Archive for May, 2014

Still Got It

Many of the questions we have been asking ourselves lately were answered on Sunday in Derry.  It was not the perfect performance by any stretch of the imagination, but it was good enough.  While we weren’t exactly written off in advance, there were plenty who felt that we were a spent force in light of last year’s Championship performance and then a fairly flat performance in the Division Two Final last month.  The intensity and the verve returned on Sunday, and while it wasn’t always pretty, especially in the first half, it’s always satisfying to win when you are not certain of doing so.   

In many ways, it was very similar to our way of operating in 2012.  We kept things close until half time, and then blitzed Derry in the third quarter before reverting to lockdown mode.  And, like 2012, it was Donegal who got the last score after soaking up the Derry pressure.  Leo McLoone’s score was somewhat reminiscent of Karl Lacey’s point against Kerry in the All Ireland Quarter Final.  The main difference of course was the build up – Lacey’s score came on a fast break, McLoone’s was the culmination of an 18 pass phase of clock killing possession (H/T to @dontfoul).  Either way, in both cases it was Donegal finishing strong.

After what was a fairly unimpressive League campaign, where he played almost exclusively at centre half back, Leo McLoone was somewhat of a revelation on Sunday.  Finishing with 1-01 and earning RTE man of the match honours will hopefully be a boost for him personally.  Whether his inspired showing owed anything to the fact he was nominally a half forward instead of deployed in a defensive capacity is an open question.  The fact that McLoone could be played in a more advanced role was as of course linked to the fact that we had Paddy McGrath available to start in defence.  It was great to have the Ardara man back and in fine form.  Pretty remarkable that he was able to last 70 minutes having missed so much time.  With Paddy back, I assume we won’t see McLoone at half back for the remainder of the Championship barring any injuries.

As Alan Foley points out, the tactics we saw at midfield on Sunday are a throwback to McGuinness’ time in charge of the Under 21 team back in 2010.   Big Neil missing out from the start was no huge surprise even if the rumours suggested he was fit enough to start.  But when I heard that McElhinney was not starting, I was very surprised.  A combination of Christy, Odhran MacNiallais and Michael Murphy was initially deployed, and seemed to do ok, although we cannot discount the impact of Derry losing Fergal Doherty relatively early on had on their performance (still, his replacement Niall Holly kicked a fine score not long after coming on).  But, as the half wore on, Derry seemed to get on top when Durcan kicked the ball out to midfield.  What was pleasing was some of the results from quicker and more targeted kick outs – nowhere near the level of what Dublin can accomplish, but encouraging nonetheless.  Some people I have spoken too criticised the decision to bring on Big Neil as he didn’t look fit.  True, he was responsible for a few turnovers, but he certainly gave the crowd a further lift after the blitz and made a good block in defence.  A few of us were also surprised that Christy was the man to go at half time, but all in all, McGuinness got it just right in the middle third. The stats indicate that we weren’t brilliant, but we did enough to win, and that ultimately is all you need to do!

The most pleasing aspect of the display on Sunday was of course our defence.  Not just for, you know, defending, but for those sorties into Derry territory.  It was Frank McGlynn who collected the ball from Michael Murphy and fed Leo McLoone for the decisive goal and Anthony Thompson collected a rebound off the upright on the Derry end line to set up Paddy McBrearty for what should have been a goal.  Throw in the points from Lacey and Thompson and you begin to ask yourself is it 2012 all over again.  Not to ignore the fact also that we only conceded 11 points in total, which will be good enough to win most games.  As I originally speculated, it was left to Karl Lacey to pick up Mark Lynch and he did a fine job. Lynch kicked one huge score, under immense pressure, but otherwise his influence was marginal.  The inside forwards McGuckin and O’Boyle were non-factors, due in large part to Derry’s inability to find them.  Nonetheless, the two McGees did all that was asked off them in our set up.  Above the call of duty, Neil McGee was on hand to rob Derry wing back Kevin Johnston of a potential goal opportunity in the second half when a goal would have brought Derry level and potentially stalled Donegal’s shock and awe operation.  Good and all as our defensive players and overall system was, Niall Holly and Mark Lynch did show that no matter how good you are, you are always susceptible to being undone by good long range shooting.  Thankfully, we did enough to restrict Derry’s opportunities in this regard.

