The Start of a New Cycle or the Beginning of the End?

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  And so, where Jim once stood on the sideline in MacCumhaill Park in pensive mood, we will see Rory Gallagher, hopefully without stupid hat, on 17 May.  This is one of the known unknowns in how this Championship season will play out.  How will Rory meet the high standards set by Jim?  Winning on Sunday would be a reasonable start after staying in Division One.  But, as Rory sagely puts it, the league is the league.  Donegal face into a preliminary round (again) and on paper, the nastiest looking Ulster draw we have faced for some time.  Up first, Tyrone, the side we deposed as Kings in the North back in 2011.

Let’s begin at the end of Sunday’s game.  I think Donegal will beat Tyrone. In fact, it could be relatively comfortable.  But, I hesitate to predict anything other than a tight win, because, you know, Ulster and all that.  Still, what have Tyrone shown to suggest that they are better than Donegal this year or indeed better than they themselves were in 2013, when they couldn’t take advantage of our low ebb under McGuinness?  In the 2012 Ulster Semi-Final, they gave us one of our hardest games of recent years and but for Paul Durcan, might well have sneaked it.  But that two point defeat is as close as they have come in recent years.

Ryan McMenamin, Conor Gormley, Philip Jordan, Brian Dooher, Stephen O’Neill.  Can anyone name their replacements on the current Tyrone team?  Even if you can name the man who normally wears their shirt number, can you honestly tell me they come close to matching what any of these players brought to the Tyrone team?  I don’t mean to be smug.  Donegal will soon face the same issue when the likes of Neil McGee, Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher, Christy Toye and Colm McFadden call it a day.  But for now, those players are still in reasonable shape and raring to go.  For Tyrone, Sean Cavanagh and Justin McMahon are the only links to the last teams that dominated Ulster.  Cavanagh is no longer the force he was by any stretch of the imagination.  The cuteness remains, but the legs are gone.  He is no longer able to carry this team as he seemed to do in prior years.  Of the rest, Mattie Donnelly is a fine player, but they need him in at least three positions and he can only play one.  Darren McCurry is very talented, but he doesn’t score enough.  And this will be Tyrone’s problem.  They do not have the forwards or scoring power from elsewhere to threaten the top teams.  They frustrated Dublin for a long time in this year’s National League, but their inability to put away their chances cost them the win.  They managed six points against Donegal in Ballybofey.  Their signature victory came against a Mayo team that shot an unhealthy number of wides – we saw the same thing when we travelled to Castlebar and stole a draw.  But, let’s not forget, the league is the league.  Despite their wretched performance in Ballybofey in March, Gavin Devlin believes Tyrone will show people a thing or two on Sunday.

But, I don’t buy into that.  If you don’t believe me, listen to the great man himself.  He was remarkably candid about Donegal’s chances on Sky Sports recently (It was news to me about Martin McElhinney’s injury).  Sigh.  At least we will get to see him in the Sky studios this summer, and read his thoughts in the Irish Times.  BBC’s loss is their gain.  Some Jim is better than no Jim at all I suppose.

But how do we rate Donegal’s chances this year, not just for Sunday, but for the rest of the summer?  Maybe you believe that Rory Gallagher managed the league very well, that Donegal engaged in plenty of shadow boxing, all of our main players got plenty of game time and we stayed in Division One for the second year running for the first time in quite some time.  Or, maybe you feel that Donegal were fortunate to play two of the weakest teams in the division at home and despite fielding full strength teams, failed to beat any of the top teams (You can argue the point with me if you wish, but I don’t rate our victory over Cork in Ballyshannon that highly for a number of reasons. that I don’t have time to expand on right at this moment).  And maybe we don’t have a clue what to do when faced with a team that defends deep – think back to what we witnessed against Mayo at times and Monaghan at all times.  And when good teams do it to Donegal, we struggle.  Nowhere was this more obvious than against Kerry last September, even if we allow for whatever lethargy seemed to affect the team that day.  After we picked off the Dubs in the All-Ireland Semi-Final, it’s hard to conceive of any team ever playing into our hands in such a way ever again.  Thankfully, there aren’t many good teams that will be able to mix a primarily defensive approach with enough firepower to trouble Donegal.  Tyrone are a perfect case in point in this respect. They are probably good enough to frustrate us for most of the game, but like Armagh last August, I expect, at best (for them), they will finish within a few points of Donegal.

How Donegal will actually play and whether it will look much different from the Jim McGuinness edition is unclear to me.  The last time I saw Donegal, Neil McGee was being hung out to dry against Cork in Croke Park.  I hope that is not reflective of what we will see on Sunday.  I would expect not.    I guess one thing I might have noticed during the spring was that, at times, we moved the ball quickly and more directly than I feel was the case under Jim.  Our goal in Castlebar was a thing of beauty – an accurate kick out (one of very few that day), quick transfers, a fine finish.  More of that on Sunday please.  The direct approach worked very well against Tyrone in 2013 if you recall anything from that day other than Stephen O’Neill falling on his arse.  If Colm McFadden plays (boy is that an interesting question, almost worthy of a piece of its own), will we see him drift out to half forward in an attempt to evade tight marking in the corner – as seemed to be a tactic in that ridiculous National League Semi-Final?  I’m leaning towards starting Colm, especially if Michael Murphy will spend most of his time around the middle third – odds are that he will.  I’m hopeful that we will see the best of Paddy McBrearty as a starter this year.  He’s still only 21, but it feels like we have been waiting.

