Posts Tagged ‘All Ireland Quarter Final’

A Little Hope

Just as I didn’t read too much into the win over Armagh, I’m trying not to get too excited about the 10 point win over Galway in Croke Park last Saturday.  For one thing, the margin of victory flatters us – from around the 15th to the 50th minute, it was tight enough going.  Donegal have yet to put together a quality 70 minutes this year.  To be fair, Rory Gallagher acknowledges this issue.  It’s something we have seen in every game.  I don’t know what the reason is for it.  I wonder if it is because opposition take time to get their defensive system set up – we started to struggle when Galway got everyone behind the ball.  It was a similar story against Tyrone, Derry and Monaghan – we are ‘on fire’ for around 10 or 15 minutes and then we seem to fall apart.  Our missed chances (14 wides and two dropped short) were also the continuation of a worrying trend, even if our overall return of 48% is an improvement.  It seemed too easy for Galway to run through us at times, with Ciaran Whelan showing examples on the Sunday Game.  It was in many ways a typical 2015 performance.

But, there was much that was good about Saturday.  And no harm that we celebrate the positives especially after my negative outlook on things following the Ulster Final.  Man of the match Odhran MacNiallais was brilliant, with three excellent points and a wonderful pass to Colm McFadden for the first goal the highlights.  There’s no doubt that he has the talent, it’s the consistency that is lacking at the moment.  Ryan McHugh was his dynamic best, covering every blade of the Croke Park turf and finishing a brilliant move for his goal.  When we analyse Colm McFadden’s performance, it’s easy to pick holes, but look at all the good things he did also.  Too many folks from Donegal, including me, have written off the St Michael’s man since 2012, but it was great to see him in good form last weekend.  His unselfishness in laying on two goals when he might have taken the chances on himself is perhaps the most impressive thing when you think that he has made his bones as a scoring forward.  And of course who from Donegal doesn’t love Christy Toye?  The third goal was the icing on the cake with McFadden setting up his club mate.  These two lads might not have many more days out in Croke Park so that one will stay long in the memory.

The form of our subs looked good.  Martin McElhinney largely atoned for a poor Ulster Final display when introduced, although his shooting was again poor.  It’s good to see him willing to shoot, but he needs to be more judicious in when he decides to shoot.  But what was more interesting was the form of Leo McLoone, Declan Walsh and Anthony Thompson.  All three looked good, especially McLoone and Thompson.  Leo especially seemed ready to contribute more, and but for some desperate defending, would have had a goal of his own.  It was good to see us finishing a game strongly after hanging on against Tyrone and Derry, sitting on a big lead in Armagh and then panicking in Clones.  I kind of like the idea of finishing with your best team on the pitch, assuming of course you can stay in the game with squad players starting.  It’s worth pointing out though that Thompson, Dec Walsh and McLoone have missed a lot of training time this year and two of them weren’t even in the panel at the start of the Championship.  Their sharpness for intercounty football at this level, while looking good against Galway, has to be questionable.

I think it’s only fair to point out that we enjoyed some good fortune on Saturday.  Paul Conroy missed a very kickable free and was then denied what would have been an easier opportunity when he was surely fouled by Neil McGee.  Adrian Varley might have passed up a goal chance, but in truth, it would have been some finish to chip Paul Durcan.  The only excuse was that it was a line ball that had been awarded to Donegal but overturned by the ref, so maybe we weren’t fully switched on, but we can’t afford these sort of lapses in the future, starting this weekend.  Cillian O’Connor will not miss such opportunities (Kevin McLaughlin might…).

So let’s talk about Michael.  Last Saturday, we got glimpses of the old Michael Murphy, the one I think most of us want to see.  Think back to these moments, courtesy of Donegal Sport Hub – where was he playing when most of these were filmed?  When Michael plays deep, what does he offer? He’s big and physical, so his presence alone is an asset around midfield and even under our own crossbar. He’s can also be a good kick passer, but who does he end up passing to if he’s not inside? It could be said that his tackling is a liability and the lads on The Sunday Game went out of the way to highlight it last week.  I was always of the view that as long as Donegal were doing enough to win, it didn’t matter where Michael played.  But as I mentioned in my last piece, Donegal’s scoring return has been declining since 2012, a stat that correlates with his move away from the edge of the square.  It’s time to let him do what he does best again.

At midfield, Michael is merely good.  Most of the kudos has he has got for his performances this year has been for his long range dead ball striking.  And that’s fine, that is often worth the ticket price.  But at full forward, he is great.  If we see Michael drifting out to midfield on Saturday, it will give a huge lift to Mayo, no more than they will feel like it’s not going to plan if Aidan O’Shea isn’t placed at 14.  By all means, if we need him to drop back when we are trying to hold a lead, that’s fine.  But when there is plenty of football to be played, please keep him around the edge of the square.

For me at least, Donegal have to everything possible to ensure that Michael can play and succeed at the position he was born to play – full forward.  Sure, there will be times when it feels like it’s not working, but we have to persist with it – it will always pay off eventually in my view.  Whether that’s as a result of Michael doing something himself (scoring, assisting or winning a free) or freeing up space for others to prosper.  Surely another player in the squad can be used as a third midfielder to cover for Michael – whether that’s the experienced Christy Toye or the frustrating Hugh McFadden, then we need to take that chance.  The risk is low, but the payoff is great.