There are definite areas for improvement.  Colm McFadden had a day to forget.  You can’t fault the effort, but nothing was sticking.  Dermot McBride, like Drew Wylie in last year’s Ulster Final, stuck to him like a bad smell and got away with plenty of holding, but that’s life for a forward sometimes.  On another day, maybe Colm gets a handy free and converts it and that sets things in motion.  Not so on Sunday – he didn’t even have a free to kick.  Was Sunday an aberration?  Hopefully, but you have to figure that we could be witnessing a player on the wane.  It’s a worrying enough sign that he has been held scoreless from play in his last two Ulster Championship games.  He did manage 3-30 during the League, so maybe I am worrying unnecessarily.  Plus, whoever we play next (Fermanagh or Antrim) will surely afford him the opportunity to get back on track.  He was so poor on Sunday that Jim McGuinness actually replaced him – something that never happens. 

If Colm was poor, then you would hope Paddy McBrearty is capable of stepping up.  Alas, he had a poor enough day himself – especially in the first half (four shots, one off the post, one wide, two dropped short).  He did get himself a point in the second half, but even then, he really should have had a goal.  You couldn’t really fault his effort, but when presented with these opportunities (especially when playing inside during the first half while Michael Murphy was deployed in a deeper role), he needs to do better.  His light hearted tweet afterwards about losing his shooting boots was fair enough given we won the game suppose and at least he acknowledges the issue.  The fact that he has exams going on at the moment might be a mitigating factor.  Again, the next day out he will have the opportunity to put up a greater return.

But of course it should be pointed out that we win despite getting virtually nothing from Colm and Paddy, and indeed only two points from play from Michael Murphy.  It’s good to know that there are others who can step up – 1-06 scored from play various others is a very satisfying return.  As ever, while it might be a disturbing trend if your inside forwards fail to deliver on an ongoing basis, but in an isolated game, it doesn’t matter who gets the scores as long as we get enough of them.

A quick word for our Captain – wow.  He was everywhere and everything on Sunday.  He shook off an early missed free that he really should have scored, but thereafter, he was inspirational.  He was involved in four successive scores – his fetch in the lead up to the goal, the dummy for his point from play, that free from the sideline and a free won and converted to put us five points ahead and essentially put us out of sight.  It didn’t escape anyone of course that Jim McGuinness ‘told him’ to attempt that shot from the sideline.   Sometimes talent needs a nudge.   

And when you think about the players that played on Sunday, you feel that you can expect more in future games.  Paddy McGrath – first game for Donegal since 60 minutes in last year’s All Ireland Quarter Final.  Jigger – first Senior Championship start ever for Donegal.  Neil Gallagher – we only saw him for 30 or so minutes.  Christy Toye and Martin McElhinney – only played a half each.  And of course Rory Kavanagh played no part.  We can expect more from all of these players next day out.

There have been murmurings along the lines of ‘that performance wouldn’t beat Dublin’ – but so what?  We weren’t playing Dublin on Sunday.  Dublin don’t play in the Ulster Championship.  I’m sure Jim McGuinness had one goal only on Sunday and that was to win the game.  From that perspective, it was a very good day at the office.  We now have four weeks to prepare for a game against Antrim or Fermanagh, a game we should win.  I’m certainly not thinking about anything more than an Ulster Final appearance at this stage.  Sunday’s performance left me in no doubt that we are still good enough to win an Ulster Championship if we make it that far.  Job done.

Until Victory, Always.

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No Siege Mentality Here

For the second year running, we start our Ulster Championship from the Quarter Final stage.  Things have worked out better when we have come through a Preliminary Round (2011 and 2012).  Back in 2012, we met Derry at the Quarter Final stage and ran out easy winners on a score line of 2-13 to 0-09 on a wet June day in Ballybofey.  The year before, we beat them less convincingly in the Ulster Final. Revenge of sorts served up 18 years after Joe Brolly had blown kisses at our first group of All Ireland winning heroes when there was no ‘back door’ and thus began a long period in the wilderness (EDIT – actually, no, Brolly scored his late goal in 1998, not 1993, when the scoreline was Derry 0-08 Donegal 0-06….).  Derry have featured along the way when things have been good and when things have been bad for Donegal. Our Championship record against the Oakleaf County reads 11 wins each, although Derry have lost 9 of the last 12 meetings.  Their last win over us came in 2008 when Paddy Bradley’s 10 points contributed greatly to their 1-14 to 1-12 win in the Ulster Quarter Final in Ballybofey.

