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.

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