And so, for third time in five years, we meet Mayo in the Championship.  I don’t think anyone needs reminding of the outcome in either of the previous two encounters, although I’m sure many of us have tried to forget 2013.  The players haven’t, which is probably a good thing.  No harm having a chip in your shoulder when facing into a challenge.  April’s league game was a testy encounter and there’s no love lost between the teams, in much the same way as there will be an edge when any of the nominal ‘Top 4’ teams meet.  As with any League match, I wouldn’t read too much into it, especially when Donegal were missing Neil Gallagher and Michael Murphy and Mayo lined out without Cillian O’Connor.  Donegal were lucky to get away with a draw, but Mayo were fortunate not to concede a second goal to Paddy McBrearty when he was penalised for a foul that nobody but David Coldrick saw.  Maybe there’s something in that for us as Mayo still have not addressed the issues that have cost them dearly over the past few years – their full back line, or maybe their entire defensive set up is not good enough.  Jim McGuinness sees it, but the Mayo management team don’t seem to want to know.  It’s probably not worth mentioning, but conceding two goals to Sligo should be a cause for concern, if it weren’t for the fact that Mayo were in a position where it didn’t really matter.

Saturday will be a big step up from Galway and a very different test from that which we faced against Monaghan.  Mayo are a fast, physical , driven and experienced team.  While there are questions about them defensively overall, their half back line is as good as any out there.  They appear to have a solid enough midfield pairing in Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons to allow them to utilise Aidan O’Shea as an offensive wrecking ball.   We got a taste of this in Castlebar earlier this year, but handled it better than Galway or Sligo have in this year’s Championship.  Maybe it will suit us to have O’Shea on the edge of the square where it might be easier to bottle him up and frees can be harder won.  Cillian O’Connor is not Conor McManus or James O’Donoghue, but he’s an outstanding free taker and not bad from play – he could be the one to profit if we are forced into paying Aidan O’Shea too much attention.  His brother Diarmuid is a significant addition to the half forward line.

Aside from our worrying scoring lapses in games, my biggest concern ahead of Saturday is that Eamonn McGee, Karl Lacey, Michael Murphy (despite what Rory Gallagher says), Paddy McBrearty and maybe even Frank McGlynn and Martin McElhinney are not 100%. Mayo will be well rested and aren’t really carrying any injuries we know of. It could well end up like it did in 2013.  But I obviously hope it doesn’t.  I hope that we manage to put in a 70 minute performance.  I hope that Michael Murphy plays where he’s most effective and we manage to better utilise his very obvious talents.  I hope that Colm McFadden and Odhran MacNiallais can build on their performances against Galway.  I hope that we have something left in the tank after playing five games to Mayo’s two in the same period.

But even a little hope is a very dangerous thing.

Until Victory, Always.

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What is Rare is Wonderful

There is a little Irish saying that goes ‘An rud is annamh is iontach’ which roughly translated means ‘what is rare is wonderful’.  Like a Neil McGee point, a championship win over Armagh is a rare thing indeed and we should celebrate it.

For anyone who wants to get a good feeling for how the game played out, I suggest you read the excellent dontfoul review of the numbers.  Nothing suprising in them, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of how off key certain elements of our performance were.

Personally, I thought that the performance on Saturday was decent, but the execution of shots was poor. We were dominant for a large part of the second half but missed too many chances. Sure, Armagh had their missed chances as well, but we ultimately had more shots. Our turnover rate was too high however; this is something that will also need to improve.  In many ways it was a classic favourite’s performance – winning ugly after giving the underdog false hope.

You have to credit our composure and experience to get level and then kick the winner late in the game. At one stage with 10 minutes left, I was worried that if Armagh had gone two up we were done. We still did our best to give Armagh a chance to level, with Paul Durcan’s kickout heading directly over the sideline and then Paddy McBrearty (who had been subbed at this stage) kicking the ball away and giving Joe McQuillan to excuse he needed to award a scoreable free (incidentally, @dowdsie is adamant that this was wrong on the part of the ref).  Either way, it was a sloppy way to see out the game. 

Jim McGuinness has said that he wasn’t happy with what he saw.  Support runners, kickouts (Paul Durcan kicked three to Armagh players from which they scored 1-03), composure on the ball and shot selection all featured as areas where we didn’t deliver on what we had (apparently) been working on in training.  Those are all pretty obvious areas where we were deficient I guess, and it’s good that we have something to work on over the next three weeks.

The McGee brothers, Anthony Thompson, Frank McGlynn, Big Neil, and Michael Murphy all played very well I thought. Rory Kavanagh also for the time he was on.   But no-one player really stood out and no-one really played that badly either, I felt that it was a real collective effort that got us over the line at the end. 

Karl Lacey was hobbled early on and this really seemed to limit his effectiveness as the game wore on, indeed it is curious to me that he wasn’t replaced as surely a fully fit player would have had more of an impact in the second half.  Chirsty Toye and Leo McLoone were replaced earlier than I expected, but I guess they do get through a lot of work and I am sure they are being monitored carefully. 

On Colm McFadden, he had another tough afternoon.  His performance was then picked apart on the Sunday Game which won’t have been nice for him to watch.  But, credit to him for his point in the second half where I thought he showed good composure – we needed the score and if he had gone for goal and missed, it could really have hurt us. I thought it was interesting to see it from another perspective as well – on the Armagh fans forum everyone reckoned that his marker Finian Moriarty did a fine job on him.  Still, on balance, I think he’s become a bit of a liability.  I take no pleasure in saying that, and there’s always the chance it will look foolish, but I think anyone who has been watching this year has been saying much the same since Saturday.

Paddy McBrearty was ultimately our match winner, but right from the whistle I thought ‘here we go again’ and he did end up with more wides/missed shots than scores. Still, he showed great composure to kick the winner. But, it was extremely stupid to boot the ball away that (rightly or wrongly) gave Armagh one last chance.  For someone who only turned 21 years of age last week it’s only fair we cut him some slack and focus on the positives – he now has important contributions in the last two championship games to build on.  With Colm struggling, we really need Paddy to step up.

