Posts Tagged ‘Derry’

Job Done. Just About.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Victory, Always.

Orange Crushed

Well, few of us expected that result in Armagh (except maybe Michael Hegarty apparently…).  But let’s be honest, as good as Donegal played, Armagh were very poor.  The bigger question is perhaps how did Armagh get to within a point of us last summer?  The standard in Division Three can only explain so much.  Tactically and physically they did not look an Ulster Championship outfit.  No more than Kerry folk will get too excited by beating Tipperary or Cork folk will celebrate a facile win over Clare, we should not read too much into what we saw in Armagh.  Contrast their display with Sligo’s performance against Roscommon.  Just last Sunday, Monaghan beat Fermanagh by 10 points.  This is not the business end of the season.

Still, you can only beat what’s in front of you and the once daunting road to an Ulster title that lay ahead of Donegal has been safely negotiated as far as the next checkpoint.  What is evident is that we seem to be managing games differently under Rory.  Against both Tyrone and Armagh, we have made fast starts and built up a lead early on.  Tyrone pegged us back; Armagh never managed to get close.  It will be very interesting to see if this pattern persists in future games.

The tactic of playing Paddy McBrearty as a lone forward yielded a goal straight away.  Thereafter, he caused distress to the Armagh defence, but they succeeded in limiting his return to one more point. He was a little unlucky at times and could have perhaps received a bit more sympathy from David Coldrick, but in general he was good.  I don’t know if that tactic will work as well against better teams who play with more disciplined sweepers than Ciaran McKeever.  Someone playing closer to Paddy will give him more options than having to take on his man every time he gets the ball and will surely lead to even greater returns.

The second half hardly merits comment.  The game was definitively over when in the space of a few minutes, Stefan Campbell failed to convert Jamie Clarke’s rebounded shot for a goal and then Marty O’Reilly finished well following a piercing run by the outstanding Frank McGlynn.   After that, Donegal largely played keep ball, rarely exerting too much effort to breach the Armagh defence.  Armagh didn’t seem too pushed at putting us under pressure which was odd given that they were so far behind.  But maybe not, maybe their minds had also turned to their next game.  Wicklow will present the perfect opportunity for them to get back on track.

I suppose from a Donegal perspective the one thing you would have to say is that we really look comfortable in the way we are playing.  There are still a few things that concern me.  First, we need to do better around midfield.  Our reading of breaking ball is poor, or we are just not committing men to where they are needed – perhaps that is deliberate.    Take a look at the stats from the Tyrone game and from the Armagh game which back up this view.  Secondly, some of our hand passing gets a little too intricate and leads to turnovers or sticky situations that could easily be avoided – look particularly at incidents involving MacNiallais and Lacey in the last two games.  If we were trying long risky passes, then I would expect some mistakes.   Lastly, we appear vulnerable to teams that run directly at us – but who isn’t I suppose? I would worry that both Tyrone and Armagh were allowed shots on goal that came from fairly straightforward build up play.  Neither went in, but that was due more to good fortune than good defending.  None of these issues may cost us the next game, but I don’t think we can afford to ignore them.

And so, for the fourth time in five years we play near neighbours Derry.  2011 Ulster Final (six point win), 2012 first round (10 point win), 2014 first round (three point win) and now a semi-final.  The big change for Derry in terms of personnel is that Eoin Bradley is back and was in good form against Down.  It’s fair to also point out that the influential Fergal Doherty was forced off early last May.  Against Down, there was no Pasty Bradley, with Niall Holly, (who had played at full back during the league) partnering Doherty in the middle.  It seemed to work pretty well against Down, with Derry having the upper hand on longer kick outs.  This should be a concern for Donegal as we have struggled in this area lately.  But, from the same game, the stats seem to suggest that Derry were careless in possession – music to our ears surely.

Derry actually led by two points at half time last year, but as was customary, the Jim McGuinness edition blew them away with a third quarter surge.  I will long remember watching Jim ‘directing’ Michael Murphy to swing over a sideline ball from under the covered stand.  With the form Michael is in, Derry will need to be very careful what and where they concede on Saturday night.  It’s worth pointing out that our captain has yet to score from play in this year’s Ulster Championship.  It’s fascinating how his role on this team continues to evolve.

Consider this – Derry failed to score for 21 minutes, at home, against the 14 men of Down.  It was however their first Ulster Championship win since 2011, so perhaps they had some form of white line fever.  But for the woeful Down shooting, never mind the sending off early in the second half, Derry were fortunate enough to win.  Down had the ball heading to 70 minutes and kicked it wide when they could have worked a better shooting chance.  They then failed to foul Derry until they advanced all the way inside the Derry 20.  Awful stuff altogether and I would hope we wouldn’t see anything similar from Donegal this weekend.