As well as Donegal’s inability to deal with good teams who play defensively, the depth of our panel is a serious concern.  Over the winter, we have lost Rory Kavanagh, Leo McLoone and Brick Molloy.  During the National League, Declan Walsh stepped away.  David Walsh has been heard from in the media but not really seen on the pitch.  Jigger, a lad who started the All-Ireland Final, has had no meaningful time and is unlikely to feature on Sunday at least. Paddy McGrath is struggling with injuries and with size.  Anthony Thompson had not trained with the team at all as of mid April and really looked off the pace in the National League Semi-Final outing against Cork.  Has Eamonn Doherty done enough to replace one or the other?  Does Ryan McHugh drop back to replace the other?  If so, what impact with that have on our half forward line and our bench, which is already likely to be weakened due to the need to replace Kavanagh and McLoone in the starting line up? Despite racking up plenty of game time during the National League, does anyone expect Hugh McFadden to start on Sunday?  If so, in what sort of role – he’s ill-suited to anything defensive.  Marty O’Reilly has stepped in to replace Leo, but I am not sure what he can offer this summer – his four points from play against Cork in early March stand out, but I struggle to recall much impact otherwise.  Mark McHugh has returned, but his status for Sunday is in doubt, and his ability to recapture anything like the form he showed in 2012 is far from certain.  His cousin Eoin comes with a fine reputation, but we didn’t really see enough of him so far this year to get a feel for what he might offer this summer.  There might be some debate about who should start in goal, but for me there is no question that it should be Paul Durcan.

Winning on Sunday is everything.  Defeat is unthinkable.  It would mean no Ulster Championship and, it would certainly suggest to me that we are not good enough to win the All Ireland.  After that, what is there for this group of players?  This is not a transition year, despite the new manager.  He has the core of a team that has won three Ulster titles, an All Ireland, multiple All Star awards and a former Player of the Year.  These heroes won’t be around forever.  Now is not the time to settle for a run to the Quarter-Finals via the Qualifiers – there could be plenty of those years in the near future.  An Ulster title is not a foregone conclusion by any means, but failing to make the Final at least would be a huge disappointment to me at least.  I expect the same will be true of our players.

Until Victory, Always.


The Usual Swings and Roundabouts in Division One

As we head into the final two scheduled games of this year’s Division One League, let’s take a look at where Donegal stand. I had started writing something after the first two games and got sidetracked. I’m kind of glad that I did because so much has happened since, and yet, what have we learned?

It’s wise never to read too much, if anything, into league performances and results. At the outset, I said that we shouldn’t get too excited about beating a fairly poor looking Derry team. Subsequent results and performances by the Oakleafers have confirmed that point and they could well lose every game.

In saying that, it was disappointing not to beat a Dublin team missing many of their better players and reduced to 14 men for most of the second half. Our main problem that night was a lack of accuracy in front of the posts, a theme becoming too common for my liking, and one that pre dates this year. We also conceded two goals from players running hard through the centre of our defence. I also felt that we didn’t show enough urgency in the second half – it felt like the game felt more to Dublin, not surprising perhaps.

My takeaway from the Cork game was that they weren’t exactly too pushed about the result, until the Michael Murphy red card, when it finally dawned on them that the game was there to be won. The highlight from that game was four points from play from Marty O’Reilly, but his performances before and after the Cork game suggests that this was something of a flash in the pan. Cork played very defensively, even with the wind. Whether this was designed with the summer in mind or whether they felt that this gave them the best chance of beating Donegal isn’t clear. In difficult conditions, twelve points was ok I guess.

Then came the infamous game against Monaghan in Letterkenny. A match that literally brought children to tears (I was in the company of one such misfortunate child). I can’t recall ever attending as bad a game previously. It was a pretty shameful display considering (a) Donegal were at home; (b) we fielded what is very close to a full strength team; and (c) Monaghan were missing two starters through suspension and lost arguably their best player to a black card during the first half. Donegal’s lack of intensity and imagination in trying to overcome Monaghan’s ultra defensive set up was puzzling. Even if we accept that training is currently tailored towards the summer, one score from play in seventy minutes of football is not acceptable on a day when conditions were not bad at all. Even though coverage of the game was virtually non-existent, there were a lot of column inches and hot air given to seemingly imminent death of football, especially after Tyrone had employed similar tactics to Monaghan in their televised game against Dublin the night before. In general, I don’t think we need rule changes to address this issue, what we need is courage and imagination from opposing managers. On that Sunday in Letterkenny, there was a lack of imagination shown by Donegal for sure. One could make the argument that we wouldn’t want to show our hand ahead of the summer, where we will surely face similar defensive set ups, but again, I don’t accept that we couldn’t find some middle ground that would have allowed us to beat Monaghan on that Sunday in O’Donnell Park.
Still, I’m glad I didn’t go nuts after Letterkenny. It was only one game after all.

The trip to Tralee was a little bit more rewarding, even if we left empty handed. The level of performance was much better, even if there still appears to be plenty to work on. Much of our passing was sloppy and we turned the ball over too much in the Kerry half. Our full back line was a bit of a shambles. Perhaps they are suffering due to a different defensive approach, maybe they are just out of sorts generally. Again, you need to look at the two teams selected. Donegal were short Frank McGlynn and Odhran MacNiallais, but compared to Kerry, we were very much at full strength. Our captain in particular had a very subdued game, although he did recover his form on dead balls, having had an off day in Letterkenny the previous game. I guess the most disappointing thing about the performance in Tralee was that if we had applied ourselves even half as well in Letterkenny, we would surely have beaten Monaghan.

In the five games played to date, team selection has been relatively conservative. We are seeing more of Hugh McFadden, Marty O’Reilly and Eamonn Doherty, but all of these players have been involved previously. And these moves could well be out of necessity as much as anything else when you consider that Anthony Thompson has only made himself available lately, Rory Kavanagh has retired and Leo McLoone has chosen not to make himself available. None of the three has really stood out, all have done relatively ok at times, but it doesn’t feel like we have unearthed any new starters for the Championship. It feels like we will really miss Leo McLoone come the summer but it’s good to see Thompson back. I don’t know why Declan Walsh hasn’t been seen. It’s concerning too that Jigger, a player who started the All Ireland Final remember, hasn’t been involved. At this stage, you have to believe that he will have more of an impact off the bench than Colm McFadden. I was really looking forward to seeing Eoin McHugh in action, but injury has limited him to cameos against Monaghan and Kerry. Ciaran McGinley started against Derry but hasn’t appeared since.
From the more familiar faces, the likes of Neil Gallagher, Frank McGlynn and Christy Toye have, largely, shown good form for this time of the year. Paddy McBrearty is beginning to show more and more that he belongs in the starting team and that’s great to see. The more and more Michael Murphy is seen playing deep, the more we need Paddy to feature as a scoring threat. He has always had the talent, it’s hard to say what was missing, but his form suggests that he may have addressed it. Maybe Rory Gallagher deserves some of the credit here. Time will tell I guess.