For anyone who doesn’t remember, here is the chronology of events that preceded Brian McIver’s departure from the Donegal post in 2008.  It’s taken him a while to get back to management, but Brian has returned to turn around our neighbours.  Seemingly well liked by players wherever he has been, he ultimately came up short, first with Donegal, then as a member of the Down coaching set up when they surprised just about everyone by making it to the All Ireland Final in 2010.  McIver took charge of Derry in the aftermath of a pretty awful 2012 Championship when they followed up their 10 point defeat to Donegal by losing to Longford in the first round of the Qualifiers.  In his first year in charge, Derry, like Donegal in 2011, won the Division Two title and gained promotion.  However, the Championship was largely a disappointment – bowing out at the first hurdle in Ulster via a high scoring affair to Down and ultimately exiting the Qualifiers after losing another relatively free scoring game (after extra time) to Cavan.  But, the rebuilding task facing Brian McIver was likely greater than that faced by Jim McGuinness when he took over Donegal in 2011.  On Sunday, Derry will probably have 10 out of the 20 players that played some part in that Ballybofey match in 2012 in their match day squad whereas Donegal will have 15 out of 18 involved.  If we look back at John Joe Doherty’s final game in charge of Donegal, we will have 11 of the 19 that played that day against Armagh involved on Sunday, but two of those missing are Rory Kavanagh (suspended) and Mark McHugh (studying).

It’s hard to know how to analyse the 2014 version of Derry. Do we look at their recent League campaign, which looked pretty damn good right up until the final, which was a relative non-event.  Or, do we look at last year’s Championship, when they managed to beat Sligo and Down (a week after Down had given their all in trying to topple ourselves), but lost to both Down and Cavan at home.  In fact, they played all four games at home, winning two and losing two (one of the wins was actually over Sligo in Owenbeg).  Celtic Park is not quite a Championship fortress of late then.  The players that will start for Derry on Sunday, are, by and large the same that started last year against Cavan, although Gerard O’Kane and Fergal Doherty are big re-additions and Mark Lynch is now deployed at half forward rather than half back.  It’s not all change, but there is enough to suggest that Derry will be a different prospect in this year’s Ulster Championship.

Do Derry have the edge over us by having played against the top teams in Division One whereas we have faced lesser opposition in Division Two?  I’m not so sure.  We did ok coming out of Division Two in 2011, although Antrim followed by Cavan was a gentle enough introduction to Championship football.  However, we have the perfect example of why Divisional status doesn’t matter based on what we saw in Omagh last weekend, when Down, a team that will be in Division Two again next year, really should have beaten Tyrone, who were comfortable in Division One.

Of course, if I can pick and choose what l look at regarding Derry, then it is only right I acknowledge our own patchy form.  Despite beating Tyrone and Down in Ulster, which would normally constitute a pretty good year, the 2013 Championship does not hold happy memories.  If Monaghan in Clones was a bad day at the office; Mayo was a full blown Nightmare on Jones’ Road.  During the 2014 National League, we have been on a process of rehabilitation and rediscovery in the cosy confines of Division Two and while outwardly at least we achieved our goals, no-one is under any illusion about our prospects for the summer.  Especially not after our day out in Croke Park last month, where we looked distinctly out of sorts, albeit against a fairly impressive Monaghan team that are not in action for another three weeks.

I was feeling better about our prospects on Sunday before I heard about Neil Gallagher watching Glenswilly’s recent win over Termon while on crutches.  Then the news followed that James Kielt and Ryan Bell were likely to be fit enough to play for Derry.  If Big Neil was out, I assume we would go with a midfield of Martin McElhinney and Christy Toye.  Not a disaster by any means (they partner each other at midfield frequently at club level and Christy had a good display there against Louth during the League), but one that might struggle fielding against Patsy Bradley and Fergal Doherty.  Plus, if Big Neil were available, it would allow us to drop Christy slightly deeper to counter Benny Heron, who has tended to play more as a third midfielder during the league.  I hadn’t counted on Kielt and Bell returning.  Between them, they contributed around a third of Derry’s scores in last year’s Championship.  Add that to what they have lost to soccer in Eoin Bradley, and Derry’s scoring power was looking significantly less than last summer, when they managed to score on average just over 16 points a game.  But then I looked at Derry’s scoring during this year’s league. While Mark Lynch was predictably vital (hitting 2-44 or 30% of all scores), the two men who usually play inside, Cailean O’Boyle (5-6) and Emmett McGuckin (3-11) cannot be ignored, especially when you look at O’Boyle’s goals to games ratio – although Derry played nine games in total, he only really featured in seven yet managed five goals.  Beware the Lavey man.