Derry look like they will set up very defensively, with Eoin Bradley left up front on his own, and Mark Lynch playing deeper than a traditional number 11.  Enda Lynn and Sean Leo McGoldrick will play as link men from wing forward, both work very hard and are good footballers.  In short, Derry will set up very like Donegal.  But Donegal have been perfecting this system for over four years and it’s second nature to them.  It’s largely new to Derry and Down had plenty of chances to win the game despite Derry’s defensive set up.

No harm recalling that Leo McLoone scored 1-1 and Jigger 0-1 against Derry last May.   Neither player will feature this year, so guys like Paddy McBrearty and Odhran MacNiallais will need to contribute more.  Paddy was a little wasteful in last year’s game so hopefully he will have recovered from his hamstring strain to be in a position to deliver on Saturday.  He’s been in excellent form lately, even if he tends to fade out of games in the second half.  That might be due to the way Donegal set up as opposed to the player himself and he obviously wasn’t fit enough to finish the game last time but it’s worth monitoring.

It was disappointing not to see Colm McFadden against Armagh after his encouraging display against Tyrone.  If he does come back into the team, you would assume he will take Marty O’Reilly’s place.  But would he fulfil the same role as O’Reilly?  At half time in Armagh, we were trying to figure out exactly what role Marty was playing.  It almost seemed like he was nothing more than a warm body occupying an Armagh defender.  For what it’s worth, it was suggested that they would forget about him and he would end up sneaking in for a goal.  The guy can obviously take a chance when he gets it, but it seems that this isn’t his main role on the team.  He doesn’t carry much ball either.

We should take nothing for granted, but it will be a huge shock to me if Derry beat us on Saturday.  I trust our players too much not to get caught looking ahead and focus on the game in hand.  This Donegal team has won 15 out of 16 Ulster Championship matches going back to 2011. They have played and beaten every team in Ulster barring Fermanagh in this time.  This Derry team will have to play the game of their lives to beat us, or we will need to be hampered by injuries to the likes of Paddy McBrearty, or, more importantly, Michael Murphy, who looked hobbled at the end of the game in Armagh.  Don’t expect a pretty game, it will likely be a hard enough slog, especially if Derry are really focused on defence.  And maybe they will have gotten a boost in confidence from their first Ulster Championship win in four years.  As Rory Gallagher likes to say, each game takes on a life of its own.   He may be right enough there, but that doesn’t mean that the outcome will be any different than the one expected.

Until Victory, Always

Still Got It

Many of the questions we have been asking ourselves lately were answered on Sunday in Derry.  It was not the perfect performance by any stretch of the imagination, but it was good enough.  While we weren’t exactly written off in advance, there were plenty who felt that we were a spent force in light of last year’s Championship performance and then a fairly flat performance in the Division Two Final last month.  The intensity and the verve returned on Sunday, and while it wasn’t always pretty, especially in the first half, it’s always satisfying to win when you are not certain of doing so.   

In many ways, it was very similar to our way of operating in 2012.  We kept things close until half time, and then blitzed Derry in the third quarter before reverting to lockdown mode.  And, like 2012, it was Donegal who got the last score after soaking up the Derry pressure.  Leo McLoone’s score was somewhat reminiscent of Karl Lacey’s point against Kerry in the All Ireland Quarter Final.  The main difference of course was the build up – Lacey’s score came on a fast break, McLoone’s was the culmination of an 18 pass phase of clock killing possession (H/T to @dontfoul).  Either way, in both cases it was Donegal finishing strong.

After what was a fairly unimpressive League campaign, where he played almost exclusively at centre half back, Leo McLoone was somewhat of a revelation on Sunday.  Finishing with 1-01 and earning RTE man of the match honours will hopefully be a boost for him personally.  Whether his inspired showing owed anything to the fact he was nominally a half forward instead of deployed in a defensive capacity is an open question.  The fact that McLoone could be played in a more advanced role was as of course linked to the fact that we had Paddy McGrath available to start in defence.  It was great to have the Ardara man back and in fine form.  Pretty remarkable that he was able to last 70 minutes having missed so much time.  With Paddy back, I assume we won’t see McLoone at half back for the remainder of the Championship barring any injuries.

