Archive for May, 2015

The Start of a New Cycle or the Beginning of the End?

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  And so, where Jim once stood on the sideline in MacCumhaill Park in pensive mood, we will see Rory Gallagher, hopefully without stupid hat, on 17 May.  This is one of the known unknowns in how this Championship season will play out.  How will Rory meet the high standards set by Jim?  Winning on Sunday would be a reasonable start after staying in Division One.  But, as Rory sagely puts it, the league is the league.  Donegal face into a preliminary round (again) and on paper, the nastiest looking Ulster draw we have faced for some time.  Up first, Tyrone, the side we deposed as Kings in the North back in 2011.

Let’s begin at the end of Sunday’s game.  I think Donegal will beat Tyrone. In fact, it could be relatively comfortable.  But, I hesitate to predict anything other than a tight win, because, you know, Ulster and all that.  Still, what have Tyrone shown to suggest that they are better than Donegal this year or indeed better than they themselves were in 2013, when they couldn’t take advantage of our low ebb under McGuinness?  In the 2012 Ulster Semi-Final, they gave us one of our hardest games of recent years and but for Paul Durcan, might well have sneaked it.  But that two point defeat is as close as they have come in recent years.

Ryan McMenamin, Conor Gormley, Philip Jordan, Brian Dooher, Stephen O’Neill.  Can anyone name their replacements on the current Tyrone team?  Even if you can name the man who normally wears their shirt number, can you honestly tell me they come close to matching what any of these players brought to the Tyrone team?  I don’t mean to be smug.  Donegal will soon face the same issue when the likes of Neil McGee, Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher, Christy Toye and Colm McFadden call it a day.  But for now, those players are still in reasonable shape and raring to go.  For Tyrone, Sean Cavanagh and Justin McMahon are the only links to the last teams that dominated Ulster.  Cavanagh is no longer the force he was by any stretch of the imagination.  The cuteness remains, but the legs are gone.  He is no longer able to carry this team as he seemed to do in prior years.  Of the rest, Mattie Donnelly is a fine player, but they need him in at least three positions and he can only play one.  Darren McCurry is very talented, but he doesn’t score enough.  And this will be Tyrone’s problem.  They do not have the forwards or scoring power from elsewhere to threaten the top teams.  They frustrated Dublin for a long time in this year’s National League, but their inability to put away their chances cost them the win.  They managed six points against Donegal in Ballybofey.  Their signature victory came against a Mayo team that shot an unhealthy number of wides – we saw the same thing when we travelled to Castlebar and stole a draw.  But, let’s not forget, the league is the league.  Despite their wretched performance in Ballybofey in March, Gavin Devlin believes Tyrone will show people a thing or two on Sunday.

But, I don’t buy into that.  If you don’t believe me, listen to the great man himself.  He was remarkably candid about Donegal’s chances on Sky Sports recently (It was news to me about Martin McElhinney’s injury).  Sigh.  At least we will get to see him in the Sky studios this summer, and read his thoughts in the Irish Times.  BBC’s loss is their gain.  Some Jim is better than no Jim at all I suppose.

But how do we rate Donegal’s chances this year, not just for Sunday, but for the rest of the summer?  Maybe you believe that Rory Gallagher managed the league very well, that Donegal engaged in plenty of shadow boxing, all of our main players got plenty of game time and we stayed in Division One for the second year running for the first time in quite some time.  Or, maybe you feel that Donegal were fortunate to play two of the weakest teams in the division at home and despite fielding full strength teams, failed to beat any of the top teams (You can argue the point with me if you wish, but I don’t rate our victory over Cork in Ballyshannon that highly for a number of reasons. that I don’t have time to expand on right at this moment).  And maybe we don’t have a clue what to do when faced with a team that defends deep – think back to what we witnessed against Mayo at times and Monaghan at all times.  And when good teams do it to Donegal, we struggle.  Nowhere was this more obvious than against Kerry last September, even if we allow for whatever lethargy seemed to affect the team that day.  After we picked off the Dubs in the All-Ireland Semi-Final, it’s hard to conceive of any team ever playing into our hands in such a way ever again.  Thankfully, there aren’t many good teams that will be able to mix a primarily defensive approach with enough firepower to trouble Donegal.  Tyrone are a perfect case in point in this respect. They are probably good enough to frustrate us for most of the game, but like Armagh last August, I expect, at best (for them), they will finish within a few points of Donegal.

How Donegal will actually play and whether it will look much different from the Jim McGuinness edition is unclear to me.  The last time I saw Donegal, Neil McGee was being hung out to dry against Cork in Croke Park.  I hope that is not reflective of what we will see on Sunday.  I would expect not.    I guess one thing I might have noticed during the spring was that, at times, we moved the ball quickly and more directly than I feel was the case under Jim.  Our goal in Castlebar was a thing of beauty – an accurate kick out (one of very few that day), quick transfers, a fine finish.  More of that on Sunday please.  The direct approach worked very well against Tyrone in 2013 if you recall anything from that day other than Stephen O’Neill falling on his arse.  If Colm McFadden plays (boy is that an interesting question, almost worthy of a piece of its own), will we see him drift out to half forward in an attempt to evade tight marking in the corner – as seemed to be a tactic in that ridiculous National League Semi-Final?  I’m leaning towards starting Colm, especially if Michael Murphy will spend most of his time around the middle third – odds are that he will.  I’m hopeful that we will see the best of Paddy McBrearty as a starter this year.  He’s still only 21, but it feels like we have been waiting.

As well as Donegal’s inability to deal with good teams who play defensively, the depth of our panel is a serious concern.  Over the winter, we have lost Rory Kavanagh, Leo McLoone and Brick Molloy.  During the National League, Declan Walsh stepped away.  David Walsh has been heard from in the media but not really seen on the pitch.  Jigger, a lad who started the All-Ireland Final, has had no meaningful time and is unlikely to feature on Sunday at least. Paddy McGrath is struggling with injuries and with size.  Anthony Thompson had not trained with the team at all as of mid April and really looked off the pace in the National League Semi-Final outing against Cork.  Has Eamonn Doherty done enough to replace one or the other?  Does Ryan McHugh drop back to replace the other?  If so, what impact with that have on our half forward line and our bench, which is already likely to be weakened due to the need to replace Kavanagh and McLoone in the starting line up? Despite racking up plenty of game time during the National League, does anyone expect Hugh McFadden to start on Sunday?  If so, in what sort of role – he’s ill-suited to anything defensive.  Marty O’Reilly has stepped in to replace Leo, but I am not sure what he can offer this summer – his four points from play against Cork in early March stand out, but I struggle to recall much impact otherwise.  Mark McHugh has returned, but his status for Sunday is in doubt, and his ability to recapture anything like the form he showed in 2012 is far from certain.  His cousin Eoin comes with a fine reputation, but we didn’t really see enough of him so far this year to get a feel for what he might offer this summer.  There might be some debate about who should start in goal, but for me there is no question that it should be Paul Durcan.

Winning on Sunday is everything.  Defeat is unthinkable.  It would mean no Ulster Championship and, it would certainly suggest to me that we are not good enough to win the All Ireland.  After that, what is there for this group of players?  This is not a transition year, despite the new manager.  He has the core of a team that has won three Ulster titles, an All Ireland, multiple All Star awards and a former Player of the Year.  These heroes won’t be around forever.  Now is not the time to settle for a run to the Quarter-Finals via the Qualifiers – there could be plenty of those years in the near future.  An Ulster title is not a foregone conclusion by any means, but failing to make the Final at least would be a huge disappointment to me at least.  I expect the same will be true of our players.

Until Victory, Always.