Archive for September, 2014

Beaten at our own Game

It’s hard to know where to start.  This interview with Jim McGuinness is a good place I suppose.  Very honest words within and we shouldn’t try to manufacture excuses or point fingers in the aftermath.  We simply didn’t deserve to win.  Tip of the cap to Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Kerry for coming out on the right side of a bad game.  It’s strange though.  You would think that Donegal of all teams would be the ones to prosper in a game like the one we witnessed on Sunday.

It seems pointless to analyse individual issues even if the difference on the scoreboard at the end was ultimately down to Paul Durcan’s error.  Collectively, it was not a good performance.  Papa’s kick out directly to Kieran Donaghy was merely the symptom of a much wider malaise.  I am desperately disappointed for the fella.  A mistake like that is bad enough at the best of times but the fact it was made in an All Ireland Final is even worse.  He may never live it down and in a game as bad as Sunday’s, it was one of the few moments that will be remembered from this final.  The reports from the banquet and from the homecoming reinforce the hurt that is being felt by the players since.

Colm McFadden may well be haunted by his failure to palm the ball into the net also, but that doesn’t disguise the fact that Kerry created many more chances over the course of 70 minutes.  Over the course of the game, we took only 23 shots.  Even if we assumed a conversion rate of 60%, that translates to maybe 14 points, or 1-13.  It’s hard, but not impossible, to win a game in September with that sort of score, in fact, 16 points is the average winning score over the five finals previous to Sunday.  But we had on only 8 wides and one shot dropped short to Kerry’s 13 wides and four dropped short.  There’s no denying that Kerry were the better team on the day, certainly on the basis of scoring chances created.

The tone was set in the opening three minutes.  Both Kerry’s scores came from second chance efforts – a blocked shot and then a ball off the post.  They were the more alert team for sure.  Despite the early goal, Kerry were not much of an attacking force in the first half really.  Most of their chances were off Donegal turnovers.  It was fair to say that they were living on scraps.  Their primary focus was on defence and they did a fine job of frustrating Donegal.  On the offensive side, they were ruthless at punishing Donegal mistakes.

Despite the concession of the early goal, I felt better at half time than I did before throw in.  We had weathered the Kerry storm, they were starting to kick chances wide and we had started to run at them with success, notably from frees.  However, we did not score from play until the 28th minute.  Our offensive play was very poor – aside from Jigger’s goal chance, I counted only three more shots from play in the first half which led to points for MacNiallais and Lacey.  On Jigger’s goal chance, how the umpires missed the fact that the ball hit both Brian Kelly and was then kicked out while still alive by a Kerry defender amazes me.  If it seems petty to moan, then consider how Michael Murphy had been kicking into the Hill in the first half.  The chances of a point were very high.  In a game where scores were at a premium, every scoring chance mattered.

The first Kerry goal came when Stephen O’Brien’s shot was partially blocked and Paul Geaney, whose physical size impressed me during the warm up, finished it very well.  The consequence of matching Neil McGee with James O’Donohghue and Eamon McGee with Kieran Donaghy meant that Geaney fell to Paddy McGrath to deal with.  This was an obvious mismatch in terms of size but one that was well exploited, whatever about the circumstances leading up to it.  It was Geaney’s first ever championship goal and he finished it very well.  It’s been said elsewhere but it’s worth repeating here – given that James O’Donoghue played so deep, would we have been better off detailing someone else to mark him while leaving Neil McGee to command the edge of the square and look after Geaney?

As I expected, the Kerry half forward line played hard.  Donnchadh Walsh was whistled for a clothes line tackle on Leo McLoone. A free for sure and what should have been an early yellow.  Stephen O’Brien did earn a yellow card and was substituted at half time.  In the first half, Kerry seemed happy to give away frees within shooting range.  In the second, Donegal did not earn any decent chances – fouls were committed further out, but that wasn’t the whole story really.  Our attacking play was not incisive enough to earn frees in scoring range.  We had only one shot at goal from a free in the second half.

