Archive for July, 2014

No Doubt About It

Clones on a heavy July afternoon is no place for the faint hearted.  Donegal stood up and more than measured up to Monaghan on Sunday.  Donegal completed a historic double and proved a point after the disappointments of 2013.  Donegal were hurt after their lacklustre performance and it showed.  Everything that was lacking 12 months ago was there in abundance at the weekend. 

It’s hard to put into words my feeling at the final whistle.  Although we have had recent success, Sunday felt like the end of a famine.  I had felt positive throughout the Championship that we were building towards a performance like this, but it felt great to see it unfold on the Prunty pitch.  It was a game that felt like we were always in control.  Even after Chris McGuinness’ goal, we responded quickly and effectively.  Control has been a common theme all through the Championship, just as it was in 2012.  It’s a warm, comfortable feeling to be sitting there and not worried about losing.

Of course, there has been plenty of negative reaction to the game from the national television meeja and on social media, but I’m not going to rail against that.  I suppose, the reality is, unless you are from Donegal or Monaghan or a real fan of the modern tactics, which often resemble a game of (very) physical chess rather than traditional football, it probably was an ugly game.  But, I guess all you have to say is that people are entitled to their opinion and leave it at that.  I said beforehand that I didn’t care what kind of game it was as long as it was won by Donegal, and so it came to pass.

But, amid what was billed as a dour defensive struggle, there was some wonderful football.  Karl Lacey’s textbook tackle of Dermot Malone.  The seemingly effortless stroke of the ball from Odhran MacNiallais for his three points. Neil Gallagher’s towering catch. Paddy’s flick and point. Michael Murphy’s monster free at the death.  Yes, there were many memorable moments if you are a Donegal supporter.

Our defensive set up was very impressive.  There were no one-on-one situations – there were always enough bodies around to ensure that there was never any danger of a terminal event.  And, there was some excellent defensive play –Lacey’s tackle in the first half, some inventive tap downs to a spare man etc.  Of course our successes our based on the collective rather than the individual, but make no doubt about it, we have some very intelligent and talented defenders.  It was great to see the McGee brothers up to their old mischief, especially after the tough afternoon they endured in 2013.  No better men to goad the opposition.  Neil’s sorties up the field were something that we saw during the league, which just goes to show that it isn’t a complete waste of time going to games in March.

Sure, some things went our way.  Rory Beggan was less than perfect from placed balls, indeed he finished two out of five, with one free and one 45.  Exactly the same return as last year, a result I said that I would have settled for beforehand.  Kieran Hughes may not have been fully fit, and he may have been lucky to stay on the pitch at the end.  We may have been fortunate to avoid conceding a first half penalty.  Monaghan certainly appeared to play into our hands – how else do you explain the miserable return for Conor McManus, who was restricted to one point in added time.  But I don’t think anyone would argue against the proposition that we were the much better team from start to finish and whenever Monaghan threatened we were able to respond. 

That goal was the first that Donegal have conceded from play (well, a penalty rebound is technically from open play as well) in the Ulster Championship during the reign of Jim McGuinness.  It was very well taken by the opportunist Chris McGuinness but it was a bit unfortunate on both Frank McGlynn and Eamonn McGee.  The rest of the defence was perhaps a bit slow to react, but in truth there’s nothing there to worry us for future games.

Neil Gallagher gave us 70 minutes of remarkable energy.  Sure, there were some turnovers that left you frustrated, but otherwise it was a massive performance from a man who has missed so much time this year.  His defensive work is so impressive, especially his knack for often being in the right place at the right time to make an interception or catch a ball under his own crossbar.  The management of his injury and playing time has been excellent.

Ryan McHugh continues to impress.  After a first half when he seemed a bit lost, it looked like he was injured or dazed, he delivered a mini tour de force in the second – full of running, intelligent tackling and passing.  He chipped in with a point that might well have been a goal, but it was enough to get him the official man of the match award and who could argue with that.

As ever, there were negatives, or, if you are a glass half full type, areas for improvement.

Colm McFadden had another fairly below par showing.  There are plenty of people giving out, but when you look back at the game, you will see that he was cheated out of a point by the officials (on a side note, ridiculous that Hawkeye is available for any Championship game in Croke Park and nowhere else) and set up two scores, as well as converting four frees.  He did miss two he probably should have scored, although the first one looked like it was more suited to a right footed kicker and for the second miss, he could well have been put off by the fact his name had been called to come off for Brick Molloy.  Throw in the fact that he was very well marked, often by two men and I don’t think his performance looks as bad.  If nothing else, he’s still drawing attention which gives the likes of Karl Lacey, Anthony Thompson and Odhran MacNiallais opportunities to shoot.  Maybe I’m making too many excuses for him, but I just think it’s slightly pointless discussing his form when it’s very unlikely he’s not going to be starting our next game.

Paddy, outstanding, even if he did make a complete hash of that chance in the first half – I was thinking ‘here we go again’ – but other than that – outstanding. I’d love to think this is the start of something special, but we’ve been here before. Let’s just enjoy what he gave us on Sunday and we’ll see what the next day brings.