Incidentally on Eoin Bradley, based on what we have seen from Derry during the league, it seems that Brian McIver made the right call.  But I wonder will everyone feel the same if Donegal win on Sunday?  Oakleafers Blog seemed certain that Bradley’s return was crucial for the Championship, and was still holding out some hope after the League Final defeat to Dublin.  We didn’t really miss Kevin Cassidy in 2012, but wing backs are easier to replace than quality scoring forwards.

In terms of our own team selection, there’s not much debate, is there?  The front three pick themselves, although Brick Molloy might feel a little hard done by given a decent league campaign.  Still, I would go for Paddy ahead of him and I expect that Jim McGuinness will as well.  Half forwards too look pretty obvious.  Based on what we saw during the League, you would expect Christy Toye and Odhran MacNiallais to get the nod, and Ryan McHugh to again fill in for his brother, as he did in the League Final.  Are there any potential wild cards?  Based on fitness, I guess it’s unlikely that David Walsh starts.   Midfield became no decision based on Rory Kavanagh’s red card; it will be Martin McElhinney and Big Neil, assuming that he’s fit.  Otherwise, I would expect Christy to start at midfield and either David Walsh, Brick or maybe even Leo McLoone to take his place in the half forward line (although if Brick starts, I would play Paddy McBrearty at half forward).

Now to the backs, where there are a few issues.  First off, does Leo McLoone return at centre half back?  He’s seemingly fit enough, having played for his club several times since missing out against Monaghan.  Having been selected at centre half back all throughout the League, right up until the Final when he missed out altogether through injury.  Is it realistic to assume he would miss out now?  The answer might depend on how fit is Paddy McGrath is at this stage. He’s been training, he’s been playing for Ardara, but is he fit enough for Championship action?  Is he the sort of player who can deliver a performance at 80% fitness?    Then we have the question that has been on our minds for most of the year, where to deploy Karl Lacey?  Assuming that Paddy McGrath misses out, do we keep Karl in the corner?  Or does he revert to the position from where he won his Footballer of the Year title in 2012?  I still think he’s our best man marker, so maybe we detail him to mark Derry’s obvious threat, Mark Lynch.  Dublin had the right idea in the League Final, with Johnny Cooper sticking very closely to him and generally limiting his impact until such time as it didn’t really matter.  Lacey may also have the potential to put Lynch on the back foot, assuming he is still able to make the sort of runs we enjoyed watching in 2012.  Someone else I talked too about Sunday’s game suggested Eamon McGee might pick up Lynch, which makes sense when you take into account Lynch’s physicality.  I don’t think we have tended to focus too much on individual opposition players while Jim McGuinness has been in charge.  Our defence relies on a collective effort more so than individual battles.  And, when you look at what McGuckin and O’Boyle contributed during the League, as well as the potential for Ryan Bell to contribute, you realise that Derry may well be able to score enough just relying on Lynch for his dead ball scoring, leaving their scores from play to come from others.  They also had a good spread of scorers during the League outside of Lynch and the inside forwards, and Derry’s half backs look especially comfortable attacking.  Do Donegal go man on man in the full back but with a sweeper to help out?  Maybe not dropping back a half forward, but just leaving three on two.  With eight goals between them during the League, we cannot afford to ignore the threat of McGuckin and O’Boyle.