Looking back on it now, perhaps it was Kerry who were the happier team at half time.  They knew they could limit our scoring opportunities and were now only 35 minutes away from their 37th All Ireland title.  As Darragh Ó’Sé writes in today’s Irish Times, once you are in a final, you find a way to win.  This was my fear before the game.  Having come out on top after two titanic struggles against Mayo, Kerry had the bit between their teeth from the word go and were no doubt further encouraged by their start.  Much of what we saw from Donegal was all too similar to what we had witnessed against Armagh.  But Kerry are a better team from Armagh and there was never any sense of panic from them on the pitch and some great decision making on the sideline.

Before the game, I was worried about the rookies at this level – MacNiallais and McHugh.  And so, my fears were somewhat realised.  MacNiallais gave the ball away very cheaply which gave Kerry the platform for the first goal.  However, he did recover well when losing possession to kick the ball over the bar. It was a great pity we couldn’t engineer more shooting opportunities for him.  McHugh had a much more limited impact than we have been accustomed to see.  His one really impactful piece of play, when he beat his man Paul Murphy to a Kerry kick out that led to a Michael Murphy point, was cancelled out more or less straight away when Murphy raced up the field to kick over a huge score.  Telling that Murphy was RTE man of the match I suppose.  We can only hope that guys like Odhran and Ryan get another chance on the biggest of stages.

In common with the rest of his appearances this year, Patrick McBrearty showed very well when he was introduced from the bench.  He took his two scores well, but he also failed to convert twice.  Perfection is a very high standard, but that’s what Sunday’s game called for from our forwards when presented with chances.  I don’t really want to spend too much time talking about next year, but how Paddy will be used is one of the most interesting discussion topics over the winter.

Given the time remaining in the aftermath, the second goal itself was not fatal.  What followed it was however.  Durcan no longer felt comfortable kicking short and we were unable to secure possession at midfield.  Kerry picked off scores from Buckley and Barry John Keane frees.  Then, after starting brightly with two scores, Paddy McBrearty dropped one short and one wide.  Two fine scores from Brick and Christy followed, but from the subsequent kick out, Kerry held the ball and ran down the clock.  Donegal seemed too defensive, at least at this point. The two minutes that elapsed between Christy’s point and Neil McGee’s lazy foul that led to Brian Sheehan getting the final score of the game seemed like a lifetime.  It sums up the second half well – Kerry had over 60% possession.

I don’t think anyone played particularly badly for Donegal.  Other than Durcan’s error, I guess we will look back and ask did we really get the best out of Michael Murphy.   Perhaps he was not right after an incident in the first half. The late run to set up Colm’s goal chance showed what may have been possible earlier.  Neil Gallagher worked tirelessly and Christy Toye was tremendous when introduced.  I felt Jigger had done ok in his limited time on the pitch.

For Kerry, guys like Marc Ó’Sé, Aidan O’Mahony rolled back the years.  Add to that the energetic performance of Kieran Donaghy and we see evidence that there is a place in the game at the very highest level for 30 somethings yet.  Hopefully some of the Donegal players will take note and recognise the fact that they still have something to offer next year.   James O’Donoghue played selflessly.  It’s amazing that Kerry’s marquee forward was held scoreless and they still won by three points.  Their defenders were very disciplined.  Paul Murphy and Killian Young were probably the pick of them.

Writing in the Examiner, renowned sports psychologist Kieran Shannon wonders if Donegal were ‘over-prepared’ – an odd notion perhaps but we are struggling to explain the flat performance and so is Jim McGuinness.  If we had won the game, the five day stint in Lough Erne Resort would be hailed as the moment the plans for victory were hatched.  Likewise, if we had lost to Dublin, the time spent in Johnstown House would have been deemed unnecessary.   Such is life when you lose, especially when you lose as favourites, everything is scrutinised and second guessed.  I don’t know what factors contributed to such a flat performance on Sunday.  I hope Jim McGuinness is true to his word in the interview mentioned in the opening paragraph and does indeed see what could have been done differently to prepare.  And I hope he keeps that to himself and uses it to prepare for next year with the same group of players.