It was great to see Jim McGuinness run to his players at the final whistle.  That just shows you the bonds that are still there, despite all the challenges over the past 18 months.  This team has endured and the spirit of 2012 is alive and well now.  How far we can go from here remains to be seen, but that’s a question for another day.  In the aftermath, Jim McGuinness said that this win was not a statement of intent; it was an Ulster Final, a game to be won and nothing else (although he said something a little more revealing later on in Donegal Town).  And he’s half right.  For now, sit back, relax and enjoy the fact that we’re Ulster Champions again.  It’s been too long.

Until Victory, Always.

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Make no Mistake about it – Monagahan are a Massive Proposition

If I were to tell you about an Ulster Final featuring the champions of the past two years and a repeat of last year’s Final, is that something you might be interested in? Since the draw was made, most of us probably figured that if we beat Derry, we’d face either Tyrone or Monaghan in the Final. Some people are bent on the idea of revenge – not me. I would gladly have faced Tyrone, a team we have clearly established superiority over in the Jim McGuinness era. Instead, it’s Monaghan, a team that we haven’t beaten in Championship since 1983 and one that robbed us of a historic three in a row last year. I don’t fear Monaghan, but I’m all for avoiding trouble. Well, we’re likely to get that in spades on Sunday. All is not lost however. If we want to talk about history, Monaghan lost to Tyrone last year and all the talk this year before their meeting in the Ulster Championship was how they hadn’t beaten the Red Hands since 1988. Such records are largely meaningless.

On the face of it, Donegal come into the Ulster Final in much better form than we did last year. However, we have to acknowledge that neither Derry nor Antrim proved to be much of a challenge. Their subsequent performances in the Qualifiers may serve to take some of the gloss off our wins over each, but I’m not too worried. For me, we showed enough in each of those games to suggest we are on the right track. A repeat of either performance would probably not be good enough to win on Sunday, but I’m fairly certain that Jim McGuinness is well aware of that. Remember that in 2012 it was the second half of the Ulster Final win over Down before we really clicked into gear. Still, Monaghan 2014 are a much bigger test than Down 2012.

Their victory against Tyrone was narrow, but it felt like Monaghan were much the better team throughout. You need to remember that although Conor McManus started the game, he didn’t appear to be fully fit and didn’t score from play. Kieran Hughes missed a penalty. Against Armagh, they lost Conor McManus to a ridiculous black card (which was subsequently rescinded) midway through the second half. Despite losing Kieran Hughes at half time in the replay, they were much too good for Armagh. They have been without Owen Lennon for the Championship so far and they will be missing him on Sunday as well. They have battled through to this Final despite injuries to key players and have shown more than enough to suggest that they will not give up their title without a fight.

But there is hope for Donegal. Consider these stats from their first game against Armagh for a minute. Armagh scored 10 points from play. Monaghan led by three points deep into each half and yet Armagh went in level at the whistle. Monaghan didn’t receive a yellow card all day. The lack of intensity in their performance was evident. Perhaps not surprising given they had just got a huge monkey off their back when beating Tyrone. But, in each of their first two games of this year’s Championship they have established solid leads only to retreat into themselves. Tyrone should have got a draw; Armagh made a better fist of their last minute free. I’ve been saying all along that Monaghan will give us a chance; it now appears that unless they can build a lead greater than three points we will have a great chance. Of course, they laid down a statement of intent in their replay win over Armagh, with a performance that reads very like last year’s Ulster Final display. But one thing that stands out to me from that report is the line ‘building up a four-point advantage at half-time that in truth should have been a lot more.’

In Rory Beggan, Monaghan have a free taking goalkeeper who is approaching Cluxton like levels of accuracy from long range placed balls. We cannot afford to give away too many fouls, or indeed 45s. We’ve been here before – Kerry in 2012 when faced with Brian Sheehan, Tyrone in 2013 when faced with Niall Morgan. In one case (Kerry), our discipline was admirable. Against Tyrone in 2013, we might have fouled at the edge of Morgan’s range, or, he had a really bad day (as he can do every so often). Beggan scored a free and a 45 in last year’s Ulster Final. Keeping him to that that again would be no mean feat. More worrying than the form of Beggan is the threat we will face from McManus, who looks fighting fit again after an injury limited him earlier in the Championship. He scored 1-3 from play and also knocked over a sideline and three frees against Armagh – we know we have someone who is capable of a similar feat however.

Assuming Kieran Hughes is fit enough to join McManus in the full forward line, our defence will face a severe examination in Sunday. But I’m happy with where we’re at. Even in our fragile state last year, Monaghan only scored 13 points when we managed 7. Which team score do you think is more likely in 2014? Derry 11, Antrim 12, Monaghan 13 has a nice linear theme to it. We conceded 8 points to Derry in the 2011 Final, 13 points to Down in 2012, and 13 points to Monaghan in 2013. Past performance is no guide to the future etc. But the swagger and the snarl have returned this year. Our defence will not let us down on Sunday. I’m convinced of that.