As Alan Foley points out, the tactics we saw at midfield on Sunday are a throwback to McGuinness’ time in charge of the Under 21 team back in 2010.   Big Neil missing out from the start was no huge surprise even if the rumours suggested he was fit enough to start.  But when I heard that McElhinney was not starting, I was very surprised.  A combination of Christy, Odhran MacNiallais and Michael Murphy was initially deployed, and seemed to do ok, although we cannot discount the impact of Derry losing Fergal Doherty relatively early on had on their performance (still, his replacement Niall Holly kicked a fine score not long after coming on).  But, as the half wore on, Derry seemed to get on top when Durcan kicked the ball out to midfield.  What was pleasing was some of the results from quicker and more targeted kick outs – nowhere near the level of what Dublin can accomplish, but encouraging nonetheless.  Some people I have spoken too criticised the decision to bring on Big Neil as he didn’t look fit.  True, he was responsible for a few turnovers, but he certainly gave the crowd a further lift after the blitz and made a good block in defence.  A few of us were also surprised that Christy was the man to go at half time, but all in all, McGuinness got it just right in the middle third. The stats indicate that we weren’t brilliant, but we did enough to win, and that ultimately is all you need to do!

The most pleasing aspect of the display on Sunday was of course our defence.  Not just for, you know, defending, but for those sorties into Derry territory.  It was Frank McGlynn who collected the ball from Michael Murphy and fed Leo McLoone for the decisive goal and Anthony Thompson collected a rebound off the upright on the Derry end line to set up Paddy McBrearty for what should have been a goal.  Throw in the points from Lacey and Thompson and you begin to ask yourself is it 2012 all over again.  Not to ignore the fact also that we only conceded 11 points in total, which will be good enough to win most games.  As I originally speculated, it was left to Karl Lacey to pick up Mark Lynch and he did a fine job. Lynch kicked one huge score, under immense pressure, but otherwise his influence was marginal.  The inside forwards McGuckin and O’Boyle were non-factors, due in large part to Derry’s inability to find them.  Nonetheless, the two McGees did all that was asked off them in our set up.  Above the call of duty, Neil McGee was on hand to rob Derry wing back Kevin Johnston of a potential goal opportunity in the second half when a goal would have brought Derry level and potentially stalled Donegal’s shock and awe operation.  Good and all as our defensive players and overall system was, Niall Holly and Mark Lynch did show that no matter how good you are, you are always susceptible to being undone by good long range shooting.  Thankfully, we did enough to restrict Derry’s opportunities in this regard.

There are definite areas for improvement.  Colm McFadden had a day to forget.  You can’t fault the effort, but nothing was sticking.  Dermot McBride, like Drew Wylie in last year’s Ulster Final, stuck to him like a bad smell and got away with plenty of holding, but that’s life for a forward sometimes.  On another day, maybe Colm gets a handy free and converts it and that sets things in motion.  Not so on Sunday – he didn’t even have a free to kick.  Was Sunday an aberration?  Hopefully, but you have to figure that we could be witnessing a player on the wane.  It’s a worrying enough sign that he has been held scoreless from play in his last two Ulster Championship games.  He did manage 3-30 during the League, so maybe I am worrying unnecessarily.  Plus, whoever we play next (Fermanagh or Antrim) will surely afford him the opportunity to get back on track.  He was so poor on Sunday that Jim McGuinness actually replaced him – something that never happens. 

If Colm was poor, then you would hope Paddy McBrearty is capable of stepping up.  Alas, he had a poor enough day himself – especially in the first half (four shots, one off the post, one wide, two dropped short).  He did get himself a point in the second half, but even then, he really should have had a goal.  You couldn’t really fault his effort, but when presented with these opportunities (especially when playing inside during the first half while Michael Murphy was deployed in a deeper role), he needs to do better.  His light hearted tweet afterwards about losing his shooting boots was fair enough given we won the game suppose and at least he acknowledges the issue.  The fact that he has exams going on at the moment might be a mitigating factor.  Again, the next day out he will have the opportunity to put up a greater return.

But of course it should be pointed out that we win despite getting virtually nothing from Colm and Paddy, and indeed only two points from play from Michael Murphy.  It’s good to know that there are others who can step up – 1-06 scored from play various others is a very satisfying return.  As ever, while it might be a disturbing trend if your inside forwards fail to deliver on an ongoing basis, but in an isolated game, it doesn’t matter who gets the scores as long as we get enough of them.

A quick word for our Captain – wow.  He was everywhere and everything on Sunday.  He shook off an early missed free that he really should have scored, but thereafter, he was inspirational.  He was involved in four successive scores – his fetch in the lead up to the goal, the dummy for his point from play, that free from the sideline and a free won and converted to put us five points ahead and essentially put us out of sight.  It didn’t escape anyone of course that Jim McGuinness ‘told him’ to attempt that shot from the sideline.   Sometimes talent needs a nudge.   

And when you think about the players that played on Sunday, you feel that you can expect more in future games.  Paddy McGrath – first game for Donegal since 60 minutes in last year’s All Ireland Quarter Final.  Jigger – first Senior Championship start ever for Donegal.  Neil Gallagher – we only saw him for 30 or so minutes.  Christy Toye and Martin McElhinney – only played a half each.  And of course Rory Kavanagh played no part.  We can expect more from all of these players next day out.

