Archive for July, 2015

Another Missed Opportunity

The result in Clones was very disappointing.  But, if we’re honest, it wasn’t really surprising.  Donegal have not delivered a quality 70 minutes all year and that finally caught up with us in the Ulster Final.  Like last year’s All Ireland Final, it must go down as a missed opportunity.  There can be no denying the fact that time is running out for this wonderful group of players to capture more silverware.  This isn’t meant to sound entitled, but we know that there will be lean years ahead and we know that this group of players are capable of delivering better, that’s what makes defeat hard to take.

There’s no harm in giving Monaghan credit for their win.  In the first half at least, their tactics were spot on.  Tony McEntee was more impressed than most, but I tip my hat to them for playing Donegal like a fiddle after going three points to one down early on.  At half time I felt that we needed a goal if we were have any chance of winning the game.  Once Monaghan went five points up, the game was over in my eyes.

Credit to our lads for finally getting going, but it took too long.  The performance in the first half especially was far too lethargic.  This was in spite of our fast start, with fine points from Paddy McBrearty, Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn.  We scored three points from our first three shots in the space of the first five minutes.  All from play.  And yet we ended the game with 14 wides and did not score from play for another 59 minutes.  Those stats are barely believable.  But, our conversion rate of 38% against Monaghan was actually better than our 34% outcome against Derry.  So the Ulster Final was not a freak event, it merely followed what we had seen in the semi-final.  Consider this for a moment – in 2012, we had a conversion rate of 59%.  Even in 2013, despite shooting 33% against Monaghan, we managed a ratio of 53%.  Last year it was 49%.  This year it is running at 46%.   Thanks to @dontfoul for the data.

The 25th minute was the turning point for me. We were still level at that stage, but after Neil McGee’s wide, Monaghan won their own kick out, showed great patience, working the ball out from the Donegal corner, and eventually dropped the ball into Eoin Duffy and took a nice score.  Donegal then went long to Michael Murphy when double marked and Monaghan snuffed it out easily.  This showed the contrast in the attacking approach of both sides.  Monaghan were clever and patient.  Donegal’s strategy was disjointed and lacked any imagination.

Monaghan scored two points in the last two minutes of the half to go in leading by four.  First, we had Christy’s turnover in the corner leading to a McManus point.  I thought he was a bit unfortunate, although he didn’t think quickly enough.  It was to be his last act for the day.  The final score of the half was the worst of all, coming from a Michael Murphy turnover when he was under no particular pressure.  Monaghan leapt on it.  They looked the hungrier and fitter team. Michael was wearing a flesh coloured bandage on his knee having been injured two weeks previously.  This was kept very quiet and even judging by the colour of the bandage, Donegal were trying to keep it quiet during the game as well.  It’s hard to know how much of an effect it had on his performance, but his impact was minimal, aside from a few big hits.

On to the second half, and for the first three minutes at least, it was like a perfect copy of the first.  Three shots from play, but the key difference was that all three went wide.  Odhran MacNiallais’ shot was a poor decision for sure, outside the 45 and in a hurry.  For Martin McElihinney and Colm McFadden, there was no explanation for missing from just outside ‘the D’ in fairly good scoring position.  It was just awful execution.

After that initial Donegal flurry, Monaghan kept the ball, recycled it out from the corner, switched the play to the opposite side and Eoin Lennon scored a great point on the run from under the stand.  Those first three minutes of the second half were the game in nutshell.  Monaghan looked like the well drilled, confident team.  Donegal looked nervous and poorly prepared.  That out Monaghan five ahead and was essentially the winning of the game.

After 49 minutes, McFadden turned the ball over and took a hit.  This led to Monaghan’s final score, another point from the brilliant Conor McManus, while covered by two Donegal defenders.  It was one play too late, but in the next few minutes, we saw Jigger introduced for McFadden.  Given the game we were playing, Leo McLoone might have been a better option, even more so when Jigger barely got a ball.  You would also wonder if we would have been better playing Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty closer to goal at that point.  Both were somewhat lame, but they are also our most dangerous forwards.  The work that they were being asked to do further out the field couldn’t have been helping.  It’s a big if, but maybe if Paddy had been a little fresher he might have been able to kick that last point but I have to acknowledge that he did manage to score a wonderful point from outside the 45 on 64 minutes.  Still, we wonder what a two man forward line of McBrearty and Murphy might accomplish.  It would tie up at least four or five of the opposition I’d say!