We now face a fight for survival in the top division. A win against Tyrone in Ballybofey might see us safe, but there’s a good chance that this will go to the last day. Monaghan face Kerry in Killarney on Sunday, a game I would expect them to lose. They have a home date with the Dubs on the final day, Tyrone have Kerry at home and Donegal travel to Castlebar. Home advantage will be a factor for Tyrone and Monaghan, but it’s likely that all teams, except maybe Kerry, will have something to play for. After their horror shows at home against Tyrone and Dublin, I just can’t see Mayo taking the game less than seriously, especially if they need to win to make a semi-final. I have a feeling we might just stay up, but only if we win this weekend in Ballybofey. It will be intriguing to see how both teams approach the game, given that both need to win, and yet neither will want to give too much away ahead of the Ulster Championship meeting at the same venue in seven weeks time. I almost wish I could be there, but it looks like I will have to make do with Highland Radio. Things could always be worse I suppose.

Until Victory, Always.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

With the 2015 football season officially beginning for Donegal today in Owenbeg, it seemed like a good time to look ahead, but also to take a look back at the year just ended.

As 2014 began to draw to a close, I began to reflect on the year we had witnessed.  I can’t really make up my mind as to how I should feel about it.  On the one hand, we won our third Ulster title in four years and doubled up with our minors.  We gave, by most accounts, the outstanding performance of the year when we swept aside the overwhelming favourites and 2013 All Ireland Champions Dublin in the All Ireland Semi-Final and our minor team reached the All Ireland Final for the first time ever.

But, we ended the year losing two All Ireland Finals in the space of a September afternoon. Our Under 21 team lost a very disappointing Ulster Final in devastating fashion to Cavan for the second year in a row.  The Man himself walked away at the end of his four year term.  So while expectations were low at the start of the year, I still feel disappointed despite the Ulster titles.

Where to now for Donegal?

The positives are that none of our 2014 panel has announced that they are retiring or will be otherwise unavailable for 2015.  Yet.  There have been many rumours, but no formal announcements as yet.  I would be disappointed if anyone threw in the towel at this point.  I am not sure why anyone would wait to announce that they are retiring until now – I don’t think any of them should fear for their place, except maybe Colm McFadden.

We also added several new faces to the starting team and the squad in 2014.  Ryan McHugh was Young Footballer of the Year, despite a very below par showing in the All Ireland Final.  Odhran MacNiallais showed that he belongs at this level.  Young Jigger had his moments, especially his goal against Antrim, but did look out of his depth at times.  Hopefully all three can build on their encouraging starts in 2014.

One thing that has struck me is the lack of information coming forward about the new management team.  At this point, all that appears official is that Glenswilly and Saint Eunan’s College Gary McDaid will be to Rory Gallagher as Rory Gallagher to Jim McGuinness.  There was a story/rumour that the highly rated and well travelled Martin McElkennon was approached to join the effort but turned it down due to the travel involved.  Former County Secretary Aodh Martin O’Fearraigh has been put in charge of logistics.    It’s far from clear if there is an insane level of secrecy around things or if the new manager is finding it hard to get others to commit to his vision.   All in all, the new manager has had little to say in public until this week just past.

Rory Gallagher’s biggest fault, so far, is that he is not Jim McGuinness.  This is his first time being in sole charge of a senior team.  Indications are that McGuinness’ role was more than just team manager; by all accounts, he also took an active role in fundraising.  It was in no small part his charisma and connections that ensured the trips to Johnstown House and Lough Erne Resort were possible.  If such trips are to continue, another method of funding may have to be found.  We shouldn’t underestimate McGuinness’ impact of drawing a crowd either.  Will the support be as strong under Rory?  If anything, our football may be more defensive.  Unless we are winning games, that may become an issue.

The McKenna Cup Panel is missing a lot of familiar faces.  There’s no indication, as yet that anyone will be missing for any longer than for the McKenna Cup, although there are doubts over Rory Kavanagh, Leo McLoone, Anthony Thompson and Luke Keaney.  Some of the ‘new’ names have been named to pre season panels previously, but have not made the cut for Championship or even League.  There are a few completely new names to the Donegal panel, although by and large, they should be familiar to anyone who has followed the Senior Club Championship lately.  The two most intriguing names are McHugh’s.  Mark, as was expected, returns from exile.  Mark McHugh will, hopefully, be in a position to contribute in 2015.  If focused on football, he can have a positive impact, even if he’s not a good a footballer as his brother.  His cousin Eoin progresses from the Under 21 team and I am hopeful we get the chance to see him in action during the League.  He has shown promise for club and county underage sides, and perhaps would have featured under Jim McGuinness if not for injury.  By my reckoning, he should be able to offer as much as Jigger at this level.

I have no idea what to expect from the League.  Jim McGuinness’ position on it seemed ambivalent, but his team selections and reactions suggested that he wasn’t playing to lose.  In his four years in charge, we played in Division One twice and Division Two twice, although he was only responsible for relegation one time having inherited our time in Division Two in 2011 from John Joe Doherty.  Regardless, Donegal have struggled to maintain a consistent presence in the top division under any manager.  Relegation would not be a good start for the reign of Rory Gallagher, but it would be far from the end of the world.  With four home games, we should be looking to stay up.