Derry will likely go man for man with our forwards.  Do you think that might suit Michael and Colm?  Is that something they might be interested in?  I think so.  I’m sure it will be refreshing after the stifling tactics deployed by Monaghan.  Chrissy McKaigue was man of the match in the League Semi Final win over Mayo, which seemed to be as much to do with his surging runs as his stoic defence.  He looked fairly comfortable under high, direct ball on top of Alan Freeman.  But, when Freeman got in front of him, he was easily enough turned.  I’m already excited about Michael Murphy getting a run at him. The ball in needs to be good, so I am not assuming anything other than the potential that appears to exist.  The joker Derry might have in their pack is 19 year old Gareth McKinless, who had a pretty good day marking Michael in the Ulster Club Final back in December.  He made his senior debut for Derry at the end of March, but hasn’t appeared since, so I guess he is a long shot to start on Sunday.  Derry conceded an average of 18 points a game during the League and an average of 16 points during last year’s Championship.  On the face of it, finding scoring opportunities will not be an issue for Donegal.

During the league, Derry managed to score nearly 19 points a game, racking up 14 goals in the process.  They scored a goal in very game, with only Kerry keeping a clean sheet.  Twice they managed to score three goals in a game, once against Westmeath (I know…) but once against Cork (in fairness the Cork defence is probably nothing to get excited about either).  Recall that Donegal managed to concede three goals to Louth who were relegated to Division Three.  And, we conceded four in our last Championship game.  This is not a good sign.  Jim McGuinness may have been honest when talking about the black card creating fear and uncertainty for defenders, but I hope he was not describing the mood among our own defenders.  We cannot be afraid to tackle.

Before the final verdict, a word for our Minor team, who also take on Derry on Sunday.  I’ve only been following their results, so don’t really have anything to say, except that this group have been successful at all stages in Ulster up to this Championship.  Derry didn’t field against them in the Minor League, which Donegal won, beating Tyrone in the Final.  Derry have their St Pats Maghera contingent to return after an extended run in the Hogan Cup, so watch out for the ginger haired Glass at midfield.  Someone pointed out to me that two Kilkenny schools contested the All Ireland Schools Hurling Final and yet their minors were well beaten by Dublin in the Leinster Championship.  In terms of preparation, Donegal might just have the edge.  We might have left it behind us last year against eventual All Ireland Finalists Tyrone, and it is a cruel championship in Ulster, with no second chance until the Ulster Final.  Hopefully Declan Bonner’s lads can pull what I assume will be an upset on Sunday and if they can, there is a great chance of an Ulster title for this team.

Ultimately, I am going for a Donegal win on Sunday.  Despite the performance against Monaghan and the loss of Mark McHugh to his books, we are still in better shape going in to this game than we were before facing Tyrone last year.  Our preparations started earlier, and there have been less training sessions missed due to injury and less demands on the players than in the aftermath of the All Ireland win.  If we take Captain Fantastic at his word, then surely the mind was willing against Monaghan, so perhaps the bodies were not, and the fruits of our trip to Portugal will be evident on Sunday, when it really matters.  Jim McGuinness has cut a relaxed figure in recent interviews, and the departure of Mark McHugh has only really raised pulses outside the County.  For now, Donegal are focused on Sunday only, but if we can win and deliver a convincing performance, there is a very real chance of a third Ulster title in four years.  Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they are sure to get it.  Go to the Walled City in expectation, not in hope.

Until Victory, Always

Time to Circle the Wagons

So, the dust has settled on our Division Two League Final defeat to Monaghan.  It’s gone largely quiet on the Mark McHugh front.  There hasn’t been a peep out of the player himself (on the record at least) and we’ve heard nothing substantive from Jim McGuinness either.  There’s nothing really new or indeed unusual there.  The Disillusioned One did help his club to the County Gaeltacht title and a draw with All County League leader St Eunans over the past few weekends, so his enthusiasm for the game appears to remain at some level.

There’s been plenty of doom and gloom since the loss to Monaghan.  In fairness, this was bubbling under the surface all along (at least among most people I talk to), but the culmination was pretty ugly.  It didn’t help that what we saw against Monaghan took place in Croke Park and was our only televised game so far this year.  But anyway, let me try and be objective for a while, and focus on some of the more positive aspects of 2014.  So, when we look back at the season so far before we look ahead to Derry, what can we take from what we’ve seen and heard, and indeed what we haven’t seen since early February?