We were a point down when Paddy scored his 64th minute point and there was still 8 minutes including added time to draw level but we couldn’t manage it.  People rightly focus on the number of shots missed – from the seventh minute to the 64th, we took 15 shots from play without scoring.  Some were shots under pressure, but it’s still far too high a number.  The one thing that struck me watching it was that there was no real build up or patience involved.  The strategy seemed to be run until you meet some kind of resistance and then shoot.  That was only slightly better than what we saw in the first half – isolated Donegal runners being swallowed up by the Monaghan defence. Where are the support runners?  Where is the type of patience we saw from Monaghan in the first half and have shown in the past?

Monaghan clearly played with a chip in their shoulder, with several references in the aftermath to feeling that they didn’t get the credit they deserved for their Ulster Final win in 2013.  Make no mistake, they were there for the taking in the second half, with Donegal bossing possession and Monaghan only converting 38% of their scoring chances, but after they went five points up, you could see why they might try to hold what they had.  There was no shame in losing to them, but you can’t help but feel that we didn’t perform as well as we can.  But it’s getting harder and harder to determine just what we can and should expect from this team.

And so we now must face Galway in Croke Park in a Round 4 Qualifier.  Our last meeting was at the same stage in 2009, when we beat them in Sligo.  What happened next doesn’t bear repeating.  Indeed, the last time we played in a Qualifier, we got the result, and a good night out in Carrick on Shannon, but were on a hiding to nothing.  So if we bow out in the gloom on Saturday evening, I’m probably ok with that.  But, I think we will probably have enough in us to win, given we have managed to beat Tyrone, Armagh and Derry this year.  Galway have a very similar record, having beaten Armagh and Derry after losing to Mayo in what was a competitive enough game for the most part.  They are more defensive this year than previously, which is a pity for us as the Galway team I watched play Tipperary and Kerry last year would have been a joy to play against.  This year’s edition might be a slightly trickier proposition, but the one thing that has struck me watching them is that their tackling can be very undisciplined.  Mayo made hay against them, attempting 11 frees, with Cillian O’Connor scoring eight of them.  But five of these were won by the powerful Aidan O’Shea and Donegal have done poorly at winning frees all year – something I put down largely to our attacking strategy above anything else, and unless we start to utilise Michael Murphy as a more orthodox forward, we might struggle to generate the type of returns we saw from Mayo.

I am backing Donegal (on here at least, not with cash) to win, but with no real conviction.  If Galway come with belief and show intensity in defence and on counter attack, then we are definitely vulnerable.  The fitness of Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty is not beyond doubt and Karl Lacey is out.  I had hoped to see something different from what I had seen in every other game this year against Monaghan, but I didn’t, and I fear it is too late to make any real changes this year.  It will be as you were on Saturday night.  I am not relishing it.

Until Victory, Always.

The Tortoise and the Hare

I missed the Ulster Semi-Final against Down in 2013 (well, I saw it, but on a laptop several thousand miles away).  I didn’t think we looked great, but we got the job done.  But a few people who were at the game were much more worried than me by what they saw, and have compared it to the performance against Derry.  After attending and then watching back our Semi Final win over Derry, I have plenty of concerns of my own this year.

I really don’t know what to make of Donegal this year.  Sure, we have played well at times, but too often we have looked very ordinary.  Outcomes have been very satisfactory – keeping our place in Division One and making an Ulster Final is what I had hoped we would at least achieve in 2015.  But performances have been lacking something.  It’s just not clear to me whether this has been by accident or design.  During the Championship at least, we tend to start fast but fall away as the game winds down.  This leads to highly tense situations for supporters in the stands.

If, at the start of the year, you wanted to remain in Division One and win the Ulster title, the road ahead would have seemed daunting.  Planning for that would be a huge challenge.  As the League progressed, it would have been tempting to write off Tyrone and Derry.  But they were different animals come Championship.  Any degree of complacency would have seen us beaten, but we looked like we were playing well within ourselves compared to what I know the players we have are capable of showing.

