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

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