Talking to someone earlier reinforced my thoughts from Sunday evening.  In other years, we would have been depressed for ourselves as supporters and giving out about players or management.  Not this year.  There is deep disappointment for the players themselves, at least from this supporter.  We know what they have all put in over the past 12 months, over the past four years in fact.  They can say, and we can tell ourselves that we will be back next year, and of course we will, as true supporters and players, but who knows how it will turn out.  This was a golden opportunity missed.  But it’s not the end of the world even if it did feel like it on Sunday evening.

Until Victory, Always

An Uneasy Sense of Confidence

Back in 2012, there was much more to say in the build up to the final.  After 20 years in the wilderness, there was a certain novelty about the occasion.  It’s no less special this time around, but the fact that we go in as favourites, having beaten the team that were widely touted as being unbeatable, means that, even though it’s a final, it feels like we have already faced our biggest test this year.  It’s hard to do much a preview after what we witnessed against Dublin.  I’ll come right out and say it now – we should win this game.  That assumes of course, we can perform at a similarly high level as we showed against Dublin, and, enjoy similar fortune.

Growing up, did anyone who followed Donegal ever believe, let alone dream that we would find ourselves facing Kerry in an All Ireland Final as favourites?  The 2012 quarter final win was historic for sure, but it was only a quarter final and Kerry weren’t even Munster champions.  That was a team in decline, this, they would have us believe is a team in transition.  The ‘transition’ tag appears to have come from the fact that Kerry have enjoyed no underage success at Minor level since 1994 and at Under 21 level since 2008.  I don’t buy it.  Lack of success does not imply a lack of talent.  Donegal for instance, have never won an All Ireland title at Minor and our last win at Under 21 was in 1987.

Again, matters other than tactics, fitness or team selection have dominated the column inches and social media chatter in the lead up to the game.  Whether it’s been the picture of the helicopter or the reported EUR 20,000 spent in a hotel ‘in the North’, focus has been on Donegal’s resources off the pitch more so than on it.  Throw in the drawn hurling final, the latest greatest game of all time, means that, up until this week at least, there has been little of substance written or said about the game itself.  That might have changed this lately, but I am out of the loop somewhat with less time to read pre match analysis than I would like.

Darragh O’Sé, writing in the Irish Times after the semi-finals, says that Eamonn Fitzmaurice is ‘going to be making fellas do things they’re not used to and that they never did before’.  If he’s being honest, as opposed to a bit of ‘yerra’, then I would be delighted.  You can be sure Jim McGuinness is not asking his players to do anything differently.  Our success is based on a playing with a level of intensity and belief that cannot be matched over a two and a half week period.  But Kerry’s semi-final games will have conditioned them well for an intense struggle – Mayo certainly tend to play with a high level of same.  However, if Donegal step on your throat, they are unlikely to let their feet off enough to be hauled in as Mayo were on consecutive weekends.  What I saw against Armagh in terms of shot conversion still worries me however – we dominated the play for a long stretch in the second half, but didn’t convert that dominance to scores.  We righted that problem in spectacular fashion against Dublin, but recall that lads who we might depend heavily on for scores like Odhran MacNiallais and Ryan McHugh have not played in an All Ireland Final before.  There was no pressure on them as underdogs in the semi-final, but Sunday is a different story.

As said above, Kerry come in on the back of two very hard games against a Mayo team who enjoyed little or no luck.  Eamonn Fitzmaurice certainly got it right tactically, but I’m afraid James Horan made it easy for him, with Kieran Donaghy allowed to have undue influence in the outcomes of both games.  Add in the fact that Mayo played half of the first game with 14 men and then had to do without Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor for stretches of the second game, as well as Cormac Reilly’s day to forget and it takes a little gloss off their semi final win.  If people are going to refer to the goals Dublin didn’t get, we can also engage in a little whataboutery in relation to Kerry.  Likewise, much as Donegal made hard work of Armagh, some of the tape from Kerry’s quarter final win over Galway doesn’t make for pretty viewing if you are from the Kingdom.