For Odhran MacNiallais, it was a similar story to Paddy – too many wides. But, he took the goal very well and credit to him for not letting his head drop in the second half to kick an important score.  He’s our top scorer from play in the championship to date and we are really relying on those scores in recent games.

Ryan McHugh gave another energetic display but was caught out a few times, not least for the goal when somehow he was the man left contesting with Stefan Campbell on the edge of the square.  He was also culpable of a turnover late on when he received a Michael Murphy free although we are not clear on the circumstances as the TV cameras didn’t pick it up.  We need to do a better job of ensuring that we get his match ups right, although that is going to be a struggle against Dublin.

The most startling statistic is that Armagh outscored Donegal 1-5 to 0-07 in the second half. But, when you consider that we had only 13 scores but 15 wides, you understand the context. Watching the game back you noticed that we established our usual third quarter dominance on the pitch but not on the scoreboard.  Is it any wonder Armagh gained confidence and picked off a goal to leave us poor craythurs in the stands wondering if we were doomed to yet another defeat to the Orchard County?  At least the lads on the pitch knew better.

Before throw in, I would have taken any kind of win over what we saw during last year’s All Ireland Quarter Final in Croke Park. Add the fact that the game was full of needle and we went behind very late on and you can appreciate the victory more.  Let’s savour it for a while; we have beaten Armagh in a significant championship match.  We will have plenty of time to worry about the Dubs over the next three weeks.

Until Victory, Always

Hard Written

I don’t have any answers as to what has happened on Sunday. I wish I had, even for my own sake.  At the end of the day, you tip your cap to Mayo, who were awesome.  But, despite the fact that Donegal started with 13 of the 15 who started in the All Ireland Final of 2012, it did not feel like we were watching the same team.  I’m not angry.  I’m shocked and disappointed. I’ve rarely felt as bad watching a game as I did on Sunday.  I’d imagine that a lot of you feel the same way.  Maybe even the players and management too.  It’s hard to believe that anyone saw this coming.  The scoreline that is – there were more than a few of us who felt we would fall just short.  A few more feared the worse – that Mayo would win easily, i.e. by five or six points.  For a while, it looked like Mayo would win by 20.

Of course the warning signs had been there for the past three games.  In truth, we were further off the pace against Monaghan than the scoreboard suggested.  Down and Laois are far off the level of Mayo were at on Sunday.  I’m sure James Horan will have been watching those games and licking his lips.  We were obviously there for the taking.  His team exposed our failings in a ruthless fashion.

The Donegal ‘system’ was always dependent on having our players super fit.  In Mayo, we ran into a team that was operating at a similar level we were at last year.  Their display against Galway caught my eye – not just the scoreline but the intensity at which they played throughout the whole game.  From the throw in on Sunday, they were relentless.  We had no answer to the pace and the power.  The fact that they are obviously playing with such great confidence, as we were last year, gave them an edge.  We never looked confident this year and despite the great win over Tyrone in May, we didn’t seem to be building towards something this year.  Last year, we had momentum.  Whatever little bit we regained with the win over Laois disappeared very quickly after 4 pm on Sunday.

The cliché, ‘the players owe us nothing’ is being thrown about a lot at the moment.  This is true of course, but the players owe it to themselves to put this ‘right’.  They are better than they showed on Sunday, we all know that.  Normally, you’d love to have the opportunity to put this right as soon as possible, but that will have to wait until next year.  How many of those players will be around next year remains to be seen. Rumours and speculation are rife.  I’m not going to bother engaging in any further here, except to say that I want all our players to come back for another year at least.  The fact that Frank McGlynn and Colm McFadden have already come out and said that they are staying on is most welcome.  I’d love for this bunch to stick with it and at least reclaim the Ulster Title.

But, for all I want the current squad to stay together, I want to see changes, or at least a greater sense that there is genuine competition for places.  On Sunday, Mayo started with nine of the 15 that started the All-Ireland Final last September.  Donegal started with 13 of their starting 15, and likely would have started with 14 if Karl Lacey had been deemed fit enough to start.  In a year where we had so many injuries, and it’s likely that anything like seven or eight of the team that started on Sunday weren’t fully fit, was it really wise to persist with so many players were not operating at 100%?  Would you rather play with a host of star players at 70% vs a squad player who is 100%?  We mightn’t have been good enough to win on Sunday, but maybe we would have been more competitive.

Of course, our squad has been mooted as an issue all year.  My biggest issue with our approach to the League was always this – we didn’t get to see enough of the squad players – especially given the demands placed on our more established starters.  And I won’t accept anyone throwing stats at me for number of players used etc.  Few got serious playing time.  Maybe what we have outside if our first choice 16/17 players aren’t good enough, but it would be nice to see for ourselves.  It’s also worth considering how it feels like to be sitting on the bench for 70 minutes while the team on the pitch is taking a hammering like we saw on Sunday.  I doubt they felt great about things either.  It’s not just some of the more established players that might decide to call it a day after Sunday.

As for the manager.  There is only one man I want to see managing Donegal for the foreseeable future and that’s Jim McGuinness.  After Armagh beat us in 2010, we were at possibly our lowest ebb (although the defeat to Cork in 2009 was not a proud day either) and he was the man to restore pride and then some.  He learned the lessons from 2011 to take us to a first All-Ireland title in 20 years in 2012.  He will no doubt learn more from 2013 if he’s prepared to stay on in 2014.  I hope that the Donegal County Board say and do all the right things in that regard – it’s Jim’s decision of course, but I have no doubt that decision can be made easier by a strong message of support – in deeds as well as words.