I really don’t like trying to make the case that we have been holding back, but I don’t think I have choice if I am going to make the case for Donegal winning on Sunday.  What else can explain what we have seen all year?  And, the clearest indication of all was when  Monaghan came to Letterkenny in March?  It was, without exaggeration, the worst game I have ever seen in person at any level.  We showed nothing, and Monaghan were happy to sit back and let us piss about with the ball, allowing them to take the initiative over the course of the game and pick off scores at their leisure.  That was the lowest point for sure, but there have been plenty of other odd looking performances, the latest of which we witnessed three weeks ago in Clones.

It’s a somewhat misleading stat in terms of impact, but none of Donegal’s substitutes used have scored in any of the three Championship games so far.  Some of that is down to the overall time that they are getting on the pitch, but the lack of impact off the bench is a concern.  That’s not really a new thing, but it certainly seems like it is more of a concern this year as it’s hard to see where scores come from on the bench.  Of course, until the Derry game, Michael Murphy hadn’t scored from play , but we didn’t expect that to continue – I don’t have a similar level of faith that our subs will come good for us.  Monaghan can bring on guys who can score, we can’t.

In saying all that, Rory Gallagher had some interesting things to say on Leo McLoone here.  I am delighted that it looks like he will be part of the match day squad for Sunday.  And I fully agree with Rory when he says ‘McLoone’s contribution to Donegal football in recent seasons means that he has been welcomed back into the panel with open arms.’  As he should be.  If anyone feels differently, well, the currency of 2012 wasn’t long being spent. Leo might not start, but wouldn’t he be a great option to replace Christy Toye (who has looked tired in every game so far) after 50 minutes?

Monaghan match up very well with Donegal, both in terms of how they play, and the talent they have at their disposal.  Monaghan play the defensive game without apology.   In the absent Drew Wylie, Colin Walshe, Dessie Moan, Darren and Kieran Hughes and Conor McManus are some of the best players in Ulster at the present time.  I was planning to re-watch both of Monaghan’s Ulster Championship games, but thought there was no point.  I am writing off a lot of what I have seen from Donegal, so even though Monaghan were facing lesser opposition, I don’t see then conceding ,say 15 points on Sunday, as they did against Cavan.  In contrast to Donegal’s fast starts, Monaghan have taken longer to get going.  In truth, I would prefer if Donegal could do likewise on Sunday. The circumstances were very different, but the way that game in Letterkenny earlier this year played out makes me squirm.

Two things I would take from looking at their stats from those games against Cavan and Fermanagh is that they have struggled to win primary possession from kick outs, but they have benefitted from the opposition being careless with the ball from either turning it over via a kick pass or dropping shots short.  So if Donegal can put pressure on the Monaghan kick out, do well on their own and take good care of the ball (i.e. don’t be doing anything stupid, like kicking it…) then we may be able to get the upper hand in terms of possession at least.  But our shot accuracy will have to be better than it was against Derry.

In  Conor McManus, for me at least, Monaghan have the best pure forward in Ulster, and one of the top marksmen in the country.  Don’t get me wrong, Michael Murphy is a better player, but he plays a very different role.  Paddy McBrearty has the potential, but he’s only really beginning to deliver lately.  McManus has been at the top of his game for a few years now.  And he seems to go about his business with a great attitude, never getting riled by the close attention he receives and he also works very hard.  Neil McGee will surely pick him up on Sunday and that should be a great battle.  The question is, will we also deploy Mark McHugh as a sweeper?

Whenever these sides meet, Vinny Corey has tended to man mark Michael Murphy, and it has to be said, do a pretty good job.  It’s been telling that no team to date has managed to mimic Tyrone’s tactic for dealing with Michael.  Armagh didn’t seem to have any game plan, let alone an effective way of dealing with Michael when he dropped deep, although he didn’t score from play.  Early on at least, it looked like Kevin Johnston of Derry might have been shaping up to track him, but they quickly moved to a more zonal marking system.  He made them pay with two great points from play.  I’m not sure Vinny Corey can do a more ‘effective’ job as Justin McMahon on Sunday, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him try.