One thing Jim McGuiness was consistent on was his respect for the Ulster Championship.  Whether Rory Gallagher takes it as seriously remains to be seen at this stage – I have no reason to believe that he won’t.  It would be tempting to look at the draw and think that you might be better off going through to a Quarter Final via the Qualifiers.  But, things may have changed in recent years.  For a start, the Qualifier draw is now ‘fixed’ and should Donegal lose to Tyrone, the path to a Quarter Final is littered with teams that could be considered better than average.  Ulster, as usual, will be tough to win.  Finding ourselves playing Tyrone in the preliminary round for the second time in three years doesn’t seem ‘fair’, does it?  We have no reason to fear anyone in Ulster at this point in the year, but perhaps the rest of them will fear us less than they did in recent years due to the changes on the sideline and that could be important.  I look forward to our clash with Tyrone in Ballybofey in May.  First, they will visit us in Ballybofey in March during the National Football League.  When Donegal travelled to Omagh as All Ireland Champions in 2013, the atmosphere in the stands and on the pitch was ugly.  I’m pretty sure that day helped fuel our fire for the subsequent beating we gave them in the Championship later that year, a year in which our Championship displays were poor at best.  Let’s not get too carried away when we see them in March.

So what are reasonable expectations for 2015?  With four home games, against some of the weaker teams in Division One, I think survival in the top flight is realistic.  I have no interest in semi-finals or a League final; sixth place will do fine.  I also think an Ulster Championship is achievable, especially if the squad remains intact and we don’t suffer injuries to key players.  Ulster is hard, but winnable.  After that, I don’t know.  If we can win Ulster, an All Ireland Semi Final should be well within our reach.

If Donegal need to take inspiration from any team for the year ahead, I reckon we could do worse than look at our opponents in the All Ireland Final.  Kerry lost their best player to injury early in the season and several more to retirement and yet emerged with glory.  Guys like Marc O’Sé, Aidan O’Mahony and Kieran Donaghy showed that there is space in the modern game for thirtysomethings.  Eamon Fitzmaurice redefined their approach to the game – it was amazing to hear their own fans giving out about it during the All Ireland Final – but ultimately he delivered a title and that is what the game is all about at this level.

Until Victory, Always.

The Man

For as long as I can recall now, folks have been eager to speculate on whether Jim McGuinness would stay or go.  I generally avoided or ignored any such discussion.  At most, I would just say that he would be irreplaceable when he did depart.  Now the day that anyone who cared for Donegal at all feared has arrived.  I know that there are more important things in life, but this feels like one of those moments that will haunt us for a long time to come.  Is it worse than the feeling at around five o’clock on 21 September 2014?  Yes, quite possibly I’d say. The damage done here goes way beyond one game.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Jim McGuinness.  It was in the build up to the All Ireland Final in 1992 and Donegal were training in Donegal Town.  I don’t know if it was an official open training session or whether we just chanced our arm (or indeed was there such a thing as closed training in those days) but my dad took me over.  I was 12 at the time.  One of the few things I recall was an unknown tall dark gangly scruffy looking sort walking off and taking a mouthful of water from a bottle and them motioning as if to spit it at someone on the pitch.  I wasn’t impressed.  I didn’t even know who he was or even if my dad did.  I don’t know how we found out who he was.

All throughout his career as a player for Donegal I never quite knew what to make of McGuinness.  That first impression stayed with me throughout and Donegal’s failures in the period after 1992 didn’t help I suppose.  Guys like Damien Diver, Adrian Sweeney, Christy Toye and Barry Dunnion were probably my favourite players in those 20 years – after the 1992 panel had been broken up.  McGuinness didn’t seem to inspire me one way or another.  It didn’t help that he seemed to be a perpetual student and I was never quite sure of what he was doing at the various schools he attended.  I saw him as a kind of mercenary or eternal party boy – taking scholarships from whoever would offer them.  That was based on nothing only my own prejudices.

I’d be embarrassed to mention any of the above if I met the man now.  I was young and ignorant I guess.  I am no longer young and my perspective on the man has changed considerably since his playing days.  I think it’s fair to say that no man has ever had such a dramatic and positive influence on the fortunes of our footballers.  I am no great analyst of the game by any stretch, so I’m not sure how much of what he brought was tactical versus pure inspiration or game management.  I never thought his game plans were that complex, but the level of effort and dedication required to implement them was immense.  That was not accomplished by merely telling players what they needed to do, it required a much deeper level of engagement.  I’m sure there are plenty of managers around the country that have a vision for how they want their teams to play and how they are going to win games, but getting players to buy into that vision is the hard part in my opinion.  If I am selling him short on the tactical side, then I humbly apologise.  But for me, he was more a leader of men than a tactical genius.  If that is damning him with faint praise, then so be it.

The greatest thing was of course was that he was one of us. He enjoyed the victories as much as we did.  He was as disappointed in defeat.  He acknowledged the people of Donegal in his speeches.  After years of disappointment and frustration as a player, and after being rejected as manager the first time he applied, he still came back and put his name in the hat again.  He wasn’t too proud to turn his back on Donegal and even served his time with the Under 21 team after being rejected for the senior post before he got his shot at the big time. In some ways, I guess he couldn’t lose. We were at a low point and whoever came in couldn’t do much worse than we had done in 2010.  What he did however was exceed all reasonable expectations.  Even if we had never won the All Ireland in 2012, he restored something that wasn’t there in Donegal football for a long time.  I hesitate to use the word ‘pride’ because that is unfair on many who toiled in the jersey in the 90s and 00s but in reality, pride is the right word for it.  I certainly never felt whatever I felt watching Donegal for the last four years back in the wilderness years.  There was some joy along the way back then, amidst all the despair and anger, but nothing like the feeling Jim inspired.

Fare thee well Jim McGuinness.  You have done more for us than we could have expected if less than we had hoped.

Where to next for Donegal?  I have no idea.  When all is said and done, he is gone. It doesn’t matter who comes in, it won’t be Jim standing on the sideline in 2015.  What else is there to say after that really.

Until Victory, Always.