There have been murmurings along the lines of ‘that performance wouldn’t beat Dublin’ – but so what?  We weren’t playing Dublin on Sunday.  Dublin don’t play in the Ulster Championship.  I’m sure Jim McGuinness had one goal only on Sunday and that was to win the game.  From that perspective, it was a very good day at the office.  We now have four weeks to prepare for a game against Antrim or Fermanagh, a game we should win.  I’m certainly not thinking about anything more than an Ulster Final appearance at this stage.  Sunday’s performance left me in no doubt that we are still good enough to win an Ulster Championship if we make it that far.  Job done.

Until Victory, Always.

No Siege Mentality Here

For the second year running, we start our Ulster Championship from the Quarter Final stage.  Things have worked out better when we have come through a Preliminary Round (2011 and 2012).  Back in 2012, we met Derry at the Quarter Final stage and ran out easy winners on a score line of 2-13 to 0-09 on a wet June day in Ballybofey.  The year before, we beat them less convincingly in the Ulster Final. Revenge of sorts served up 18 years after Joe Brolly had blown kisses at our first group of All Ireland winning heroes when there was no ‘back door’ and thus began a long period in the wilderness (EDIT – actually, no, Brolly scored his late goal in 1998, not 1993, when the scoreline was Derry 0-08 Donegal 0-06….).  Derry have featured along the way when things have been good and when things have been bad for Donegal. Our Championship record against the Oakleaf County reads 11 wins each, although Derry have lost 9 of the last 12 meetings.  Their last win over us came in 2008 when Paddy Bradley’s 10 points contributed greatly to their 1-14 to 1-12 win in the Ulster Quarter Final in Ballybofey.

For anyone who doesn’t remember, here is the chronology of events that preceded Brian McIver’s departure from the Donegal post in 2008.  It’s taken him a while to get back to management, but Brian has returned to turn around our neighbours.  Seemingly well liked by players wherever he has been, he ultimately came up short, first with Donegal, then as a member of the Down coaching set up when they surprised just about everyone by making it to the All Ireland Final in 2010.  McIver took charge of Derry in the aftermath of a pretty awful 2012 Championship when they followed up their 10 point defeat to Donegal by losing to Longford in the first round of the Qualifiers.  In his first year in charge, Derry, like Donegal in 2011, won the Division Two title and gained promotion.  However, the Championship was largely a disappointment – bowing out at the first hurdle in Ulster via a high scoring affair to Down and ultimately exiting the Qualifiers after losing another relatively free scoring game (after extra time) to Cavan.  But, the rebuilding task facing Brian McIver was likely greater than that faced by Jim McGuinness when he took over Donegal in 2011.  On Sunday, Derry will probably have 10 out of the 20 players that played some part in that Ballybofey match in 2012 in their match day squad whereas Donegal will have 15 out of 18 involved.  If we look back at John Joe Doherty’s final game in charge of Donegal, we will have 11 of the 19 that played that day against Armagh involved on Sunday, but two of those missing are Rory Kavanagh (suspended) and Mark McHugh (studying).

It’s hard to know how to analyse the 2014 version of Derry. Do we look at their recent League campaign, which looked pretty damn good right up until the final, which was a relative non-event.  Or, do we look at last year’s Championship, when they managed to beat Sligo and Down (a week after Down had given their all in trying to topple ourselves), but lost to both Down and Cavan at home.  In fact, they played all four games at home, winning two and losing two (one of the wins was actually over Sligo in Owenbeg).  Celtic Park is not quite a Championship fortress of late then.  The players that will start for Derry on Sunday, are, by and large the same that started last year against Cavan, although Gerard O’Kane and Fergal Doherty are big re-additions and Mark Lynch is now deployed at half forward rather than half back.  It’s not all change, but there is enough to suggest that Derry will be a different prospect in this year’s Ulster Championship.

Do Derry have the edge over us by having played against the top teams in Division One whereas we have faced lesser opposition in Division Two?  I’m not so sure.  We did ok coming out of Division Two in 2011, although Antrim followed by Cavan was a gentle enough introduction to Championship football.  However, we have the perfect example of why Divisional status doesn’t matter based on what we saw in Omagh last weekend, when Down, a team that will be in Division Two again next year, really should have beaten Tyrone, who were comfortable in Division One.

Of course, if I can pick and choose what l look at regarding Derry, then it is only right I acknowledge our own patchy form.  Despite beating Tyrone and Down in Ulster, which would normally constitute a pretty good year, the 2013 Championship does not hold happy memories.  If Monaghan in Clones was a bad day at the office; Mayo was a full blown Nightmare on Jones’ Road.  During the 2014 National League, we have been on a process of rehabilitation and rediscovery in the cosy confines of Division Two and while outwardly at least we achieved our goals, no-one is under any illusion about our prospects for the summer.  Especially not after our day out in Croke Park last month, where we looked distinctly out of sorts, albeit against a fairly impressive Monaghan team that are not in action for another three weeks.