A lot of people are consoling themselves with the fact that we have had a great few years and that “we’ll be back in 2014”.  That is only half true at this point in time.  A lot remains to be seen as to who will be back in 2014.  I’m not writing anyone’s appreciation or obituary at this point, so you won’t hear any expressions of appreciation or wistfulness from me at this stage, I’ll wait until I get confirmation as to who is doing what before I start looking back to happier times.  For now, all I have is a feeling.  Not a good one I’ll admit.  Think happy thoughts folks.

Until Victory, Always.

Just Coming up Short

There was an air of redemption about Carrick-on-Shannon on Saturday night.  That and the smell of vodka and Red Bull.  Donegal went to Ireland’s party town, we travelled with them in our thousands, and we got back on the road to September for another week at least.

After getting out-hungered by Monaghan, it was good to see that the lethargy from the Ulster Final had gone.  There was much good about this performance.  The McGees had their mojo back.  Neil Gallagher was a colossus at midfield.  A week after he was largely cowed by Monaghan, Colm McFadden fought hard for every ball that came his way and finished with six points.  Ryan McHugh didn’t disappoint in deputising for his injured brother.

Many will say it was all about the result – in Championship football it tends to matter alright.  But for me, the performance was nearly as important.  I wanted to see signs that we are in fact able for the massive proposition that awaits us in Croke Park on Sunday.  It was far from perfect, but maybe that’s a good thing.  We’ll need to show something more if we want to beat Mayo.  Saturday was not the time to give away any hint of how we might play next weekend.

Laois set up very defensively and we struggled to create opportunities, not dissimilar to how we fared against Down.  In the second half, we seemed to commit more men forward, perhaps in an effort to overwhelm the blanket, and this left us vulnerable on the break.  It’s going to be fascinating to see how Mayo set up on Sunday – do they play their own game or use the template employed to great effect by Down and Laois?  Like Monaghan, Laois tried the diagonal ball at times, but they just weren’t good enough. I do believe that we won’t face a duo like McManus and Hughes for the rest of the summer, so maybe the diagonal ball is not as big a concern as it would appear after watching the Monaghan defeat.

What else. It was good to see both David Walsh and Leo McLoone scoring.  And indeed Neil McGee.  When your inside forwards are bottled up, others will undoubtedly find space to shoot.  It was great to see all three of our full forward line scoring from play – but Paddy McBrearty’s three points from play really stood out.  Six points from players other than Murphy or McFadden is a good return.  I’d be happy with the same on Sunday.

Despite the positives, there are still many concerns.  We still haven’t seen 70 good minutes from Karl Lacey.  It seems odd that he was deemed fit enough to start against Monaghan but yet was left in reserve for 55 minutes on Saturday – when Rory Gallagher had declared that he had been ‘flying in training’ I immediately felt that he was unlikely to start.  But it’s all quite odd.  And probably more worrying is the fact that Michael Murphy doesn’t seem to be himself.  Whether he is injured or not is unknown, but he was, by his own high standards, virtually anonymous for much of the game on Saturday – although he did score a fine point in the first half.  Being deployed in a deeper role didn’t help, and I understand that he can have an impact in areas of the pitch other than on the edge of the square, but it’s hard to see us getting past Mayo without Michael having a big game.  Cast your minds back to last September.  Who were the key actors in Donegal’s opening goal?  Having neither Karl nor Michael at 100% is huge.

Mayo too have had their injuries.  Lately, they have lost both their goalkeepers.  Michael Conroy is not back.  Andy Moran, after suffering a devastating season ending injury during last year’s All Ireland Quarter Final, is back, but like Karl Lacey, has been out for so long that his fitness is probably holding him back.  Cillian O’Connor made his return against London, but it’s not certain that he will start, nor is the stability of his shoulder.  Donal Vaughan and Barry Moran, both of who played in last year’s Final have missed time this Championship season.  They are not necessarily in a much better place than we are in terms of physical well being.  But, they have had a week of downtime, which can only help their walking wounded get at least a little better.

Most of us will acknowledge that Donegal are not playing as well as they did last year.  We’re still not quite sure why that is.  It could be the series of injuries to a sizeable number of players, none apparently very serious, but enough to cause disruption.  Lacey’s absence is affecting so much of what we did well last year.  We probably lack real competition for places and real impact from the bench.  Perhaps, just perhaps, Jim McGuinness has asked too much of his players this year – it still seems a plausible explanation for what we witnessed against Monaghan.  I was always uneasy about the claims of an additional 20% from this group of players and how this was going to be achieved.  Many things that commentators and analysts have said about the issues we would face in retaining the All Ireland title are probably coming true to a large extent.

What makes Sunday’s game so intriguing, apart from the fact that both teams met in last year’s Final is the fact that both were highly fancied to meet at the All Ireland Semi-Final stage even before a ball was kicked in this year’s Championship.  Donie Buckley, the man many would credit with the perceived increase in Mayo’s performance levels in 2013, was in Ballybofey to watch Donegal take on Tyrone in the first round of the Ulster Championship back in May.  He was not there for the spectacle.  You can be sure that even if he wasn’t planning for Mayo before we defeated Tyrone, Jim McGuinness’ thoughts would have quickly turned to the challenges we were likely to face down the road (the ‘one game at a time’ mantra looks a little hollow after the Ulster Final defeat).  Both sides will have been analysing each other’s strengths and weaknesses at length over the past few months in the expectation of this game, albeit at a different stage of the competition.    I suppose my hope is that Mayo will hold no surprises for us, but we have something in reserve to deal with them, something we didn’t show in Castlebar in March or during the Ulster Championship.  Sunday would be a great time to show it – assuming that we have it.

