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

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One response to this post.

  1. […] 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 the performance of Odhran MacNiallais and a cameo from Jigger.  Monaghan was an arm […]

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