I was feeling better about our prospects on Sunday before I heard about Neil Gallagher watching Glenswilly’s recent win over Termon while on crutches.  Then the news followed that James Kielt and Ryan Bell were likely to be fit enough to play for Derry.  If Big Neil was out, I assume we would go with a midfield of Martin McElhinney and Christy Toye.  Not a disaster by any means (they partner each other at midfield frequently at club level and Christy had a good display there against Louth during the League), but one that might struggle fielding against Patsy Bradley and Fergal Doherty.  Plus, if Big Neil were available, it would allow us to drop Christy slightly deeper to counter Benny Heron, who has tended to play more as a third midfielder during the league.  I hadn’t counted on Kielt and Bell returning.  Between them, they contributed around a third of Derry’s scores in last year’s Championship.  Add that to what they have lost to soccer in Eoin Bradley, and Derry’s scoring power was looking significantly less than last summer, when they managed to score on average just over 16 points a game.  But then I looked at Derry’s scoring during this year’s league. While Mark Lynch was predictably vital (hitting 2-44 or 30% of all scores), the two men who usually play inside, Cailean O’Boyle (5-6) and Emmett McGuckin (3-11) cannot be ignored, especially when you look at O’Boyle’s goals to games ratio – although Derry played nine games in total, he only really featured in seven yet managed five goals.  Beware the Lavey man.

Incidentally on Eoin Bradley, based on what we have seen from Derry during the league, it seems that Brian McIver made the right call.  But I wonder will everyone feel the same if Donegal win on Sunday?  Oakleafers Blog seemed certain that Bradley’s return was crucial for the Championship, and was still holding out some hope after the League Final defeat to Dublin.  We didn’t really miss Kevin Cassidy in 2012, but wing backs are easier to replace than quality scoring forwards.

In terms of our own team selection, there’s not much debate, is there?  The front three pick themselves, although Brick Molloy might feel a little hard done by given a decent league campaign.  Still, I would go for Paddy ahead of him and I expect that Jim McGuinness will as well.  Half forwards too look pretty obvious.  Based on what we saw during the League, you would expect Christy Toye and Odhran MacNiallais to get the nod, and Ryan McHugh to again fill in for his brother, as he did in the League Final.  Are there any potential wild cards?  Based on fitness, I guess it’s unlikely that David Walsh starts.   Midfield became no decision based on Rory Kavanagh’s red card; it will be Martin McElhinney and Big Neil, assuming that he’s fit.  Otherwise, I would expect Christy to start at midfield and either David Walsh, Brick or maybe even Leo McLoone to take his place in the half forward line (although if Brick starts, I would play Paddy McBrearty at half forward).

Now to the backs, where there are a few issues.  First off, does Leo McLoone return at centre half back?  He’s seemingly fit enough, having played for his club several times since missing out against Monaghan.  Having been selected at centre half back all throughout the League, right up until the Final when he missed out altogether through injury.  Is it realistic to assume he would miss out now?  The answer might depend on how fit is Paddy McGrath is at this stage. He’s been training, he’s been playing for Ardara, but is he fit enough for Championship action?  Is he the sort of player who can deliver a performance at 80% fitness?    Then we have the question that has been on our minds for most of the year, where to deploy Karl Lacey?  Assuming that Paddy McGrath misses out, do we keep Karl in the corner?  Or does he revert to the position from where he won his Footballer of the Year title in 2012?  I still think he’s our best man marker, so maybe we detail him to mark Derry’s obvious threat, Mark Lynch.  Dublin had the right idea in the League Final, with Johnny Cooper sticking very closely to him and generally limiting his impact until such time as it didn’t really matter.  Lacey may also have the potential to put Lynch on the back foot, assuming he is still able to make the sort of runs we enjoyed watching in 2012.  Someone else I talked too about Sunday’s game suggested Eamon McGee might pick up Lynch, which makes sense when you take into account Lynch’s physicality.  I don’t think we have tended to focus too much on individual opposition players while Jim McGuinness has been in charge.  Our defence relies on a collective effort more so than individual battles.  And, when you look at what McGuckin and O’Boyle contributed during the League, as well as the potential for Ryan Bell to contribute, you realise that Derry may well be able to score enough just relying on Lynch for his dead ball scoring, leaving their scores from play to come from others.  They also had a good spread of scorers during the League outside of Lynch and the inside forwards, and Derry’s half backs look especially comfortable attacking.  Do Donegal go man on man in the full back but with a sweeper to help out?  Maybe not dropping back a half forward, but just leaving three on two.  With eight goals between them during the League, we cannot afford to ignore the threat of McGuckin and O’Boyle.