Here are the most worrying stats if you’re from Donegal.  In 2012, we averaged over 17 points a game (1-14 to be more precise).  In 2013, we’re scoring just over 12 points a game (and have only scored two goals in four games, with those two goals coming in our first game against Tyrone).  Keep in mind that, in 2011, when we managed only six points against Dublin in the All-Ireland Semi-Final, we were scoring, on average, 13 points a game.  We were a point better off than we were this season.  And in 2011, we were scoring goals too, very slightly more, on average, than we did in 2012 even.  We’re still defending well enough to win games; it’s the attacking phase of the game that is letting us down.  You can of course argue that this is down the sort of defences we have faced since our opening game against Tyrone, but equally you can say that we should have seen this coming.  No, I’m afraid all signs point to one conclusion – Donegal have regressed, resembling the 2011 version, which everyone would agree was incomplete, more than the ‘Total Football’ we witnessed at times in 2012.  I have no doubt that we can keep Mayo to something like 14 points.  I’m just not sure that we can score enough to win the way that we’re playing.

One of my thoughts this week has been – how do we know if Mayo have improved since 2012?  That for me was always going to be the key to their aspirations for 2013.  You don’t win an All Ireland by standing still.  The addition of Donie Buckley has apparently been key to their improvement, but it’s hard to judge based on what we’ve seen in the games they have played so far in Championship 2013.  I was impressed with their intensity in their facile win over Galway, but then again, it seemed like they were operating against a team playing at a much lower level.  However, I have no doubt they (Mayo) will not want for hunger, intensity, desire, whatever you want to call it on Sunday.  I hope that we can at least match them on that score.  Again, it hasn’t been apparent that we can so far this year.

For the first time in a long time, I’m not predicting a Donegal win.  And I don’t think it will be a draw.  Make of that what you will.

Until Victory, Always.

That Was Our Year

A while ago, I asked my followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook to share their favourite memories from Donegal’s road to the All-Ireland.  My main reason for doing so was that I would capture all those moments that took place before the Final, as win or lose, we were having a great year.  After the All-Ireland Final, I asked them to update me with their memories of that day.  Now, on the eve of the start of the 2013 season, it’s high time that I got around to recapping a wonderful 2012 Championship season, from the perspective of those of us who lived it.

Below are a few of our favourite things from 2012. I’ve provided a link to everyone’s Twitter account and just quoted the tweets as I couldn’t figure out a better way to do it.  I hope I’ve managed to represent what everyone sent in the way that they wanted to see it, and I hope I’ve used everything I was sent.  Here goes.

MEMS

When she’s not moaning about having to get up for work, Mary-Ellen Murray, is someone who brilliantly captures the feelings that many of us watching Donegal felt over the past year. I think the Cork game was the best performance we have ever seen from a Donegal team:

Never once believed cork would beat us, but in the last 60 secs of the semi, I was standing in the hogan stand as the realisation hit me that we were going to be in an allire final.. Tears were rolling down my cheeks, was visibly shaking but so so proud, that’s the stand out moment for me of an absolutely incredible year,could probably rhyme off a dozen more

Her memories of the final – so so similar to my own:

“so so many! Breakfast with the family; walked to Drumcondra; smiles, lots of smiles; Murphys goal; Mayo people staying to join in the celebrations; hugging strangers; jimmys winning matches; tears – lots of tears. PRIDE”

The Follower

A man who goes to every Donegal game and who I had the pleasure of meeting on 23 September, Gerry Ward had lots of memories – good job I got them before he forgot them!

my fav moment was @neilgerardgalla getting man of the match in semi final, no player was or is more deserving this year” – what a performance.

or big @durpapa save in last minutes V Tyrone in clones was close as well” – definitely one of the defining moments of the summer.

ryan brad made an amazing one handed catch v Derry 2 nd half” – Ryan was outstanding that day, and again in the Ulster Final.

and it’s a long way back but @neilgerardgalla got a standing ovation when taken of in Cavan

The last one was the first special memory for me of the 2012 Championship – I don’t recall too many players getting such a reception in my time watching Donegal.  A real sign of what these players mean to us, and great to see Neil get the recognition. Boy did he reward us with some great displays over the rest of the summer.

Ulster

Gerry brought back memories of the first day out in Cavan, but my good friend Tommy Simmons reminded me of something that stood out in the first round game – Paddy McGrath running out to throw himself in front of a late Derry shot on a wet day in Ballybofey when the game was long since won.  No show-boating, just a great attitude.

Liam Porter paid tribute to our custodian “Don’t forget a couple of fantastic saves by @durpapa not sure which one was best.” Of course what Liam meant to say was that the best was the one that Paul made late in the day against Tyrone in the Ulster Semi-Final.

They tried, but they couldn’t keep us off the pitch in Clones when we retained our Ulster title. James Byrne got as close as anyone to Jim McGuinness  that was at the end of a great day – that second half performance was the moment when I started to feel that this was going to be a really special year.

Kerry Gold

Before the Final, a lot of folks’ favourite moments came against Kerry. For Donegal, that game was a statement win.

Chris McNulty liked the intent from the word go. “Colm McFadden’s opening missile against Kerry. A statement that we weren’t there to be second best.”

Alan Stephens had several from that game  “2 for me. McLoones point v Kerry which was the perfect manifestation of #totalfootball. And Laceys pt v Kerry to seal it.”

Damien Dowds illustrates perfectly why Karl Lacey was Footballer of the Year “the moment when @KarlLacey4 intercepted Kerry’s final attack. He’d just scored at the other end, but got back to defend.”  