For me, Sunday represents a decider of sorts over and above this year’s Ulster title.  It’s a chance for one team to claim ‘best of three’ over the other.  In 2013, Donegal were not themselves.  In 2014, Monaghan were in a not dissimilar position.  This year, neither side has, as far as we know, the sort of fatigue and injury concerns that impacted performance in the past two Ulster Finals.  Despit the perceived superior Monaghan depth, Donegal may have a slight advantage, as other than Paddy McBrearty, their first choice 15 appear to be fully fit.  Monaghan look like they will be missing Drew Wylie and Colin Walshe is not long returned from a very serious injury.

The fitness of Paddy McBrearty is surely key to Sunday’s result.  Not just because of what he offers himself, but because of what Donegal will be forced to do if he’s not fit.  I certainly don’t want to see Colm McFadden despatched into the heart of the Monaghan defence where he struggled so badly in 2013 and again in 2014.  It’s a nice thought at times, but there’s virtually no chance we would see Michael Murphy play more than 20% of the game in around the square.  As we saw after he pulled up against Derry, the focal point of Donegal’s attack collapsed without McBrearty.  If he’s not fit to start, will we see a very different attacking formation from Donegal?  I have no idea what it would look like or how it would, indeed if it would, work.   This is where our ‘thin panel’ really hits home – we cannot afford any of our first choice 15 to be missing.

One thing I don’t want to see on Sunday is Neil Gallagher sent in to the edge of the square.  This tactic only works if we are playing a team that goes man to man as opposed to the likes of Derry, who had a handful of men back at all times and we wasted three balls in with zero return.  How many teams will fall for this tactic after seeing how it messed with Dublin last summer? I don’t think anyone on Sunday  will and it’s waste of time from an offensive perspective.  Look to what Cavan achieved against Monaghan with Michael Argue at full forward – another fish out of water.  The other thing it does is it weakens us defensively – aside from the offensive turnovers, it’s likely to yield negative returns even if we don’t kick any ball to him.

Our Championship record against Monaghan reads played 14, won four (H/T to Gaelic Stats).  And that’s spread fairly evenly across all decades going back to 1929.  Past performance is largely irrelevant, but it’s grim reading.  I will never forget 2013 or that trip to Omagh in 2007.  They beat us well those days – physically as well as on the scoreboard.  Last year, we were comfortable enough winners, although watching that game back earlier this year, perhaps it wasn’t as good as I had thought at the time.  I actually hope both teams are able to give 100% on Sunday and we get a full blooded game with the best team coming out on top with no excuses one way or another.  I really can’t call this game, and it feels like a coin toss at this point in time.  The difference may well come down to whether Donegal can get a goal or not (as they have in every Championship game in 2015), and whether Michael Murphy or Rory Beggan is more accurate from long range frees.  I’d always back our captain, but then again, I’m not much of a gambler, so I’ll keep my money in my pocket.

Until Victory, Always.

Job Done. Just About.

Well just as most of us didn’t get too excited but what we saw in Armagh, we shouldn’t get too depressed by what we witnessed in Clones a few Saturday’s ago.  Sure, it wasn’t pretty at times, but we got the job done and it’s now 17/18 in Ulster since Year 0 (2010) and our fifth Ulster Final in a row.  Before a ball was kicked in this year’s Championship, I would have taken this outcome regardless of how we got there.

There are of course some fairly serious questions to be asked, especially when you watch the game back.  Donegal looked lethargic enough for long spells.  It’s always tempting to put this down to ‘hard training’ but that is a known unknown.  It could just have been ‘one of those days’, but we have had too many of those lately, so I don’t really want to use that excuse.  But, unless we believe there are very fundamental problems with Rory Gallagher’s team, that seems as good an explanation as any.  Coupled with a bit of ‘hard training’ of course.  No doubt Derry made life hard for us, but that was not the reason for our performance, which was below par.

Donegal again started well, but things began to fall apart when Paddy McBrearty went down for treatment and came up still lame.  We felt he should have been taken off at that point as he didn’t look comfortable and was contributing nothing, forcing others to avoid him with passes.  We also figured that there was no sense in doing him any long term damage.  But, he remained on and appeared out for the second half with a spring in his step.  So what was the problem?  And how was it seemingly solved at half time?

