Archive for June, 2014

Baked to Perfection

Well, that was a very satisfying day in Clones, and there haven’t been too many of them over the years, but it’s become a happier hunting ground since Jim McGuinness took over.  Donegal are now 5-1 in Ulster Championship matches at Clones since 2011. We now have two Ulster Finals to look forward to in just over three weeks time and are in with a great shout of winning both matches, with the Minors setting the tone with a comfortable win over Antrim in the curtain raiser on Sunday.

Both the games on Sunday followed a similar enough pattern I suppose although the Minors were more comfortable at half time in their game.  At half time in the main event, no one was too impressed with what we had seen in the Senior game, but I wasn’t overly concerned myself, as I saw it as nothing out of the ordinary for a Donegal performance under McGuinness. We weren’t great, but it was clear we could get better and Antrim didn’t look like they were going to be good enough to beat us in any event.  And so it came to pass, with the usual third quarter spurt that was maintained right through to the seventieth minute when Brick Molloy finished off a goal started and assisted by his Naomh Conaill team mates.  It was in many respects a facile victory, but there were a few things worth further comment.

The positives – well, any day you score 3-16 with fairly marginal returns from Murphy, McFadden and McBrearty is encouraging in one respect I suppose. It was great to see Jigger hit 1-2 after scoring a point against Derry on his Championship debut.  Talent is nothing without confidence and the little man from Buncrana with the famous father seems to lack neither.  After appearing tentative at times during the glimpses we saw of him during the League, he has relished the Championship experience so far, even after having to sit his Leaving Cert at the same time.  It’s early days in what he hope will be a long and successful career, but the signs so far are very good.

RTE man of the match Odhran MacNiallais put in a great shift along with four points from play. Like Jigger, he was a late change to the starting team, lining out alongside Neil Gallagher at midfield initially, and then partnering Martin McElhinney when Neil was forced off through injury.   It’s quite astonishing to see that Donegal actually had the better of matters at midfield in the second half, when we were essentially down to our third and fourth choice options in MacNiallais and McElhinney, neither of whom would be considered premier high fielders.  But for the second successive game, Jim McGuinness managed very well with the resources available to him. 

Then there was Leo McLoone adding another 1-2 (could really have been 2-1) and generally doing quite well at half forward.  You really have to give the guy credit for playing a role he seemed uncomfortable with at centre back throughout the League but he is now thriving having been released of the responsibility of playing in such a pivotal defensive position.  His running in attack is much more direct and strong than it was from the back.  Alongside him, I thought Christy did very well, putting in a longer shift than he did against Derry. It was his strong run that set up McLoone for the goal that broke the Antrim resistance and he also added two points of his own.  My concern all year was that the pace and intensity of Championship football might be too much for him, but he’s handled it very well.  All in all then, our half forward line is looking good, and we could say that we are looking in better shape on this line than we were in 2012 and 2013.

Other than injuries (see below), one thing that would concern me from Sunday is that Paddy McBrearty had another disappointing game and it was no surprise to see him substituted. When everyone is fit, I’d have Jigger ahead of Paddy for that corner forward spot. I don’t want to place any significance on the League, but Paddy was much more effective coming off the bench during the spring than he was as a starter.  Starting doesn’t seem to be doing anything for his confidence seeing as how he missed a relatively straightforward chance early on.  Jim has had tremendous faith in McBrearty since bringing him into the team against Antrim back in 2011, but perhaps now he has a genuine option to start ahead of him in Jigger.  For me, Jim has a big call to make for the 13 shirt on 20 July.

In the other corner, Colm McFadden worked hard for little enough return, but at least he got his scores.  His run down the Antrim end line for his point showed admirable drive, but I was left wondering if he will get away with this against a more aggressive defence.  Between himself and Paddy’s form, and Michael’s relative quiet scoring form (you need to acknowledge that he has been asked to contribute more further out the field due to our injuries around the middle), you wonder what sort of scoring return we can expect from our full forward line the next day out.  As the excellent dontfoul notes, this was the second game in a row that the ‘Big Three’ had underperformed, especially when contrasted with their form in 2012.  As I say above, it’s nice that we can rack up 3-16 without getting much from the inside forwards, but sooner or later you feel we are going to have to see more from them on the scoreboard. 