First off, Christy Toye made his long awaited return to competitive action.  He played a part in every game, and the signs were encouraging, although it’s not clear why he was taken of relatively early in the game against Monaghan in Croke Park.  Championship football will be a step up in intensity and in my mind at least, there is a question mark over Christy’s ability (in terms of fitness) to contribute come the summer.  But, it was great to see him back and if he can last the pace, he will be an improvement over Ryan Bradley or Ross Wherrity.

Secondly, can anyone recall how many minutes Karl Lacey racked up during last year’s relegation campaign?  Exactly zero.  Opinions vary as to how Karl looked at times during this year’s league, and I guess I am somewhat on the fence.  He was asked to play a lot of football in the full back line, so perhaps people had unrealistic expectations as to what else he could contribute.  And, like Christy Toye, we will need to reserve judgement until the white hot heat of Championship action.  Not only has Karl missed a lot of time since the 2012 All Ireland Final, but there are a lot of hard yards on those legs.

Next, Ryan McHugh got significant game time, and when he was played further forward than corner back, he generally impressed, building on last year’s encouraging Championship cameo.  Not a new addition as such, but ready to play a more significant role this year, perhaps even more so now in light of his brother’s absence from the squad. 

In terms of true newcomers, Odhran MacNiallais saw significant playing time in every game, scoring in each of the first three games, but then failing to find the target until the League Final.  There were definitely some encouraging signs, but not enough to be definitive as to what he will offer during the summer.  With other lads, for example, David Walsh, we know what we have, so I am undecided who should fill out the half forward line come 25 May.  It’s fair to say it remains the line with the most question marks.

Although they didn’t get significant time, Hugh McFadden (50 minutes in total) and Jigger O’Connor (78 minutes) made their competitive debuts, with McFadden helping himself to two fine points against Laois.  And Luke Keaney played most of the game against Monaghan in Croke Park, when it was a pity that neither McFadden or Jigger got a taste of playing at HQ.  Again, we really haven’t seen enough in the right situations to feel confident about calling on any of these lads come the summer, but it is good to see some new faces regardless.  There’s no suggestion just yet however that any of the first choice 13 (I am assuming that at least two positions are up for grabs, with the rest of the team seemingly picking itself) feel threatened, which to me is really the test of squad depth, not just having players to bring on as subs or fill in when injured.

All in all, Donegal used 28 players in total over our eight league games, although only 20 of these played over 70 minutes in total.  Paul Durcan, Neil McGee and Michael Murphy played every minute of the eight games, with Anthony Thompson and Colm McFadden missing a total of one and three minutes respectively.  20 different players actually started games.  We had 18 different scorers, with Colm McFadden edging out Michael Murphy as our top scorer 3-30 to 3-28.  Between them, Colm and Michael scored 55% of our total of 10-107.

In terms of ‘2014 football’, i.e. that which has seen higher scoring and more attacking football, apparently, how did Donegal compare?  Well, we averaged just over 17 points a game over our eight games.  This is more than we managed to score in the league at any time in the past 10 years.  But, it was only games against Laois, Galway and Louth where we managed to score higher than that average.  Let’s not forget that we scored only 10 points against Down.  To contrast with Derry for a moment, they managed an average of over 18 points in their nine Division One games.  Our 10 goals scored this year is much more impressive than three goals scored last year, but Derry managed 14 goals in Division One.    

Results and statistics are one thing, the general impression we have been left with after the League campaign is another.  On the one hand, we accomplished what we set out to do – we gained promotion and Jim got the players he wanted to see in action some game time, whether this was those returning from injury (Lacey and Toye) or relatively fresh faces (Ryan McHugh and MacNiallais).  But, other than very briefly, we did not hit the highs we hoped to see.  And, the Final performance and defeat to Monaghan has left us all feeling a bit more uneasy. It will take more than a victory on 25 May to fully negate that uneasiness.   Most of us see that we were fooled by our win over Tyrone last year. It was all downhill from there.

But, we must remember that our manager and players signed up for one more year to make a run at a Championship, not for the craic.  Portugal was not just a holiday and maybe we are just looking to peak at the right time.  We were a long way off that against Monaghan and people are annoyed about that performance.  We need to suspend our disbelief for the next 10 days or so and think happy thoughts ahead of our trip to Celtic Park.  There may well be plenty of time for giving out later on, but for now, I’m going to go away and take a look at Derry and then tell you how I think we might beat them on 25 May.

Until Victory, Always