Beaten at our own Game

It’s hard to know where to start.  This interview with Jim McGuinness is a good place I suppose.  Very honest words within and we shouldn’t try to manufacture excuses or point fingers in the aftermath.  We simply didn’t deserve to win.  Tip of the cap to Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Kerry for coming out on the right side of a bad game.  It’s strange though.  You would think that Donegal of all teams would be the ones to prosper in a game like the one we witnessed on Sunday.

It seems pointless to analyse individual issues even if the difference on the scoreboard at the end was ultimately down to Paul Durcan’s error.  Collectively, it was not a good performance.  Papa’s kick out directly to Kieran Donaghy was merely the symptom of a much wider malaise.  I am desperately disappointed for the fella.  A mistake like that is bad enough at the best of times but the fact it was made in an All Ireland Final is even worse.  He may never live it down and in a game as bad as Sunday’s, it was one of the few moments that will be remembered from this final.  The reports from the banquet and from the homecoming reinforce the hurt that is being felt by the players since.

Colm McFadden may well be haunted by his failure to palm the ball into the net also, but that doesn’t disguise the fact that Kerry created many more chances over the course of 70 minutes.  Over the course of the game, we took only 23 shots.  Even if we assumed a conversion rate of 60%, that translates to maybe 14 points, or 1-13.  It’s hard, but not impossible, to win a game in September with that sort of score, in fact, 16 points is the average winning score over the five finals previous to Sunday.  But we had on only 8 wides and one shot dropped short to Kerry’s 13 wides and four dropped short.  There’s no denying that Kerry were the better team on the day, certainly on the basis of scoring chances created.

The tone was set in the opening three minutes.  Both Kerry’s scores came from second chance efforts – a blocked shot and then a ball off the post.  They were the more alert team for sure.  Despite the early goal, Kerry were not much of an attacking force in the first half really.  Most of their chances were off Donegal turnovers.  It was fair to say that they were living on scraps.  Their primary focus was on defence and they did a fine job of frustrating Donegal.  On the offensive side, they were ruthless at punishing Donegal mistakes.

Despite the concession of the early goal, I felt better at half time than I did before throw in.  We had weathered the Kerry storm, they were starting to kick chances wide and we had started to run at them with success, notably from frees.  However, we did not score from play until the 28th minute.  Our offensive play was very poor – aside from Jigger’s goal chance, I counted only three more shots from play in the first half which led to points for MacNiallais and Lacey.  On Jigger’s goal chance, how the umpires missed the fact that the ball hit both Brian Kelly and was then kicked out while still alive by a Kerry defender amazes me.  If it seems petty to moan, then consider how Michael Murphy had been kicking into the Hill in the first half.  The chances of a point were very high.  In a game where scores were at a premium, every scoring chance mattered.

The first Kerry goal came when Stephen O’Brien’s shot was partially blocked and Paul Geaney, whose physical size impressed me during the warm up, finished it very well.  The consequence of matching Neil McGee with James O’Donohghue and Eamon McGee with Kieran Donaghy meant that Geaney fell to Paddy McGrath to deal with.  This was an obvious mismatch in terms of size but one that was well exploited, whatever about the circumstances leading up to it.  It was Geaney’s first ever championship goal and he finished it very well.  It’s been said elsewhere but it’s worth repeating here – given that James O’Donoghue played so deep, would we have been better off detailing someone else to mark him while leaving Neil McGee to command the edge of the square and look after Geaney?

As I expected, the Kerry half forward line played hard.  Donnchadh Walsh was whistled for a clothes line tackle on Leo McLoone. A free for sure and what should have been an early yellow.  Stephen O’Brien did earn a yellow card and was substituted at half time.  In the first half, Kerry seemed happy to give away frees within shooting range.  In the second, Donegal did not earn any decent chances – fouls were committed further out, but that wasn’t the whole story really.  Our attacking play was not incisive enough to earn frees in scoring range.  We had only one shot at goal from a free in the second half.

Looking back on it now, perhaps it was Kerry who were the happier team at half time.  They knew they could limit our scoring opportunities and were now only 35 minutes away from their 37th All Ireland title.  As Darragh Ó’Sé writes in today’s Irish Times, once you are in a final, you find a way to win.  This was my fear before the game.  Having come out on top after two titanic struggles against Mayo, Kerry had the bit between their teeth from the word go and were no doubt further encouraged by their start.  Much of what we saw from Donegal was all too similar to what we had witnessed against Armagh.  But Kerry are a better team from Armagh and there was never any sense of panic from them on the pitch and some great decision making on the sideline.

Before the game, I was worried about the rookies at this level – MacNiallais and McHugh.  And so, my fears were somewhat realised.  MacNiallais gave the ball away very cheaply which gave Kerry the platform for the first goal.  However, he did recover well when losing possession to kick the ball over the bar. It was a great pity we couldn’t engineer more shooting opportunities for him.  McHugh had a much more limited impact than we have been accustomed to see.  His one really impactful piece of play, when he beat his man Paul Murphy to a Kerry kick out that led to a Michael Murphy point, was cancelled out more or less straight away when Murphy raced up the field to kick over a huge score.  Telling that Murphy was RTE man of the match I suppose.  We can only hope that guys like Odhran and Ryan get another chance on the biggest of stages.

In common with the rest of his appearances this year, Patrick McBrearty showed very well when he was introduced from the bench.  He took his two scores well, but he also failed to convert twice.  Perfection is a very high standard, but that’s what Sunday’s game called for from our forwards when presented with chances.  I don’t really want to spend too much time talking about next year, but how Paddy will be used is one of the most interesting discussion topics over the winter.

Given the time remaining in the aftermath, the second goal itself was not fatal.  What followed it was however.  Durcan no longer felt comfortable kicking short and we were unable to secure possession at midfield.  Kerry picked off scores from Buckley and Barry John Keane frees.  Then, after starting brightly with two scores, Paddy McBrearty dropped one short and one wide.  Two fine scores from Brick and Christy followed, but from the subsequent kick out, Kerry held the ball and ran down the clock.  Donegal seemed too defensive, at least at this point. The two minutes that elapsed between Christy’s point and Neil McGee’s lazy foul that led to Brian Sheehan getting the final score of the game seemed like a lifetime.  It sums up the second half well – Kerry had over 60% possession.