Derry will likely go man for man with our forwards.  Do you think that might suit Michael and Colm?  Is that something they might be interested in?  I think so.  I’m sure it will be refreshing after the stifling tactics deployed by Monaghan.  Chrissy McKaigue was man of the match in the League Semi Final win over Mayo, which seemed to be as much to do with his surging runs as his stoic defence.  He looked fairly comfortable under high, direct ball on top of Alan Freeman.  But, when Freeman got in front of him, he was easily enough turned.  I’m already excited about Michael Murphy getting a run at him. The ball in needs to be good, so I am not assuming anything other than the potential that appears to exist.  The joker Derry might have in their pack is 19 year old Gareth McKinless, who had a pretty good day marking Michael in the Ulster Club Final back in December.  He made his senior debut for Derry at the end of March, but hasn’t appeared since, so I guess he is a long shot to start on Sunday.  Derry conceded an average of 18 points a game during the League and an average of 16 points during last year’s Championship.  On the face of it, finding scoring opportunities will not be an issue for Donegal.

During the league, Derry managed to score nearly 19 points a game, racking up 14 goals in the process.  They scored a goal in very game, with only Kerry keeping a clean sheet.  Twice they managed to score three goals in a game, once against Westmeath (I know…) but once against Cork (in fairness the Cork defence is probably nothing to get excited about either).  Recall that Donegal managed to concede three goals to Louth who were relegated to Division Three.  And, we conceded four in our last Championship game.  This is not a good sign.  Jim McGuinness may have been honest when talking about the black card creating fear and uncertainty for defenders, but I hope he was not describing the mood among our own defenders.  We cannot be afraid to tackle.

Before the final verdict, a word for our Minor team, who also take on Derry on Sunday.  I’ve only been following their results, so don’t really have anything to say, except that this group have been successful at all stages in Ulster up to this Championship.  Derry didn’t field against them in the Minor League, which Donegal won, beating Tyrone in the Final.  Derry have their St Pats Maghera contingent to return after an extended run in the Hogan Cup, so watch out for the ginger haired Glass at midfield.  Someone pointed out to me that two Kilkenny schools contested the All Ireland Schools Hurling Final and yet their minors were well beaten by Dublin in the Leinster Championship.  In terms of preparation, Donegal might just have the edge.  We might have left it behind us last year against eventual All Ireland Finalists Tyrone, and it is a cruel championship in Ulster, with no second chance until the Ulster Final.  Hopefully Declan Bonner’s lads can pull what I assume will be an upset on Sunday and if they can, there is a great chance of an Ulster title for this team.

Ultimately, I am going for a Donegal win on Sunday.  Despite the performance against Monaghan and the loss of Mark McHugh to his books, we are still in better shape going in to this game than we were before facing Tyrone last year.  Our preparations started earlier, and there have been less training sessions missed due to injury and less demands on the players than in the aftermath of the All Ireland win.  If we take Captain Fantastic at his word, then surely the mind was willing against Monaghan, so perhaps the bodies were not, and the fruits of our trip to Portugal will be evident on Sunday, when it really matters.  Jim McGuinness has cut a relaxed figure in recent interviews, and the departure of Mark McHugh has only really raised pulses outside the County.  For now, Donegal are focused on Sunday only, but if we can win and deliver a convincing performance, there is a very real chance of a third Ulster title in four years.  Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they are sure to get it.  Go to the Walled City in expectation, not in hope.

Until Victory, Always

Time to Circle the Wagons

So, the dust has settled on our Division Two League Final defeat to Monaghan.  It’s gone largely quiet on the Mark McHugh front.  There hasn’t been a peep out of the player himself (on the record at least) and we’ve heard nothing substantive from Jim McGuinness either.  There’s nothing really new or indeed unusual there.  The Disillusioned One did help his club to the County Gaeltacht title and a draw with All County League leader St Eunans over the past few weekends, so his enthusiasm for the game appears to remain at some level.

There’s been plenty of doom and gloom since the loss to Monaghan.  In fairness, this was bubbling under the surface all along (at least among most people I talk to), but the culmination was pretty ugly.  It didn’t help that what we saw against Monaghan took place in Croke Park and was our only televised game so far this year.  But anyway, let me try and be objective for a while, and focus on some of the more positive aspects of 2014.  So, when we look back at the season so far before we look ahead to Derry, what can we take from what we’ve seen and heard, and indeed what we haven’t seen since early February?

First off, Christy Toye made his long awaited return to competitive action.  He played a part in every game, and the signs were encouraging, although it’s not clear why he was taken of relatively early in the game against Monaghan in Croke Park.  Championship football will be a step up in intensity and in my mind at least, there is a question mark over Christy’s ability (in terms of fitness) to contribute come the summer.  But, it was great to see him back and if he can last the pace, he will be an improvement over Ryan Bradley or Ross Wherrity.

