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.

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