As does James Byrne, who brings back memories of the mood in the stadium that day “Lacey’s point at the end of the Kerry match great moment the atmosphere in the stadium was electric!!”

Final Day

Who can forget the Hill?  Not Chimp100 (if that is your real name…)  “hearing the homes of Donegal being sung on the Hill priceless will never forget it!”

And this, from Chris McNulty, was brilliant “seeing the face of a 10-yr old child of@cairindebrun cousin after the game. Sheer raw emotion at getting to the game, words couldn’t describe it, Ciaran. My own joy paled into insignificant to see that appreciation from a kid”

Of course, we can’t fail to mention this, again from Chrisand lest we forget the moment time stood still for Murphy’s goal. Magic moment.”

For me, here’s what stood out from the day of the Final – the nerves on the train, the sheer volume of people around Jones’ Road, storming away from The Hogan Stand pub and leaving the family behind as I wanted to get to my seat, walking over the Canal and thinking about Andrew Duffy’s family and how they were feeling, meeting Bradas on the way into the ground, meeting Pauric and Gerry in the stadium, Michael’s goal, Frank’s point, Neil’s point, being with my family at the final whistle, the relief, the joy, meeting George, Tommy and Brian afterwards…it’s impossible to capture it all in words.

Cry me a River

Even now, I shed a tear when I watch the action from last summer (yes, when it comes to Donegal, I really am #toosaft).  I wasn’t the only one getting emotional. Heck I’m welling up again reading through some of your tweets.

Like myself and Mary-Ellen, Tara McHugh was overcome by our win over Cork “Semi-final.. Standing in croke park when the final whistle was blown with tears streaming down my face#VeryProud

Chloe McGeebeing in croke park when the final whistle went Looked round and saw grown men and woman crying tears of joy and happiness

Grainne Ward “a lot of tears haha”

Frances Harkin “Getting ticket to the match, Murphys goal, crying at final whistle, dancing like lunatic, Harcout that night-best day ever!”

George SimmonsToo many to list, Murphy s goal, ballin crying at the final whistle, jumping the wall of the Burlington! Dromod!!”

The Burlington story is a great laugh – I wish I had been there to see it. Doubt I would have made it over the wall mind you.  And the Dromod reference is explained here.

It wasn’t all tears 

Alan Stephens recalls the moment when it begun to sink in.  And of course the Harcourt, where I’m sure spirits were high – N Gallaghers point – the one that sealed it for me. And when Lacey and Murphy ran to the hill with SAM. Oh and the Harcourt

For Frank Craig, the most precious memories involved a drunk uncle in his y-fronts and the happy face of goalkeeping coach and fellow Ardara man Pat Shovelin on the big screen after the All-Ireland Final, at the end of what was a very memorable week for Pat.

Gerry Ward has a laugh when he remembers the Little and Large Show in Breffni “and funniest moment for me was V Cavan the goalie coach was dispatched by jim aftr @durpapa made a few bad Ko wat a sight to see @patshovelin1 5 ft nothing wagging finger at @durpapa 6.5 #mybestlaugh have neve let him forget about it”

And don’t forget the hard working lads at Donegal Dollop, poor auld Charlie was all over the shop in the run up to the Final:

“Frantically trying to make relevant photoshopped pics for the Tir Chonaill masses… And I don’t even like football!”

Spare a thought

Spare a thought for Mayo and the rest – for all the joy we felt, there was plenty of others who felt otherwise throughout the year – like Brian Padden on All-Ireland Final day

“being depressed after 4 minutes and thinking “how many f*ing times do we have to go through this?”

Hey, I get it.  It’s a shame someone had to lose, and Mayo unfortunately are no stranger to falling short at the final hurdle.  But their supporters helped make it a great day – Ive been looking forward to our trip to Castlebar for the National League game for some time now, and if all goes to plan, we might see them in Croke Park again this summer as Ulster Champions and Connacht Champions are slated to meet at the semi-final stage.  Let’s hope that comes to pass – I’m sure it will be another great day out.

Finally

I’d like to close the book on 2012 by thanking all of you for reading, retweeting, commenting and giving your views on this blog. Thanks especially to everyone who contributed to this particular post – it’s wonderful to know there are so many out there who feel as passionate about our team and our County as I do.  I look forward to continuing the blog throughout the 2013 season – I hope that I have enough material to take me through to September at least. But if this year is even half as good as last year, we are in for another great summer.

Until Victory, Always.

Kerry Made to Look Ordinary

To be the best, you have to beat the best.  Are Kerry still the best?  No, almost certainly not.  But they have been one of the best in the recent past, are perhaps the best of all time, and are still likely in the top five or six teams in the Country.  Last Sunday’s result was another huge step for this Donegal team in their quest to be the best.

Yes, Donegal had their share of luck on Sunday.  We managed to have everyone fit or largely fit and also scored a fortunate goal.  Them’s the breaks.  It’s not like we were rolling around in four leaf clover.  Any objective pundit has written that Donegal were the better team and any result other than a Donegal win would have been a travesty of sorts.   In saying that, this was a hard game to analyse after watching it again this morning.  Donegal played well, but the feeling at the end was as much of relief as it was of joy.

There was definitely a degree of white line fever on show in the last ten minutes.  Not surprising really, Kerry are one of the giants of the game and Donegal became only the fifth team to beat them in their first Championship meeting.  Much like the Tyrone game earlier this year, the victory should have been more comfortable.  But it was Donegal who kicked the last score, and I’ll bet there was more wind in those sails if it was needed.  Donegal are a team still largely about economy of effort.  It would have been nice to beat Kerry by 10 points, but I’ll settle for two.