Secondly, can anyone recall how many minutes Karl Lacey racked up during last year’s relegation campaign?  Exactly zero.  Opinions vary as to how Karl looked at times during this year’s league, and I guess I am somewhat on the fence.  He was asked to play a lot of football in the full back line, so perhaps people had unrealistic expectations as to what else he could contribute.  And, like Christy Toye, we will need to reserve judgement until the white hot heat of Championship action.  Not only has Karl missed a lot of time since the 2012 All Ireland Final, but there are a lot of hard yards on those legs.

Next, Ryan McHugh got significant game time, and when he was played further forward than corner back, he generally impressed, building on last year’s encouraging Championship cameo.  Not a new addition as such, but ready to play a more significant role this year, perhaps even more so now in light of his brother’s absence from the squad. 

In terms of true newcomers, Odhran MacNiallais saw significant playing time in every game, scoring in each of the first three games, but then failing to find the target until the League Final.  There were definitely some encouraging signs, but not enough to be definitive as to what he will offer during the summer.  With other lads, for example, David Walsh, we know what we have, so I am undecided who should fill out the half forward line come 25 May.  It’s fair to say it remains the line with the most question marks.

Although they didn’t get significant time, Hugh McFadden (50 minutes in total) and Jigger O’Connor (78 minutes) made their competitive debuts, with McFadden helping himself to two fine points against Laois.  And Luke Keaney played most of the game against Monaghan in Croke Park, when it was a pity that neither McFadden or Jigger got a taste of playing at HQ.  Again, we really haven’t seen enough in the right situations to feel confident about calling on any of these lads come the summer, but it is good to see some new faces regardless.  There’s no suggestion just yet however that any of the first choice 13 (I am assuming that at least two positions are up for grabs, with the rest of the team seemingly picking itself) feel threatened, which to me is really the test of squad depth, not just having players to bring on as subs or fill in when injured.

All in all, Donegal used 28 players in total over our eight league games, although only 20 of these played over 70 minutes in total.  Paul Durcan, Neil McGee and Michael Murphy played every minute of the eight games, with Anthony Thompson and Colm McFadden missing a total of one and three minutes respectively.  20 different players actually started games.  We had 18 different scorers, with Colm McFadden edging out Michael Murphy as our top scorer 3-30 to 3-28.  Between them, Colm and Michael scored 55% of our total of 10-107.

In terms of ‘2014 football’, i.e. that which has seen higher scoring and more attacking football, apparently, how did Donegal compare?  Well, we averaged just over 17 points a game over our eight games.  This is more than we managed to score in the league at any time in the past 10 years.  But, it was only games against Laois, Galway and Louth where we managed to score higher than that average.  Let’s not forget that we scored only 10 points against Down.  To contrast with Derry for a moment, they managed an average of over 18 points in their nine Division One games.  Our 10 goals scored this year is much more impressive than three goals scored last year, but Derry managed 14 goals in Division One.    

Results and statistics are one thing, the general impression we have been left with after the League campaign is another.  On the one hand, we accomplished what we set out to do – we gained promotion and Jim got the players he wanted to see in action some game time, whether this was those returning from injury (Lacey and Toye) or relatively fresh faces (Ryan McHugh and MacNiallais).  But, other than very briefly, we did not hit the highs we hoped to see.  And, the Final performance and defeat to Monaghan has left us all feeling a bit more uneasy. It will take more than a victory on 25 May to fully negate that uneasiness.   Most of us see that we were fooled by our win over Tyrone last year. It was all downhill from there.

But, we must remember that our manager and players signed up for one more year to make a run at a Championship, not for the craic.  Portugal was not just a holiday and maybe we are just looking to peak at the right time.  We were a long way off that against Monaghan and people are annoyed about that performance.  We need to suspend our disbelief for the next 10 days or so and think happy thoughts ahead of our trip to Celtic Park.  There may well be plenty of time for giving out later on, but for now, I’m going to go away and take a look at Derry and then tell you how I think we might beat them on 25 May.

Until Victory, Always

The Phoney War Preview

So, we return to Croke Park for the first time since last August.  I think it’s safe to assume that the experience will be less distressing this time around.  Indeed, we are favoured to win, even if only marginally enough at this point (4/6 with Paddy Power).  Both teams are promoted to Division One no matter what, so you would hope for a competitive game with intent shown by both sides, but we are still in the ‘phoney war’ phase of the season.  Last year, Derry won the Division Two title and went on the have a pretty poor Championship.  Donegal face what appears to be a fairly stern test in four weeks time, while Monaghan get an extra three weeks to prepare, but a harder road to the Ulster Final.  Given that both sides will be eying up a place in the Ulster Final in July, I’m not sure how much either side will reveal their true hand on Sunday.