I don’t think anyone played particularly badly for Donegal.  Other than Durcan’s error, I guess we will look back and ask did we really get the best out of Michael Murphy.   Perhaps he was not right after an incident in the first half. The late run to set up Colm’s goal chance showed what may have been possible earlier.  Neil Gallagher worked tirelessly and Christy Toye was tremendous when introduced.  I felt Jigger had done ok in his limited time on the pitch.

For Kerry, guys like Marc Ó’Sé, Aidan O’Mahony rolled back the years.  Add to that the energetic performance of Kieran Donaghy and we see evidence that there is a place in the game at the very highest level for 30 somethings yet.  Hopefully some of the Donegal players will take note and recognise the fact that they still have something to offer next year.   James O’Donoghue played selflessly.  It’s amazing that Kerry’s marquee forward was held scoreless and they still won by three points.  Their defenders were very disciplined.  Paul Murphy and Killian Young were probably the pick of them.

Writing in the Examiner, renowned sports psychologist Kieran Shannon wonders if Donegal were ‘over-prepared’ – an odd notion perhaps but we are struggling to explain the flat performance and so is Jim McGuinness.  If we had won the game, the five day stint in Lough Erne Resort would be hailed as the moment the plans for victory were hatched.  Likewise, if we had lost to Dublin, the time spent in Johnstown House would have been deemed unnecessary.   Such is life when you lose, especially when you lose as favourites, everything is scrutinised and second guessed.  I don’t know what factors contributed to such a flat performance on Sunday.  I hope Jim McGuinness is true to his word in the interview mentioned in the opening paragraph and does indeed see what could have been done differently to prepare.  And I hope he keeps that to himself and uses it to prepare for next year with the same group of players.

Talking to someone earlier reinforced my thoughts from Sunday evening.  In other years, we would have been depressed for ourselves as supporters and giving out about players or management.  Not this year.  There is deep disappointment for the players themselves, at least from this supporter.  We know what they have all put in over the past 12 months, over the past four years in fact.  They can say, and we can tell ourselves that we will be back next year, and of course we will, as true supporters and players, but who knows how it will turn out.  This was a golden opportunity missed.  But it’s not the end of the world even if it did feel like it on Sunday evening.

Until Victory, Always

An Uneasy Sense of Confidence

Back in 2012, there was much more to say in the build up to the final.  After 20 years in the wilderness, there was a certain novelty about the occasion.  It’s no less special this time around, but the fact that we go in as favourites, having beaten the team that were widely touted as being unbeatable, means that, even though it’s a final, it feels like we have already faced our biggest test this year.  It’s hard to do much a preview after what we witnessed against Dublin.  I’ll come right out and say it now – we should win this game.  That assumes of course, we can perform at a similarly high level as we showed against Dublin, and, enjoy similar fortune.

Growing up, did anyone who followed Donegal ever believe, let alone dream that we would find ourselves facing Kerry in an All Ireland Final as favourites?  The 2012 quarter final win was historic for sure, but it was only a quarter final and Kerry weren’t even Munster champions.  That was a team in decline, this, they would have us believe is a team in transition.  The ‘transition’ tag appears to have come from the fact that Kerry have enjoyed no underage success at Minor level since 1994 and at Under 21 level since 2008.  I don’t buy it.  Lack of success does not imply a lack of talent.  Donegal for instance, have never won an All Ireland title at Minor and our last win at Under 21 was in 1987.

Again, matters other than tactics, fitness or team selection have dominated the column inches and social media chatter in the lead up to the game.  Whether it’s been the picture of the helicopter or the reported EUR 20,000 spent in a hotel ‘in the North’, focus has been on Donegal’s resources off the pitch more so than on it.  Throw in the drawn hurling final, the latest greatest game of all time, means that, up until this week at least, there has been little of substance written or said about the game itself.  That might have changed this lately, but I am out of the loop somewhat with less time to read pre match analysis than I would like.

Darragh O’Sé, writing in the Irish Times after the semi-finals, says that Eamonn Fitzmaurice is ‘going to be making fellas do things they’re not used to and that they never did before’.  If he’s being honest, as opposed to a bit of ‘yerra’, then I would be delighted.  You can be sure Jim McGuinness is not asking his players to do anything differently.  Our success is based on a playing with a level of intensity and belief that cannot be matched over a two and a half week period.  But Kerry’s semi-final games will have conditioned them well for an intense struggle – Mayo certainly tend to play with a high level of same.  However, if Donegal step on your throat, they are unlikely to let their feet off enough to be hauled in as Mayo were on consecutive weekends.  What I saw against Armagh in terms of shot conversion still worries me however – we dominated the play for a long stretch in the second half, but didn’t convert that dominance to scores.  We righted that problem in spectacular fashion against Dublin, but recall that lads who we might depend heavily on for scores like Odhran MacNiallais and Ryan McHugh have not played in an All Ireland Final before.  There was no pressure on them as underdogs in the semi-final, but Sunday is a different story.

As said above, Kerry come in on the back of two very hard games against a Mayo team who enjoyed little or no luck.  Eamonn Fitzmaurice certainly got it right tactically, but I’m afraid James Horan made it easy for him, with Kieran Donaghy allowed to have undue influence in the outcomes of both games.  Add in the fact that Mayo played half of the first game with 14 men and then had to do without Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor for stretches of the second game, as well as Cormac Reilly’s day to forget and it takes a little gloss off their semi final win.  If people are going to refer to the goals Dublin didn’t get, we can also engage in a little whataboutery in relation to Kerry.  Likewise, much as Donegal made hard work of Armagh, some of the tape from Kerry’s quarter final win over Galway doesn’t make for pretty viewing if you are from the Kingdom.