Down have largely been written off as a poor team after their display in the Ulster Final, but fact is that they managed the same score against Donegal as Kerry managed on Sunday.  Are analysts/critics now going to write off Donegal’s victory on the basis that Kerry are no good?  Some might.  The test the next time out will likely be harder still, but I’m not going to dwell on that now.  Donegal had the hardest tie of all the provincial champions in the quarter-finals and have come through – maybe not as impressively as Cork or Mayo, but that’s fine.

Kerry might have kicked some bad wides, but don’t underestimate the amount of pressure that was being out on them as they went to kick.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many attempted blocked shots.  Yet again, it was a defensive masterpiece – and this was due in no small measure to the tenacity of tackling and ability to win turnovers rather than just getting men behind the ball.  That sometimes gets lost in the analysis when people choose to focus on what they perceive to be the main reasons for Donegal’s success.  Thankfully, our defenders got the recognition they deserved when last year’s All-Stars were announced.  It’s not just the system folks. We are not a ‘manufactured team’.  To hell with anyone who would say so.

But in saying that, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that when Donegal built leads on Sunday, rather than kick on as they did against Down in the Ulster Final, they withdrew and invited Kerry on to them.  It’s a risky tactic, as we saw in the All-Ireland Semi-Final last year.  You have to admire their composure in holding their nerve, something that was alien to this team in the past, but we finished last season saying to ourselves that we would need to develop from here if we were to make the next step.  Our sweeping attacks from deep are welcome evidence that there has been some development this year, but to me, the overall approach is still largely the same.

Sunday was yet another indication that this team has the ability to think on their feet. The goal came about from a quickly taken sideline ball (similar to the quickly taken Ryan Bradley free to set up Leo McLoone against Down) and while it had a touch of luck about it, make no mistake that Colm McFadden’s intention was to set up Michael Murphy for a goal attempt.  There was a degree of fortune in the final result, but the intention was clear.  This is something that I didn’t notice last year (if it was present at all), and it certainly wasn’t a feature of Donegal teams in the past.  Great to see as this sort of trait is one of things that separates great from good, or at the very least, success from failure.

Sad to say it, but the more I see, the more Michael Murphy this year it doesn’t seem to look like he’s capable of scaling the heights of recent years.  His presence is still a positive without a doubt due to the attention he attracts from opposition defenders (and to be fair he was the ‘nuisance factor’ in the Donegal goal last weekend).  His point from play after seven minutes was the sort of thing we really need to see more of in the weeks ahead.  His missed frees at the end of the first half and after 55 minutes were especially worrying – those are the sort of chances we cannot afford to miss (well, as it turns out we could afford to miss on Sunday, but I hope you know what I mean).  If you wanted to be kind, you could say that Aidan O’Mahony played him very well, but as each game passes I grow more concerned.  I’m not being critical; I’m just calling it as I see it at this stage.

There were many fine performances and while it was hard to single any one player out, I can’t argue with McFadden for man of the match. This is the same guy I was calling for to be dropped at the start of the year. What do I know? Even if Donegal don’t make the All Ireland final he might win an All Star.  Yet another example of the sea change in the attitude an application of these players in the past 2 years.  Players of course get the credit for what happens on the pitch, but again, it’s the management that has been the agent for change.  I’ll criticise when they get things wrong, so I’ll continue to praise where I see evidence of good things.

As one of my colleagues said today, there’s just the right amount of doubt in the media about how far this team can go to keep them grounded ahead of the semi-final.  Although all this may do is annoy supporters – there has never been any sense at any stage that this team is anything other than grounded.  Contrast the Donegal players and management’s reaction after the final whistle on Sunday with that which we saw from Kerry after the Tyrone game.  This was a big win for Donegal, but it was only a quarter-final.  We’ve been here before.

Like last year’s Quarter-Final, Christy Toye came on and had an immediate impact.  Christy is one of the guys who was there for many of the bad days.  It’s great to see him contributing during the good times.  All the changes worked very well on Sunday – and so did the non-changes.  Based on what I (and others I think) saw in the first half, I would have given Rory Kavanagh the hook at half-time or early in the second half.  But, Rory stayed on, grew into the game and was the man who won the crucial possession that led to the game clinching score for Karl Lacey, as well as making several other valuable contributions.  Easy knowing why I’m not the manager.

Keys to the Kingdom

This is probably the most apprehensive I’ve been since last year’s All-Ireland Semi-Final.  The sense of expectation is heightened but Donegal start as underdogs for the first time in this year’s Championship.  They haven’t got it wrong as far as Donegal are concerned so far this year.  There’s a first time for everything I guess, but I really don’t know what outcome to expect this time around (I’ve predicted a Donegal win in every Championship game so far this year – not that I’m claiming to be Nostradmus).

Not to dwell too much on it after my gushing praise last week, but this excellent piece from Chris McNulty gives some insight into the unity of purpose in the Donegal camp.  That sense of unity will be fully tested on Sunday when Donegal will have to do more than just contain the opposition, which is essentially all they tried to do in their last Championship visit to CrokePark.  Much has been written about that game, and much has been written since about how Donegal have changed their approach in the meantime.  This game will undoubtedly be the acid test of whether or not Donegal have mastered the art of ‘Total Football’ enough to defeat one of the giants of the game.