It’s been heartening to see Colm McFadden’s return to form.  For this alone, Rory Gallagher and his management team must receive a lot of credit as he was used sparingly earlier in the year but is showing good form in the early stages of the Championship, in a role where he perhaps is more capable of contributing in than he was seen in last year.  He scored two fine points, although he was the worst offender in terms of number of chances missed, going 2/6, but his conversion rate of 33% was actually better than anyone except Michael Murphy.  I don’t think anyone expects him to reach the heights of 2012 ever again, but I will take what we have seen so far, especially with the likes of McElhinney, MacNiallais and of course McBrearty all well able to score from play also.

The other man we need to acknowledge again is Marty O’Reilly.  All he does is score goals.  Literally!  There’s a real value to being in the right place at the right time and Marty seems to have the knack.  We are no worse off with him starting instead of Leo in terms of scoring, but concerns remain about his overall offering, as in, what does he offer on those days where he doesn’t score a goal?  For now, keep up the goal scoring Marty!  As it was in 2014, it was a goal scored by one of our less heralded half forwards that was essentially the difference between the teams.

Just in case we forgot that this was ‘Rory Gallagher’s team’, Donegal continued as we have seen them play in every game so far.  It seems we play most of our football in the first half, and then take a more conservative approach in the second.  The stats support this, showing 17 shots taken from 25 attacks in the first half versus 12 from 15 in the second.  Hidden behind the stats – Donegal did not score for 20 minutes in the first half and for 25 minutes in the second. That’s pretty shocking!  Our shooting was pretty poor.  It almost seemed like we were shooting any time we had a glimpse of the posts – making bad decisions in the process.  As ever, dontfoul is well worth a read to see the extent of the problem.  This might also explain our low free count in the red zone (again) – we were shooting rather than carrying the ball closer to goal.  Just to emphasise how bad we were, our success rate was 34% against Derry whereas it was 39% against Armagh last summer and 46% against Kerry in the All Ireland Final.

Other stats from the game make for ugly reading.  We had something like 27-29 turnovers, depending on whether you believe Ulster GAA, or dontfoul.  Either way, this was the worst figure so far this Championship season, and around 20% (or five or six turnovers a game) than any game from 2014.  This coupled with the shooting perhaps illustrates it was ‘one of those days’ as both stats are, to be fair, out of character with what we have seen so far this year and even last year.  It’s telling that at least three of the turnovers were from long balls sent into Neil Gallagher at full forward when he was typically double or triple covered.  It might work against man marking, but it seems foolish to continue with it against that kind of marking.  We also had six shots blocked/dropped short.  Must do better.

Defensively, while we only conceded only ten points, but the ease at which Derry were able to take some of their scores was alarming.  It certainly seems that there is a very accommodating amount of space in the centre of our defence in recent games.  I haven’t linked this to the placing of Neil Gallagher at full forward, but it’s something to watch – Neil’s defensive work and positioning is so important.  It was also worrying at the damage caused by Cailean O’Boyle, who was being marked by Eamon McGee.  You don’t like to single out players for criticism, but I think it’s fair to say that Eamon has looked out of sorts for some time now.

In the week following the game, we have learned that Leo McLoone has rejoined the panel.  This is very welcome, even if we have to wonder why it has taken this long.  All reports suggest that he has been playing regularly for Naomh Conaill, so hopefully he is fit enough.  He knows the system and tactics well enough at this stage, so I am optimistic that he can contribute this summer.  His hard running and ability to score a goal would be a most welcome addition for the Ulster Final.

This blog takes longer to update these days because life tends to get in the way more these days than it did last year.  But it also takes me longer to form a view on where we stand.  Over ten days after our last outing and I am still unsure, even after watching the game and the highlights after seeing it in person.  Viewed in isolation, the performance against Derry was not good.  And it was our worst performance relative to our other Championship games this year.  There’s no point in trying to pretend all is well, but we will need to have a bit of faith and see what happens the next day out.  There will be no room for any lack of intensity or accuracy in Clones on 19 July.

Until Victory, Always.