The Same but Different

So Donegal beat Tyrone in the Ulster Championship.  Again.  That’s four times in five years.  The faces on the sideline have changed, but the result is the same.  But, at no point during the second half did I feel comfortable about what I was seeing, but at the end of the day, if you had offered me a three point win beforehand, I would have gladly taken it.  I’m glad that I didn’t start writing without watching the game back and taking a good bit of time to reflect on everything as my initial reaction was probably one of relief and concern.  Subsequent discussion and reflection have tempered those feelings.

We were fortunate in some respects.  Darren McCurry’s free taking was poor.  Mickey Harte’s decision to start two underage stars didn’t really work out.  The Sean Cavanagh of five years ago would have been an even more influential player.  As it was, he had a fine game, with the usual antics thrown in.  At the same time, Michael O’Neill had a brilliant game in goals.  What they lost from Morgan’s free taking (assuming his returns would have been better than McCurry’s and his own performance in Ballybofey in 2013) was offset by O’Neill’s performance between the posts.

One thing that struck me was the lack of scorable frees we won.  Other than Michael’s tap over late on, that was it really.  Anything else was much deeper.  It’s hard to say what the reason for this was.  Maybe Tyrone’s tackling was that good.  Maybe Joe McQuillan didn’t give us the benefit of the doubt as much as he seemed to do when Tyrone were attacking.  Or, maybe we didn’t attack Tyrone enough to make them foul us – the stats seem to lend some weight to this idea with Donegal having 31 attacks to Tyrone’s 43.  Perhaps it was a combination of all of these factors.  I will be keen to see the stats at the end of Sunday’s game to see if anything changes.

In the immediate aftermath, it was tempting to give Justin McMahon credit for a very effective job on Michael Murphy.  It all appeared legal, but there are suggestions that there was plenty going on that wasn’t picked up by the cameras and was missed from the stand.  All the same, it was an interesting tactic and I wonder if Armagh have anyone as bloody minded to shadow Michael for 70 minutes on Sunday.  Massive credit must go to Michael for keeping his cool and still having the composure for this monster scores from placed balls at the end.  It was good to see Paddy McBrearty and Colm McFadden show well at times.  If Colm especially can maintain form, that will give teams more to think about than just Michael.  Armagh will be doing well to keep all three quiet.  I would be hopeful too that we might see a bit more from Odhran MacNiallais the next day out.

The issue with what I saw from Donegal against Tyrone and how I feel ahead of Sunday is largely one of trust.  Jim McGuinness earned our trust over is four years in charge.  Even at half time in last year’s All Ireland Final, I felt good about where we were at during games where Jim was in charge.  At half time in Ballybofey two weeks ago, I felt that if we came out and reeled off a few scores, we would effectively put the game to bed, a pattern that we came to regard as the ‘third quarter surge’ under McGuinness.  But instead, Tyrone drew level and we didn’t pull away until much later than normal.  In fairness, Tyrone didn’t score from the 50th minute onwards, but they had several goal chances.  Worse than that, it was our failure to maintain possession late that bothered me most.

We probably learned a few unpleasant truths the last day.  First, Marty O’Reilly doesn’t seem to add much to the half forward line.  This wasn’t exactly a surprise, as his performances during the League bordered on anonymous (Cork in Ballyshannon aside), but I was looking forward to see if he had more to offer.  To be fair, an early booking may have cowed him, and, it seemed that perhaps he was charged with shadowing one of Tyrone’s more dangerous players, Mattie Donnelly.  Still, the booking was his own fault, and Donnelly did manage to exert some influence on the game at times.  If the team named for Sunday is the one that starts, O’Reilly has lost out.

The next was that Ryan McHugh should not start with any number lower than 10 on his back.  I had my concerns about his ability to play as a corner back last year, but now it’s apparent that he shouldn’t be used at half back either.  He may well have been at fault for the Tyrone goal – although Paddy McGrath may need to shoulder a fair degree of blame too, but he is also ill suited to stopping opposing attackers.  His talents are surely better utilised further up the pitch or at least in a more.  This is the current Young Player of the Year and he did not win it for his defensive work. Whisper it, but is there any danger that Ryan has been ‘figured out’?  As a team, Donegal did not have a good day, but above anyone else, he was anonymous in the All Ireland Final.  If Sunday’s team named is to be believed, we may well get to see Ryan play in a more advanced role with less defensive responsibility.  That can only be a good thing I guess, but I would still be worried that even though he is an intelligent and unselfish player, his size will begin to limit his effectiveness.

It was notable also that despite featuring often during the League, there was no sign of Hugh McFadden against Tyrone.  This despite Christy Toye sailing close to the wind with foul trouble and looking  visibly tired for long enough before he was eventually subbed.  McFadden might have been able to offer something and it would have been good to see him in action in a Championship setting.  But most people I speak to feel he is not good enough anyway – I am on the fence.  Has Rory Gallagher now come to that conclusion also?

And so, while Tyrone get another week to get ready to welcome Limerick to Omagh, Donegal must journey to Armagh.  It’s hard to analyse Armagh in too much detail given they spent the spring loitering in Division Three.  If Donegal were playing any other Division Three team, would we be too concerned?  No, but because this is Ulster and because of the fright we got last August and because of what happened over and over in the first decade of this century, we will fret more than we, in theory, need to.  Last year, Armagh had the benefit of a series of tough games – Cavan, Monaghan (twice), Roscommon and Meath in the lead up to facing Donegal.  They have had no such preparation this year.  On the flipside, they will have had this date circled in their calendar for around nine months now, without having to worry about too much else. I also think that  Armagh will miss the playmaking abilities and experience of Aaron Kernan as much as Donegal will miss Rory Kavanagh and Leo McLoone.  And, the lad who I feel caused us the most bother last year, ‘Soupy’ Campbell, has missed around three months with injury, but will likely be available on Sunday.  Still, close as they ran us last year, that is a game we should have won more comfortably.  If you don’t believe me, check out the stats.  I don’t know if Donegal are any better or worse than we were last year (I feel that we are worse, but we’ll see…), but I have no idea whether Armagh have improved or not.  We’ll find out on Sunday I guess.  Hopefully Rory Gallagher and his associates have a better handle on things than me.

Until Victory, Always.

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