Orange Crushed

Well, few of us expected that result in Armagh (except maybe Michael Hegarty apparently…).  But let’s be honest, as good as Donegal played, Armagh were very poor.  The bigger question is perhaps how did Armagh get to within a point of us last summer?  The standard in Division Three can only explain so much.  Tactically and physically they did not look an Ulster Championship outfit.  No more than Kerry folk will get too excited by beating Tipperary or Cork folk will celebrate a facile win over Clare, we should not read too much into what we saw in Armagh.  Contrast their display with Sligo’s performance against Roscommon.  Just last Sunday, Monaghan beat Fermanagh by 10 points.  This is not the business end of the season.

Still, you can only beat what’s in front of you and the once daunting road to an Ulster title that lay ahead of Donegal has been safely negotiated as far as the next checkpoint.  What is evident is that we seem to be managing games differently under Rory.  Against both Tyrone and Armagh, we have made fast starts and built up a lead early on.  Tyrone pegged us back; Armagh never managed to get close.  It will be very interesting to see if this pattern persists in future games.

The tactic of playing Paddy McBrearty as a lone forward yielded a goal straight away.  Thereafter, he caused distress to the Armagh defence, but they succeeded in limiting his return to one more point. He was a little unlucky at times and could have perhaps received a bit more sympathy from David Coldrick, but in general he was good.  I don’t know if that tactic will work as well against better teams who play with more disciplined sweepers than Ciaran McKeever.  Someone playing closer to Paddy will give him more options than having to take on his man every time he gets the ball and will surely lead to even greater returns.

The second half hardly merits comment.  The game was definitively over when in the space of a few minutes, Stefan Campbell failed to convert Jamie Clarke’s rebounded shot for a goal and then Marty O’Reilly finished well following a piercing run by the outstanding Frank McGlynn.   After that, Donegal largely played keep ball, rarely exerting too much effort to breach the Armagh defence.  Armagh didn’t seem too pushed at putting us under pressure which was odd given that they were so far behind.  But maybe not, maybe their minds had also turned to their next game.  Wicklow will present the perfect opportunity for them to get back on track.

I suppose from a Donegal perspective the one thing you would have to say is that we really look comfortable in the way we are playing.  There are still a few things that concern me.  First, we need to do better around midfield.  Our reading of breaking ball is poor, or we are just not committing men to where they are needed – perhaps that is deliberate.    Take a look at the stats from the Tyrone game and from the Armagh game which back up this view.  Secondly, some of our hand passing gets a little too intricate and leads to turnovers or sticky situations that could easily be avoided – look particularly at incidents involving MacNiallais and Lacey in the last two games.  If we were trying long risky passes, then I would expect some mistakes.   Lastly, we appear vulnerable to teams that run directly at us – but who isn’t I suppose? I would worry that both Tyrone and Armagh were allowed shots on goal that came from fairly straightforward build up play.  Neither went in, but that was due more to good fortune than good defending.  None of these issues may cost us the next game, but I don’t think we can afford to ignore them.

And so, for the fourth time in five years we play near neighbours Derry.  2011 Ulster Final (six point win), 2012 first round (10 point win), 2014 first round (three point win) and now a semi-final.  The big change for Derry in terms of personnel is that Eoin Bradley is back and was in good form against Down.  It’s fair to also point out that the influential Fergal Doherty was forced off early last May.  Against Down, there was no Pasty Bradley, with Niall Holly, (who had played at full back during the league) partnering Doherty in the middle.  It seemed to work pretty well against Down, with Derry having the upper hand on longer kick outs.  This should be a concern for Donegal as we have struggled in this area lately.  But, from the same game, the stats seem to suggest that Derry were careless in possession – music to our ears surely.

Derry actually led by two points at half time last year, but as was customary, the Jim McGuinness edition blew them away with a third quarter surge.  I will long remember watching Jim ‘directing’ Michael Murphy to swing over a sideline ball from under the covered stand.  With the form Michael is in, Derry will need to be very careful what and where they concede on Saturday night.  It’s worth pointing out that our captain has yet to score from play in this year’s Ulster Championship.  It’s fascinating how his role on this team continues to evolve.

Consider this – Derry failed to score for 21 minutes, at home, against the 14 men of Down.  It was however their first Ulster Championship win since 2011, so perhaps they had some form of white line fever.  But for the woeful Down shooting, never mind the sending off early in the second half, Derry were fortunate enough to win.  Down had the ball heading to 70 minutes and kicked it wide when they could have worked a better shooting chance.  They then failed to foul Derry until they advanced all the way inside the Derry 20.  Awful stuff altogether and I would hope we wouldn’t see anything similar from Donegal this weekend.

Derry look like they will set up very defensively, with Eoin Bradley left up front on his own, and Mark Lynch playing deeper than a traditional number 11.  Enda Lynn and Sean Leo McGoldrick will play as link men from wing forward, both work very hard and are good footballers.  In short, Derry will set up very like Donegal.  But Donegal have been perfecting this system for over four years and it’s second nature to them.  It’s largely new to Derry and Down had plenty of chances to win the game despite Derry’s defensive set up.

No harm recalling that Leo McLoone scored 1-1 and Jigger 0-1 against Derry last May.   Neither player will feature this year, so guys like Paddy McBrearty and Odhran MacNiallais will need to contribute more.  Paddy was a little wasteful in last year’s game so hopefully he will have recovered from his hamstring strain to be in a position to deliver on Saturday.  He’s been in excellent form lately, even if he tends to fade out of games in the second half.  That might be due to the way Donegal set up as opposed to the player himself and he obviously wasn’t fit enough to finish the game last time but it’s worth monitoring.

It was disappointing not to see Colm McFadden against Armagh after his encouraging display against Tyrone.  If he does come back into the team, you would assume he will take Marty O’Reilly’s place.  But would he fulfil the same role as O’Reilly?  At half time in Armagh, we were trying to figure out exactly what role Marty was playing.  It almost seemed like he was nothing more than a warm body occupying an Armagh defender.  For what it’s worth, it was suggested that they would forget about him and he would end up sneaking in for a goal.  The guy can obviously take a chance when he gets it, but it seems that this isn’t his main role on the team.  He doesn’t carry much ball either.

We should take nothing for granted, but it will be a huge shock to me if Derry beat us on Saturday.  I trust our players too much not to get caught looking ahead and focus on the game in hand.  This Donegal team has won 15 out of 16 Ulster Championship matches going back to 2011. They have played and beaten every team in Ulster barring Fermanagh in this time.  This Derry team will have to play the game of their lives to beat us, or we will need to be hampered by injuries to the likes of Paddy McBrearty, or, more importantly, Michael Murphy, who looked hobbled at the end of the game in Armagh.  Don’t expect a pretty game, it will likely be a hard enough slog, especially if Derry are really focused on defence.  And maybe they will have gotten a boost in confidence from their first Ulster Championship win in four years.  As Rory Gallagher likes to say, each game takes on a life of its own.   He may be right enough there, but that doesn’t mean that the outcome will be any different than the one expected.

Until Victory, Always

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