Martin McHugh expressed himself clumsily, but he may well have had a point about James O’Donoghue.  He looks an exceptional talent.  I can’t recall what Gooch was like at the same stage, it’s over 10 years ago now, a time when Kerry probably had a better team and when we just didn’t analyse Gaelic Football to the same extent as we do these days.  Anyway, he’s very good and Donegal will have to find some way to curtail his influence on matters.  Still, deny him ball and he can only do so much damage – his value is more as a pure scorer than someone who creates chances for others, but that’s not to say that he can’t contribute more in a deeper role, where space may be more easily available.  Dontfoul had a look at the effectiveness of O’Donoghue in a deeper role here.  If Donegal can force him deep, it will surely increase our chances of winning the game.

One concern I have is how Kerry will deal with the star of the semi-final win over Dublin, Ryan McHugh.  He’s a wonderful footballer, fleet of foot and intelligent, but he is a slip of a fella and I fear for what a big hit would do to him, similar to the one shipped by Karl Lacey in the 2011 All Ireland semi-final against the Dubs.  Whether this is delivered by fair means or foul is hardly relevant, but in guys like Johnny Buckley and Donnchadh Walsh, Kerry have two big physical players who operate in the same areas as Ryan McHugh who certainly tackle with tremendous intensity.  Ryan would do well to avoid them.

On Donegal team selection, how Christy Toye, Rory Kavanagh and David Walsh will be used is one fairly obvious question after the semi-final.  None of the three may be fit for 70 minutes, so how McGuinness’ uses them will be the subject of much speculation on Sunday morning I’m sure.  Maybe Christy and Rory can go the distance given that this is the last game of the year – I would sure like to see both on the field at the final whistle.  Especially Christy.  We’ve been reminded in recent days that he has come back from horrific condition.

Next, and somewhat related to the previous issue, we have the curious case of Paddy McBrearty.  The term ‘impact sub’ is probably one that no player wants to be tagged with, but the case for using McBrearty from the bench is surely well made at this point, strengthened further by his appearance against Dublin.   My prediction is that we could see him enter for Leo McLoone after 40 -45 minutes.  That prediction is not much of a stretch really – McLoone has been substituted in every game since our first round win in Ulster against Derry.

At numbers 1-7, Donegal are better – individually and as a unit.  No questions on who starts for Donegal.  Kerry had one variable I guess – Marc O’Se or Shane Enright and O’Se got the nod, presumably as a result of his positive contribution in the semi final replay. Perhaps too because Donegal will set up in a way that might suit him – he excels when going forward.  O’Se will go down as a legend when he finally retires, but you would have to question if he has the legs for this game.  The Kerry defence has conceded seven goals in five games, Donegal have scored eight goals in five games.  Kerry were cut open twice in alarming fashion against Galway and conceded four goals in their two games against Mayo, and that would have been much more.  They might be more inclined to get bodies back than in previous years, but I still think this is a fairly leaky unit, more so than Donegal, despite the fact that the statistics suggest that both defences are fairly similar.

If David Moran can replicate his tour de force performance against Mayo, then maybe Kerry have the edge around the middle.  But I am expecting big things from Neil Gallagher, I think, like the overall performance; he has been building up to something big.  He was very good in the last two games of course, but I have a feeling there is more to come.  In Moran, Maher and Buckley, Kerry can in theory dominate the midfield and restarts.  Paul Durcan’s accuracy from kick outs will key, he is a much better keeper than his opposite number Brian Kelly in that regard. We will not have faced a midfield like Kerry’s in this year’s championship so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Durcan look to the wings and short more than usual.

In the forwards, Michael Murphy and James O’Donoghue will both be All Stars, for largely different reasons.  The theory that if Donegal can keep James O’Donoghue quiet we will win is too simple for my liking, just like Kerry keeping Michael Murphy quiet means that Kerry will win (by four to five points…) ignores the supporting cast, including Colm McFadden, who is likely to be buoyed after his semi final return.  As dontfoul points out, the rest of the Kerry players have taken a lot of shots with an impressive success rate over the course of 2014.   Still, no-one outside of O’Donoghue really bothers me.  I’d much rather face this set of Kerry forwards than one that would include fully fit versions of Gooch, Declan and Darran O’Sullivan and Brian Sheehan. Two of those may feature at some point on Sunday, but they are not the players they were five years ago.