Martin McHugh expressed himself clumsily, but he may well have had a point about James O’Donoghue.  He looks an exceptional talent.  I can’t recall what Gooch was like at the same stage, it’s over 10 years ago now, a time when Kerry probably had a better team and when we just didn’t analyse Gaelic Football to the same extent as we do these days.  Anyway, he’s very good and Donegal will have to find some way to curtail his influence on matters.  Still, deny him ball and he can only do so much damage – his value is more as a pure scorer than someone who creates chances for others, but that’s not to say that he can’t contribute more in a deeper role, where space may be more easily available.  Dontfoul had a look at the effectiveness of O’Donoghue in a deeper role here.  If Donegal can force him deep, it will surely increase our chances of winning the game.

One concern I have is how Kerry will deal with the star of the semi-final win over Dublin, Ryan McHugh.  He’s a wonderful footballer, fleet of foot and intelligent, but he is a slip of a fella and I fear for what a big hit would do to him, similar to the one shipped by Karl Lacey in the 2011 All Ireland semi-final against the Dubs.  Whether this is delivered by fair means or foul is hardly relevant, but in guys like Johnny Buckley and Donnchadh Walsh, Kerry have two big physical players who operate in the same areas as Ryan McHugh who certainly tackle with tremendous intensity.  Ryan would do well to avoid them.

On Donegal team selection, how Christy Toye, Rory Kavanagh and David Walsh will be used is one fairly obvious question after the semi-final.  None of the three may be fit for 70 minutes, so how McGuinness’ uses them will be the subject of much speculation on Sunday morning I’m sure.  Maybe Christy and Rory can go the distance given that this is the last game of the year – I would sure like to see both on the field at the final whistle.  Especially Christy.  We’ve been reminded in recent days that he has come back from horrific condition.

Next, and somewhat related to the previous issue, we have the curious case of Paddy McBrearty.  The term ‘impact sub’ is probably one that no player wants to be tagged with, but the case for using McBrearty from the bench is surely well made at this point, strengthened further by his appearance against Dublin.   My prediction is that we could see him enter for Leo McLoone after 40 -45 minutes.  That prediction is not much of a stretch really – McLoone has been substituted in every game since our first round win in Ulster against Derry.

At numbers 1-7, Donegal are better – individually and as a unit.  No questions on who starts for Donegal.  Kerry had one variable I guess – Marc O’Se or Shane Enright and O’Se got the nod, presumably as a result of his positive contribution in the semi final replay. Perhaps too because Donegal will set up in a way that might suit him – he excels when going forward.  O’Se will go down as a legend when he finally retires, but you would have to question if he has the legs for this game.  The Kerry defence has conceded seven goals in five games, Donegal have scored eight goals in five games.  Kerry were cut open twice in alarming fashion against Galway and conceded four goals in their two games against Mayo, and that would have been much more.  They might be more inclined to get bodies back than in previous years, but I still think this is a fairly leaky unit, more so than Donegal, despite the fact that the statistics suggest that both defences are fairly similar.

If David Moran can replicate his tour de force performance against Mayo, then maybe Kerry have the edge around the middle.  But I am expecting big things from Neil Gallagher, I think, like the overall performance; he has been building up to something big.  He was very good in the last two games of course, but I have a feeling there is more to come.  In Moran, Maher and Buckley, Kerry can in theory dominate the midfield and restarts.  Paul Durcan’s accuracy from kick outs will key, he is a much better keeper than his opposite number Brian Kelly in that regard. We will not have faced a midfield like Kerry’s in this year’s championship so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Durcan look to the wings and short more than usual.

In the forwards, Michael Murphy and James O’Donoghue will both be All Stars, for largely different reasons.  The theory that if Donegal can keep James O’Donoghue quiet we will win is too simple for my liking, just like Kerry keeping Michael Murphy quiet means that Kerry will win (by four to five points…) ignores the supporting cast, including Colm McFadden, who is likely to be buoyed after his semi final return.  As dontfoul points out, the rest of the Kerry players have taken a lot of shots with an impressive success rate over the course of 2014.   Still, no-one outside of O’Donoghue really bothers me.  I’d much rather face this set of Kerry forwards than one that would include fully fit versions of Gooch, Declan and Darran O’Sullivan and Brian Sheehan. Two of those may feature at some point on Sunday, but they are not the players they were five years ago.

If all the above seems arrogant or dismissive of Kerry, then that was not my intention.  I am still in a bit of a daze after the semi final and hope I am not missing something very obvious.  It’s a weird position to be in, from being written off in the wake of last year’s struggle to favourites for the All Ireland.   I still feel the need to pinch myself at the thought we are in our second All Ireland Final in three years.  This group of players now have the opportunity to go one better than the Heroes of 92.  Who’s to say what the future holds, but they may never get a better chance to add to their Celtic Cross from 2012.  Unlike the semi final, I have faith this time.  Donegal will win.

Let me finish with this.  On Sunday at 12 noon, a memorial service will be held at Binns Bridge, Drumcondra for Andrew Duffy of Termon, who tragically died on the night of the All Ireland semi-final in 2012.  I didn’t know Andrew directly, but that incident has haunted me every since.  If you know that part of Dublin around Croke Park, you know there is a canal with no railing.   I am not religious at all, but I hope to attend that service.  Trips to Croke Park have been largely happy days in recent years, but for some, the place will forever be associated with sorrow rather than joy.  Before we head in to Croke Park to cheer on our heroes, I’d encourage anyone reading to take time out to honour the memory of someone who shared our love of Donegal.

Until Victory, Always.

Day of Days

As a Donegal supporter, Sunday was typical of the days we live for, the days that we should probably expect under Jim McGuinness.  But surely none of us had dreamed of this outcome.  Certainly not me.  I was fairly sure that the potential existed, but that the execution was too big a task.  But Jim McGuinness got his players to go back to a seemingly bottomless well and summon a performance that left me shell shocked.    Most of us would say that the semi-final win over Cork in 2012 was our finest performance in the McGuinness era, but Sunday tops that.  We wrested control of the game from the heaviest of favourites and reigning champions and ran riot in the ten minute periods before and after half time.  It was awesome stuff altogether.