Other than that, it was a better day than I expected. Ryan McHugh nearly got himself in bother late on, but thankfully nothing came of it. With Cassidy refereeing and Marty lurking on the sideline, you couldn’t be too careful. I assume Neil McGee must have suffered a knock and that’s why he came off, hopefully nothing serious, although watching the game footage, I can’t help but think ‘metatarsal’.  I’ve seen no update yet on Neil, but as Chris McNulty reports today, the news on Big Neil, Rory and Karl Lacey is encouraging.

Of course, all I am hearing is “wouldn’t be good enough to beat Monaghan” – and it wouldn’t, but we were never going to bust our asses to win on Sunday. We played more than well enough to beat a poor Antrim team and I’m pretty sure we have more in the tank for the Ulster Final. If you recall last year, Monaghan were very unimpressive in beating Antrim and fortunate enough to beat Cavan but looked pretty good in the Ulster Final. They had two years of footage to study on Donegal, but now we have plenty to study on them and Jim and Co will have known from the time the draw was made that there was a fair chance we meet them again this year, so I’m pretty sure we’ll have something up our sleeve for the Final.  That of course assumes Monaghan beat the auld enemy Armagh.  They are overwhelming favourites to do so, especially since Armagh will be missing three starters from their game against Cavan, suspended for “rough play” apparently.  Armagh v Monaghan is on Sky Sports at 7pm on Saturday in case anyone is wondering. I’ll be significantly more concerned if we are to face Monaghan on 20 July, a game that would be a massive proposition. But I would absolutely ****ing love to beat either of team in an Ulster Final.  Bring it on – whether it’s Monaghan or Armagh I think we will be ready. We’re in a better place than we were last year, that’s for sure.  By the way, Jim McGuinness has now won as many in the Ulster Championship games as manager of Donegal than all other managers combined since 1994. We’re lucky to have him. 

I’ll have plenty of doubts, questions, and crises of confidence in the lead up to 20 July, but for now, I’m looking forward to our fourth Ulster Final in four years.

Until Victory, Always


A Game to be Won

Well, it had to be Antrim, didn’t it?  It would have been nice to get a shot at Fermanagh for two reasons.  Firstly, we had some nasty battles with them back in the early 00s, and while I don’t really believe in ‘payback’ way down the line, it would be nice to get a Championship win over them.  Secondly, I would love Jim McGuinness to take down a different Ulster team to add to the list. In his fourth year in charge, we have yet to beat Armagh, Monaghan or Fermanagh in the Ulster Championship.  I was hoping to cross at least two off that list this year, which could well be his last.  Oh well.

It was a surprise to see, sorry, hear, sorry read that Antrim had beaten Fermanagh (Ulster has really lost out as a result of the Sky deal and BBC don’t seem too keen that anyone who can’t get Radio Ulster on MW can listen to games). They looked out of sight at half time, but were sweating mightily at the end and needed a goal line clearance to stay alive. 2-18 is a fair score to put up.  But, they conceded 3-13.  I know which stat I am more excited about.  If we even concede 1-9 to Antrim after conceding 0-11 to Derry, I would be surprised.   This game is there to be won and that’s all.  If we win well, so be it, but any kind of victory will do.  This is a semi final and nothing else.

Losing to Antrim would probably be the biggest shock for us since, well, we lost to Antrim in 2009. But those were the John Joe years and Antrim did go on to the Ulster Final before losing to then All Ireland Champions Tyrone and ended up exiting the Championship in Killarney to eventual 2009 Champions Kerry, who were probably at the peak of their powers.  And we were wearing green rather than our lucky white ‘away’ kit (both teams will wear alternate kit on Sunday, I guess O’Neills need to make money too).  However, 11 of the Donegal panel in action that day will likely see action against Antrim in Sunday.  Before that, we lost to Monaghan in Ballybofey back in 1995, when we were two years removed from winning the All Ireland, and that qualified as a big shock back then.  We weren’t in a dissimilar position to where we are now, although that defeat was on the first day out, as was the Antrim loss in 2009.   To be fair, JoeJoewe don’t tend to lose to heavy underdogs, but we are more likely to lose heavily to favourites. 