Much has been made of the Kerry result/performance v Tyrone and Donegal’s performance against the same opposition in the Ulster Semi-Final.  Perhaps Jim McGuinness had his side playing cagey against Tyrone first time out as there was always a chance we’d run into them again later in the competition (if they had beaten Kerry, they could well have found themselves drawn against Donegal on Saturday evening).  Equally, will Kerry be in a position to summon the same kind of passion and energy they showed against Tyrone for a game against a side where they have no history of bitter Championship memories? (Indeed they have no Championship history of any sort against Donegal, but their record against sides they have never faced in the Championship before is pretty impressive, with only Dublin and Cork in the 1890s and Down and Derry in the 50/60s have beaten them in a first Championship meeting).  In the same way, Tyrone played at a very high level against Donegal in the Ulster Semi-Final – an intensity they couldn’t maintain or summon again.  In truth, I feel that Donegal were more comfortable in that win over Tyrone than the scoreline suggested.  So, while I wouldn’t disregard each County’s respective performance against Tyrone, but it’s far from the deciding factor as to who will actually win on Sunday.

Does anyone think perhaps that Donegal are finding ways to win without Michael Murphy as a tactic?  He was double marked for much of the Ulster Final (but still assisted for Frank McGlynn’s goal as well as two more points).  Much is being made of Michael’s lack of scoring – some people forget that he is not that long removed from surgery and hasn’t played a game of club football all year.  I’m not worried, but I feel that Sunday would be an ideal time for Michael to step up and become the pivotal point of the attack again.  At the same time, it’s not important who gets the scores; all that matters is that we score enough to win.

Two key tactical questions I feel Donegal may have to deal with on Sunday are the following:

  • Kerry pushed Killian Young onto Peter Harte to limit his effectiveness as a deep lying playmaker – will Kerry do similar to Mark McHugh?  Not only has McHugh been outstanding as a playmaker, he’s also been chipping in with scores.  If he is nullified, Donegal will need to find an alternative outlet from the back.  Karl Lacey would be the obvious choice I suppose, but you can see him being used as more of a man marker on Sunday.
  • Will Kerry allow Donegal’s backs to break forward as they did against Down?  If you remember watching Armagh in the past, you will recall they had ways of dealing with runners off the ball.  If anyone watched Laois beat Meath at the weekend, they will have seen similar tactics employed.  Long touted as exponents of the ‘beautiful game’ Kerry have shown that they are not above such

As I recall, the game in Killarney went something like this. Donegal stayed in touch for around 20 minutes but as the frees started to mount, Bryan Sheahan built a Kerry lead.  Then we had the first goal, and it was essentially game over. Donegal cannot afford to give away too many frees inside 40 yards on Sunday.  The final score from Killarney in March was 2-16 to 1-08 – Dublin also scored 2-16 against Donegal in the League, but much of the damage was done late in the game whereas Kerry started slowly and then it was largely one-way traffic when they got on top. It’s hard to see Donegal winning if they concede a similar score on Sunday.

Kerry scored 12 points in their Munster Championship defeat to Cork.  That’s the sort of score that Donegal could hold them to on Sunday.  However, two caveats.  Firstly, Bryan sheahan was missing from the team that day in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.  Sheahan scored 1-7 from placed balls against Donegal in the League earlier this year.  Secondly, Kerry spurned several good goal chances in that game.  In short, the score might easily have approached 2-16, which was the same total Kerry ended up with against Donegal in the League.   Of course, that was ‘only’ a league game, but the facts are that Donegal fielded a full strength team in Killarney whereas Kerry started without Gooch and Tomas O’Se yet ran out easy winners.

Here’s a quote from Jack O’Connor (taken from an Irish Examiner match report) that I thought was interesting:

“No matter how much you get bodies back, with a bit of clever rotation of the ball you can always get men free. We worked very hard and spoke a lot about that this week, about being clever on the ball and shipping the ball to the support runner,” O’Connor said. “Moving the ball quick is vital in a game like this, if you start soloing the ball into tackles and losing the ball, obviously that’s playing into their strengths. Our use of the ball was clever today.”

I don’t disagree with the point he’s making, but he does sound rather smug doesn’t he?  I would hope that Jim McGuinness will have an answer for Jack on Sunday – at the very least I would expect a different approach to that which we saw in last year’s All-Ireland Semi-Final.  But I’ll be happy if we win, regardless of how we do it.  Indeed eight points to six in our favour would do just fine.

Against Down, Patrick McBrearty, Michael Murphy and Anthony Thompson were all guilty of the sorts of misses that could be the difference in a tight game.  We cannot afford this kind of waste on Sunday.  Teams like Kerry that are habitually successful thrive on the inability of inferior opposition to make the most of their chances.  If Donegal wish to demonstrate superiority, they need to be clinical.

Down got through the Donegal defence more than once – on another day, they could have scored 2 goals.  Indeed, the same could be said of the Ulster Semi-Final when Tyrone had goal chances but did not convert.  To attribute Donegal’s amazing record (2 goals conceded in 10 Championship games) merely to outstanding defending and a defensive system would be folly – Donegal have had their share of good fortune too.  Witness Tomas O’Connor’s incorrectly disallowed goal in last year’s Quarter-Final and Cavan hitting the woodwork early on in this year’s Preliminary Round.  This isn’t to suggest that Donegal are riding their luck, but the odds are increasing that they will concede goals at some point in this year’s Championship.  Let us hope they do not come at the wrong time.

As I was walking around the Streets of London this week, I thought a lot about the upcoming game with Kerry and how glad I am to be able to be there.  I don’t approve of this ‘Nothing Beats Being There’ shite, which is just a marketing slogan, but there is some truth in it.  I really hope that we get as much support as possible in CrokePark this weekend.  Jim McGuinness has given us hope and a team we can be very proud of.  Hopefully the people of Donegal show their support in a way this team deserves on Sunday.