Unlike the performance against Cork 2012, there no such context for this win.  Back then, we had swept Down aside in the Ulster Final and the realisation of what we had developed since that (in)famous day in Croke Park the previous August began to dawn.  So far this year, we won but didn’t impress in the league, finishing with a very flat performance against Monaghan.  There were encouraging signs against Derry in the first round, but it was a case of ‘green shoots’ and not much else.  Antrim was a non-event, other than the performance of Odhran MacNiallais and a cameo from Jigger.  Monaghan was an arm wrestle, but one where it looked like we were always the better team.  Armagh was an odd game.  Sunday, in some respects, came out of nowhere.

Let’s take a step back for a moment.  Dublin did butcher two clear cut goal chances while leading by five points in the first half.  If either went in, we were in deeper trouble.  If both had gone in, we were almost certainly too far behind to mount a comeback.  But, the game isn’t played in terms of ifs and buts, the winner is determined by goals and points on the scoreboard at the end.  The Dubs still had their chances in the second half, but they reverted to the sort of shooting that I thought was a thing of the past.    I’ll not dwell too much on the rest of their performance, as that is not really the story, but the sort of issues that were there in the background all along – their defensive set up, their midfield, were brutally exposed.  Plenty of other teams have had their chance this year but no-one has gone out to take them on with the conviction of this Donegal team.

Ryan McHugh’s first goal, for instance, while brilliantly engineered (a turnover in the Dublin penalty area and a great run from McHugh) slid in under Rory O’Carroll – Diarmuid Connolly’s effort (a much more accomplished forward) was rebuffed by Paul Durcan, who has surely done enough to gain his second All Star.  Big games can be decided on such small margins.  But, Donegal missed enough of their own chances.  Ryan McHugh himself, in a moment eerily similar to Colm McFadden in 2011, ended up with a point when the goal was at his mercy.  I said so at the time.  People chided me for it.   Right they were too, but for me, the clock could not tick fast enough in the second half. I kept waiting for a disaster to strike.  I met a few Dubs afterwards and they could tell I was shook.  I won’t lie, it was highly emotional on Sunday afternoon.  And that with not a drink taken.

Again, our composure (on the pitch) was so impressive.  It would have been easy to wilt under the pressure of the Dublin shooting in the first half, but we didn’t seem flustered at all.  Even after the first goal chance, we attacked and got the next score.  That’s been a theme throughout the Championship, our composure on the pitch.  When we conceded goals against Monaghan and Armagh, we panicked in the stands, but the players on the pitch never looked like they were flustered.  They play like a team that has ultimate belief in what they are about and where they are going.  I wonder if this is what Johnstown House was about.  Refining that belief to deal with the Dubs early pressure?

It was a complete team performance.  Ryan McHugh scooped the man of the match award, and who could quibble after he scored 2-2 from play, but there were terrific performances from men in gold all over the pitch.  The full back line was excellent.  Everything you want to see in your defenders, and Paddy McGrath contributed further up the pitch too.  Karl Lacey is not the player he was physically, but his touches and influence are key, and he scored a point for good measure.  Frank was his usual self, and it was great to see him kicking a point also. Anthony Thompson ran all day, showing great coolness to set up Ryan for his second goal.  The midfield sector was outstanding.  Neil Gallagher and Odhran MacNiallais, the nominal pairing were very good, Christy Toye helped change the course of the game, and Rory Kavanagh and Michael Murphy played their part in no small way.

It’s worth pointing out the use of Christy.  I think all of us were surprised to see David Walsh starting.  If anything, I thought Christy and Rory would split 70 minutes.  But, it seems as if Walsh started to allow Christy to finish.  That’s just my own take on it, but I would see this as more evidence as what has been excellent management of Christy’s game time this year.  The plan to use Paddy McBrearty from the bench proved to be the right choice, again.   We wondered about Rory’s fitness, especially during the first half, but he lasted 60 minutes and even managed a point.  He seemed to get more comfortable as the game progressed.

Special mention has to go to Colm McFadden.  More than one person publically believed he had it in him, that he would thrive against a fast and loose defence, but I didn’t see it coming.  It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means, some of his shooting belied a lack of confidence, but the goal was so well taken and his work rate, especially in assisting for Ryan McHugh’s second half goal was outstanding.   That wee smile after the second half goal in front of The Hill was priceless.  I’m delighted for him and it’s just another great decision by Jim McGuinness – he knows his players better than any of us.

The narrative since the game is that Jim McGuinness outwitted Jim Gavin tactically.  I don’t know if I see it in those terms.  My take on it is that Jim Gavin has probably been a bit naive, but Donegal didn’t really do anything they don’t usually do.  We defended intensely, in numbers.  Neil Gallagher spent a bit of time at full forward.  We were cute at midfield, kicking the ball on to players running towards the Dublin goal from deep – while Dublin half back line were running in the other direction.  That was smart.  But, I think what Sunday showed was that Jim McGuinness’ greatest gift to Donegal is the belief he has instilled in our players.   In 2011, perhaps that was lacking, even if we were a million miles away from where we were when we left Crossmaglen in 2010.  When in the past has a Donegal team ever come to Croke Park and played like we have in the semi finals of 2012 and 2014?  The players are familiar to us from past disappointments.  Jim McGuinness is the x factor.

I have, like many Donegal people I’m sure, been in a state of euphoria since Sunday.  There’s been some triumphalism from some quarters, and also a desire to go and revisit certain articles written in the lead up to the game.  Not me.  I am solely concerned with what I saw from Donegal, I have no interest in anything else.  Let’s continue to savour it.  Thankfully, thoughts don’t seem to have turned to Kerry just yet, but they will in the weeks ahead.  It would be a terrible shame if we don’t go on to win it all now, but whatever happens in just over two weeks time doesn’t take away from what I experienced on Sunday.  There is nothing like the sense of pride in our players, our manager and our County I felt on Sunday evening and still feel today.  I don’t really feel the need think about anything else right now.

Until Victory, Always.