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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One response to this post.

  1. […] finishing with a very flat performance against Monaghan.  There were encouraging signs against Derry in the first round, but it was a case of ‘green shoots’ and not much else.  Antrim was a non-event, other than […]

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