasions and Owen Lennon was doing well at midfield, so maybe Neil Gallagher’s steady play and physical presence was needed.  As for Christy, I didn’t see any obvious reason why he would be replaced – maybe he was not getting back quickly enough when Monaghan were breaking, or maybe Mark McHugh was going to play as a sweeper, although he certainly didn’t seem to play in as deep a role as we had been used to seeing him occupy.  Stranger still that McHugh didn’t start in the first place, even if his form hadn’t been great.  But, knowing what we kind of know now, maybe it’s not so strange that he didn’t start, although it’s also curious that he was picked to come on at all.

Jim McGuinness said afterwards “We tried to push on as best we could but the bodies weren’t able to do it” – which almost suggests we were lacking fitness.  I don’t know what scenario is more concerning – the idea that we weren’t interested in winning, or the fact that we weren’t fit enough to win.  Recall that 14 man Derry were able to kick on and beat Mayo two weeks ago.  I said at the time that I felt Mayo were poor in that game, but still, Mayo are probably a bigger test than Monaghan.  Does this suggest Derry are ahead of us in the fitness stakes?  If so, can we close the gap in the next four weeks?  Declan Bonner has a good piece in the Donegal News, reflecting many of the concerns I’m sure most of us have at this point.  I guess if you want to take anything else from it, the relaying of the conversation with Tommy Carr regarding training camps taking three weeks to yield results will fit the narrative that hard training would lead to the display we saw on Sunday.

In the same interview with the Donegal Democrat referenced above, McGuinness also seems unhappy with the discipline issue, and indeed with the focus on club fixtures.  He didn’t sound overly displeased with the result itself, and it’s hard to contest the view that it was promotion itself that was important.  He was neutral on whether or not the training camp contributed to the performance on Sunday, but that tends to be the usual response from managers – James Horan said as much about Mayo two weeks ago.  But, maybe there’s a theme there – both Donegal and Mayo have looked lethargic at Croke Park in recent weeks.  Both teams are at similar stages in their cycles (Horan took over Mayo in 2010, McGuinness took over Donegal in 2011) and have been worked very hard over the past three years or so.  Is what we have seen reflective of a deeper understanding from the respective managers as to what is required to play until deep into the Championship season or are we seeing players that are tired both physically and mentally. Is the well being refilled or is it running dry?

But putting down the performance on Sunday to the fact that we are working towards bigger goals is largely wishful thinking and based on hope or blind faith rather than evidence. We can only go on what we have seen up to this point, and on the whole, even if we have been promoted, it has not been encouraging.  This was only Division Two remember.

Still, I had a look back at what I wrote prior to the 2012 Championship.  I wasn’t too impressed by our League form back then, but of course the standard of opposition was higher.  I’ll be back to preview the Derry game in a few weeks.  I don’t really feel any worse about it today than I did before throw in on Sunday, especially in light of their hammering at the hands of the team that is undoubtedly out on their own as number one in the country right now.  But of course, then came the news on Mark McHugh and you start going over everything you’ve seen again.  There’s just under four weeks for us to reflect further and for Donegal to get their house in order ahead of the short trip to the big game in Celtic Park.

Until Victory, Always.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] about that game, forget about the league game in Letterkenny earlier this year and forget about the Division Two Final in April. There can be absolutely no disagreement that Monaghan were better than us last year. They may well […]

    Reply

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