If Antrim drink the Pat Spillane kool aid, they will play good traditional football with lots of kick passing and shooting.  And I’d say they would lose heavily.  If they are smart, and I’m not sure that Liam Bradley is, they will put every player behind the ball that they can and hope to frustrate us and then hit us on the break.  However, that tactic is likely to be doomed to fail also.  Cavan essentially played this way in 2012, but they were a better team even then than Antrim are now.  They might frustrate us, but they will still need to score more than us to beat us.  Maybe they have been planning for this game for months in the expectation that they would meet us at this stage, and they will come out and play a system that nobody will have seen before, but I would be surprised.  I guess the other way they could surprise us is with a level of intensity we really didn’t face against Derry.

However, there are some things I would like to see on 22 June.  Firstly, a better day for our corner forwards, Colm McFadden and Paddy McBrearty.  Both struggled against Derry, but for very different reasons.  Paddy had his chances, but failed to convert the majority of them, his second half point breaking a duck.  Colm’s issue was more troubling.  He failed to create or take any opportunities, aside from one shot in the first half.  In saying that, reports since the game suggest he may have been laid up with ‘flu in the run up to the Derry game and so that will surely have had an impact on his performance.  Antrim will surely be more generous and hopefully this will rebuild any confidence that may have been dented in Derry.

Next, I would like to see another good 70 minutes from Paddy McGrath.  It was pretty remarkable to see him go the distance against Derry given all the time he has missed.  And it was an impressive 70 minutes, full of tenacity and aggression.  It was great to have him back.  Another strong outing against Antrim would show us that he is fighting fit for the rest of the summer.  I for one can never have too much reassurance.

Then there is the seemingly unresolved issue of midfield.  Rory Kavanagh returns from suspension and will surely start.  Who partners him is still an open question.  I have been puzzled by the use of Martin McElhinney in the last two competitive games, but he certainly performed well against Derry as a substitute, compared with his fairly poor performance against Monaghan in the Division Two Final from the start.  Sunday could be the ideal time to get Neil Gallagher some much needed game time ahead of harder battles ahead this summer.  I think I’d like to see Neil start alongside Rory with Martin coming on during the second half.

Assuming Rory and one from Neil/Martin starts at midfield, then there is a choice (choices?) to be made in the half forward line.  Three from five from Ryan McHugh, Christy Toye, Leo McLoone, Odhran MacNiallais, Jigger O’Connor is how I see it.  And that’s probably how I would rank them.  McLoone impressed in Derry, MacNiallais probably less so.  Christy was given a job to do and did it well for the time he was given – I’d like to see him in his more familiar role for Donegal on Sunday.  Ryan McHugh continues to become more influential.  He’ll never be the same type of talent as his father, but his energy and ability to get in/on/around the ball is tremendous.  And just because he’s no Martin, it doesn’t mean he lacks for talent or skill at all.  Jigger did very well really, when you take into account his age and that fact that was his first Championship start.

(Edit – since I wrote this, the team has been named and it’s Rory and Big Neil at midfield, with Christy, Ryan and Leo named to start at half forward).

Before I conclude, only fair to briefly mention our Minor team.  It’s an early start for them on Sunday, as their game throws in at noon.  After a patchy win over Derry, they are favoured to beat an Antrim team, who scored 5-10 in their Quarter Final win over Fermanagh.  Any win at this level is a good win for Donegal, and hopefully they can make it back to the Ulster Final for the first time since 2006.  I look forward to watching them again.  As Alan Foley writes, that 2006 team will provide a number of starters for Sunday, not least a certain Michael Murphy.

Anyway, forgive the shortness of the post and the lack of depth of the analysis, especially of our opponents but I am struggling to get excited about this game.  It was interesting to listen to Peter Canavan on the BBC Sunday (jeez, I sound like Martin McHugh, where everything is “interesting”) where he was saying that Tyrone people were far too confident/complacent in the build up to the Monaghan game and that it looked as if this had filtered through to the players.  I have wondered about this before. GAA players aren’t professional, and so mix with supporters every day of the week. You would like to think that themselves and management are focused enough not to be caught up in what people around them are saying, but you wouldn’t know. Anyway, confident as I am, I hope that the general mood in the County is quietly confident rather than downright arrogant.

No talk from me of who we might play in any Final until Sunday night/Monday….we know who lies in wait.  In the meantime, there’s a job to be done in Clones.

Until Victory, Always