The winning and the losing of this game will be up front. Last year, the problem wasn’t really our defence, it was the fact that we only scored seven points. Seven points will never be enough to win a Championship game in the summer months. Before you throw the 2011 All Ireland Semi-Final back at me, let’s just say that was an extraordinary game and leave it at that. No, we will need to do better than seven points this year, and when you look at the scores Monaghan have conceded in their three games in Ulster this year to date (0-14, 0-14 and 1-13), you have to figure that we will need to double last year’s total at least. It would be nice if our inside forwards were scoring more, you get the feeling that they will be required to do so on Sunday. But, the returns from the rest of the team have been impressive, and perhaps this is how we will win the game – you have to believe that like last year, Murphy and McFadden will be tightly marked, and Monaghan will almost certainly deploy a sweeper.

With regard to team selection, assuming everyone is fit, there could be some interesting calls to be made. As is generally the case, the defence picks itself. Paddy McGrath was injured in a club match after the Ulster Semi Final and Karl Lacey sat out the win over Antrim, but both are expected to start. Midfield is a bit of a mystery, with both Rory Kavanagh and Neil Gallagher far from certain to be fit based on what we have read, even if they have returned to training. For me, if they are fit, they are still our first choice pairing, despite the strong claims of Martin McElhinney.

Half forward line is where we have real competition for places. Over the past few years, the starters in this line have been variable, but not to the extent of 2014. You’d have to figure that Christy Toye and Leo McLoone will start. On Christy, I’d urge you to have a read of this piece by Chris McNulty and recall what he’s given to the jersey over the years. His comeback is the best story of the year for Donegal as far as I am concerned. The third position will probably be a choice between Ryan McHugh and the man of the match from the Semi Final, Odhran MacNiallais. Also in contention will be Jigger of course, but more on him in a moment. MacNiallais gets the position if we’re short in defence, when you would assume Ryan McHugh would drop back. Before the Semi Final, I would have had Ryan over Odhran, but I’m having a hard time choosing this time around. In MacNiallais’ favour, he is probably more of a scoring threat than McHugh, but on the flip side, McHugh seems to have more of a nose for the ball. Whoever starts, I’m sure both will have some part of play on Sunday.

In the full forward line, I feel that there has to be a change. After a point on his debut against Derry and 1-02 in the win over Antrim, Jigger’s claim to start cannot be ignored. The obvious choice in terms of who to make way is probably Paddy McBrearty, who has looked out of sorts in the two games so far, and was hooked early enough against Antrim. He’s been virtually ever present since making his debut as a sub against Antrim in 2011 (by my reckoning, he has started every Championship game since then, except for the All Ireland Semi Final in the same year), so it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he starts on Sunday, but I’d question the wisdom of this. His confidence appears low, but one theory is that the worst thing you can do for a player (especially a forward) in such a situation is to drop him. At the same time, in a game when chances will likely be at a premium, we cannot afford to carry a player who has been wasteful in his previous two games. He was an effective option off the bench in the National League, and this is where I would prefer him to start from on Sunday.

In the other corner, there is growing concern (from me at least) about the form of Colm McFadden. The effort is not in question, but the returns are not encouraging. Held scoreless against Derry and managing only two points (one from play) against Antrim is a meagre return from a player who is generally renowned as a pure scorer. I’m not for a moment suggesting that he shouldn’t start, especially if I’m advocating McBrearty should be dropped as we still need a left sided free taker, and last year, Colm was the only member of the full forward line to score in the Ulster Final, albeit all four points came from frees. Michael Murphy is obviously more important to the team than just his scoring, but you feel he will need to contribute more this year than he did in 2013, when, in fairness, he didn’t have a free to kick on that awful day in Clones.

When you try to decide on who will win on Sunday, think of Donegal’s potential, not last year’s Ulster Final performance. Forget about that game, forget about the league game in Letterkenny earlier this year and forget about the Division Two Final in April. There can be absolutely no disagreement that Monaghan were better than us last year. They may well be better than us this year too, but last year’s performances were not reflective of what this group of players and manager is capable of – they have earned our trust, well mine anyway. Let me repeat – when analysing how you think we’ll do on Sunday, think of our potential. If we lose again, so be it. But I think, well, I am confident enough to say, I know, that we are better than what we have shown in our recent encounters with Monaghan. It’s a very tough one to call. I’m not hugely confident of victory, but I’m certainly not writing us off. Look at the way both Tyrone and Armagh came back against Monaghan – I think that gives us a chance as long as we don’t let them get off to a fast start. Their intensity in defence is very impressive, but I know we can match them in this regard. We’ve been winning without getting much scoring from Michael and Colm, and they both had miserable games last year. I am looking for big games from both of them on Sunday, as well as another vintage performance from Christy and Leo continuing his strong play.

Unless there are injuries and issues we are not aware of, I think we’ll be well prepared. It should be an epic battle, and I don’t care what kind of game it is as long as we win. I’m not looking past Sunday (I haven’t done so all year) and all I care about right now is regaining the Ulster title.

I think we will.

Until Victory, Always