If all the above seems arrogant or dismissive of Kerry, then that was not my intention.  I am still in a bit of a daze after the semi final and hope I am not missing something very obvious.  It’s a weird position to be in, from being written off in the wake of last year’s struggle to favourites for the All Ireland.   I still feel the need to pinch myself at the thought we are in our second All Ireland Final in three years.  This group of players now have the opportunity to go one better than the Heroes of 92.  Who’s to say what the future holds, but they may never get a better chance to add to their Celtic Cross from 2012.  Unlike the semi final, I have faith this time.  Donegal will win.

Let me finish with this.  On Sunday at 12 noon, a memorial service will be held at Binns Bridge, Drumcondra for Andrew Duffy of Termon, who tragically died on the night of the All Ireland semi-final in 2012.  I didn’t know Andrew directly, but that incident has haunted me every since.  If you know that part of Dublin around Croke Park, you know there is a canal with no railing.   I am not religious at all, but I hope to attend that service.  Trips to Croke Park have been largely happy days in recent years, but for some, the place will forever be associated with sorrow rather than joy.  Before we head in to Croke Park to cheer on our heroes, I’d encourage anyone reading to take time out to honour the memory of someone who shared our love of Donegal.

Until Victory, Always.

Day of Days

As a Donegal supporter, Sunday was typical of the days we live for, the days that we should probably expect under Jim McGuinness.  But surely none of us had dreamed of this outcome.  Certainly not me.  I was fairly sure that the potential existed, but that the execution was too big a task.  But Jim McGuinness got his players to go back to a seemingly bottomless well and summon a performance that left me shell shocked.    Most of us would say that the semi-final win over Cork in 2012 was our finest performance in the McGuinness era, but Sunday tops that.  We wrested control of the game from the heaviest of favourites and reigning champions and ran riot in the ten minute periods before and after half time.  It was awesome stuff altogether.

Unlike the performance against Cork 2012, there no such context for this win.  Back then, we had swept Down aside in the Ulster Final and the realisation of what we had developed since that (in)famous day in Croke Park the previous August began to dawn.  So far this year, we won but didn’t impress in the league, 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 the performance of Odhran MacNiallais and a cameo from Jigger.  Monaghan was an arm wrestle, but one where it looked like we were always the better team.  Armagh was an odd game.  Sunday, in some respects, came out of nowhere.

Let’s take a step back for a moment.  Dublin did butcher two clear cut goal chances while leading by five points in the first half.  If either went in, we were in deeper trouble.  If both had gone in, we were almost certainly too far behind to mount a comeback.  But, the game isn’t played in terms of ifs and buts, the winner is determined by goals and points on the scoreboard at the end.  The Dubs still had their chances in the second half, but they reverted to the sort of shooting that I thought was a thing of the past.    I’ll not dwell too much on the rest of their performance, as that is not really the story, but the sort of issues that were there in the background all along – their defensive set up, their midfield, were brutally exposed.  Plenty of other teams have had their chance this year but no-one has gone out to take them on with the conviction of this Donegal team.

Ryan McHugh’s first goal, for instance, while brilliantly engineered (a turnover in the Dublin penalty area and a great run from McHugh) slid in under Rory O’Carroll – Diarmuid Connolly’s effort (a much more accomplished forward) was rebuffed by Paul Durcan, who has surely done enough to gain his second All Star.  Big games can be decided on such small margins.  But, Donegal missed enough of their own chances.  Ryan McHugh himself, in a moment eerily similar to Colm McFadden in 2011, ended up with a point when the goal was at his mercy.  I said so at the time.  People chided me for it.   Right they were too, but for me, the clock could not tick fast enough in the second half. I kept waiting for a disaster to strike.  I met a few Dubs afterwards and they could tell I was shook.  I won’t lie, it was highly emotional on Sunday afternoon.  And that with not a drink taken.

