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

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