Again, our composure (on the pitch) was so impressive.  It would have been easy to wilt under the pressure of the Dublin shooting in the first half, but we didn’t seem flustered at all.  Even after the first goal chance, we attacked and got the next score.  That’s been a theme throughout the Championship, our composure on the pitch.  When we conceded goals against Monaghan and Armagh, we panicked in the stands, but the players on the pitch never looked like they were flustered.  They play like a team that has ultimate belief in what they are about and where they are going.  I wonder if this is what Johnstown House was about.  Refining that belief to deal with the Dubs early pressure?

It was a complete team performance.  Ryan McHugh scooped the man of the match award, and who could quibble after he scored 2-2 from play, but there were terrific performances from men in gold all over the pitch.  The full back line was excellent.  Everything you want to see in your defenders, and Paddy McGrath contributed further up the pitch too.  Karl Lacey is not the player he was physically, but his touches and influence are key, and he scored a point for good measure.  Frank was his usual self, and it was great to see him kicking a point also. Anthony Thompson ran all day, showing great coolness to set up Ryan for his second goal.  The midfield sector was outstanding.  Neil Gallagher and Odhran MacNiallais, the nominal pairing were very good, Christy Toye helped change the course of the game, and Rory Kavanagh and Michael Murphy played their part in no small way.

It’s worth pointing out the use of Christy.  I think all of us were surprised to see David Walsh starting.  If anything, I thought Christy and Rory would split 70 minutes.  But, it seems as if Walsh started to allow Christy to finish.  That’s just my own take on it, but I would see this as more evidence as what has been excellent management of Christy’s game time this year.  The plan to use Paddy McBrearty from the bench proved to be the right choice, again.   We wondered about Rory’s fitness, especially during the first half, but he lasted 60 minutes and even managed a point.  He seemed to get more comfortable as the game progressed.

Special mention has to go to Colm McFadden.  More than one person publically believed he had it in him, that he would thrive against a fast and loose defence, but I didn’t see it coming.  It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means, some of his shooting belied a lack of confidence, but the goal was so well taken and his work rate, especially in assisting for Ryan McHugh’s second half goal was outstanding.   That wee smile after the second half goal in front of The Hill was priceless.  I’m delighted for him and it’s just another great decision by Jim McGuinness – he knows his players better than any of us.

The narrative since the game is that Jim McGuinness outwitted Jim Gavin tactically.  I don’t know if I see it in those terms.  My take on it is that Jim Gavin has probably been a bit naive, but Donegal didn’t really do anything they don’t usually do.  We defended intensely, in numbers.  Neil Gallagher spent a bit of time at full forward.  We were cute at midfield, kicking the ball on to players running towards the Dublin goal from deep – while Dublin half back line were running in the other direction.  That was smart.  But, I think what Sunday showed was that Jim McGuinness’ greatest gift to Donegal is the belief he has instilled in our players.   In 2011, perhaps that was lacking, even if we were a million miles away from where we were when we left Crossmaglen in 2010.  When in the past has a Donegal team ever come to Croke Park and played like we have in the semi finals of 2012 and 2014?  The players are familiar to us from past disappointments.  Jim McGuinness is the x factor.

I have, like many Donegal people I’m sure, been in a state of euphoria since Sunday.  There’s been some triumphalism from some quarters, and also a desire to go and revisit certain articles written in the lead up to the game.  Not me.  I am solely concerned with what I saw from Donegal, I have no interest in anything else.  Let’s continue to savour it.  Thankfully, thoughts don’t seem to have turned to Kerry just yet, but they will in the weeks ahead.  It would be a terrible shame if we don’t go on to win it all now, but whatever happens in just over two weeks time doesn’t take away from what I experienced on Sunday.  There is nothing like the sense of pride in our players, our manager and our County I felt on Sunday evening and still feel today.  I don’t really feel the need think about anything else right now.

Until Victory, Always.