Monaghan have named their team, and other than Colin Walshe and Darren Hughes (who is on the bench) it is probably their strongest line up, with five changes from the team that started in O’Donnell Park earlier in the league. Given that they have seven weeks until their Ulster Quarter-Final with Down or Tyrone (isn’t it absolutely crazy that Donegal’s game at the same stage is a full three weeks earlier), you would think that Malachy O’Rourke will want to have his lads get through most of the gears on Sunday.

Jim too has named a team – he waited until I had this piece ready to publish of course, but at least we have something to chew over before throw in.  Despite missing their club games on Easter Sunday, Paul Durcan, Leo McLoone, Christy Toye and Michael Murphy are all named to start.  Despite featuring for Kilcar last weekend, Mark McHugh appears to have lost out to his brother Ryan for a half forward spot.  On form, hard to argue with that selection, but equally, it is hard to see McHugh the elder not being part of our starting fifteen come the Championship.  Paddy McBrearty returns in place of Brick Molloy.  Not hugely surprising, but although I have not been his biggest fan, Brick put in a good shift during the League.  After a relatively disappointing Under 21 Final, but impressive cameos from the bench for the senior team, I am hopeful of a good display from Paddy in Croke Park – something I don’t really think he has delivered as yet. 

Martin McElhinney gets the nod over Neil Gallagher at midfield.  At this stage, Neil is surely fit enough to start.  McElhinney will be well able for Paul Finlay on Sunday, but is still not the presence in the middle that Neil has been for us over the years.  Like Leo McLoone at centre back, this experiment has gone on long enough at this stage and I wonder (again?) if this is a sign of what we can expect to see for the Championship?

Despite being confirmed as doubtful during the week, David Walsh makes the bench.  The one name that is missing among the subs that I would have expected to see there is Hugh McFadden.  He wasn’t mentioned as being injured, but that’s not to say he might have picked up a knock last weekend.  Conor Classon replaces him – a clear enough indication that Hugh is seen as midfield cover I guess.  A more welcome sight among the subs from Ardara is that of Paddy McGrath, who completed 60 minutes for his club on Easter Sunday and even managed to score a point.  Serious doubts will persist over his readiness for Championship football, but it’s great to see him available again.

 In Four Masters win over Naomh Conaill last weekend, Karl Lacey scored three points.  Some analysis of our last game in Armagh suggested he was back to his best, and his performances for Four Masters seem to have been impressive as well.  Folks have been waiting all year for Karl to regain Footballer of the Year from.  I don’t know if we’ll see that again to be honest, but he’s certainly in a much much better place than he was last year.  A long ball delivered into the edge of the square on Sunday would be most welcome to see.  He’s been good enough defensively as far as I am concerned.

On Sunday, we will of course get a firsthand look at our Ulster Championship opponents Derry.  I’m not going to dwell too much on the Celtic Park clash scheduled for 25 May until after the Division Two Final except to say that I saw them beat Mayo and was reasonably impressed, although my own view is that Mayo were poor that day. For a fairly balanced view, have a read of what Derry folk themselves made of it.  As you can see, they are not getting carried away with themselves, but there is a growing sense of belief in Brian McIver’s side. What result would be best for Donegal in the Division One decider?  A victory for Derry that will increase the expectations or a hammering to dent confidence?  I’m not sure, but if Dublin can produce anything like their best, it could get ugly for Derry.

More on Derry at another time but let me get back to the curtain raiser on Sunday for now.  This is our second time here under Jim McGuinness.  14 man Donegal (we had Adrian Hanlon sent off in the second half) beat Laois in the Division Two Final in 2011 in what was a pretty competitive game, that went right to the wire.  It was Jim McGuinness’ first trophy won as Donegal Senior Manager as it happens and so probably should retain more of a place in our memories than it probably does.  Here are the highlights for anyone who missed it.  The players don’t seem exactly overjoyed at the end, do they?  There’s lots of interesting bits and pieces in that clip, not least a certain Kevin Cassidy getting in some target practice at Croke Park for later on that year.  There was no sign of the McGee brothers that day, and Cassidy is gone obviously, as is Kevin Rafferty, but many of those who played for Donegal that day in 2011 will likely line out again on Sunday.

Monaghan actually had the best defensive record in the division, conceding an aggregate of 87 points (Donegal conceded an aggregate of 88 so it’s very marginal), with 20% of that total conceded coming on what was undoubtedly an off day in Ballybofey.  Scoring wise, they managed just less than a point a game than Donegal but managed only three goals in their seven games to Donegal’s nine.  In fact, in four games in last year’s Championship, Monaghan managed only one goal, which came from a botched kick out from the Cavan goalkeeper.  Of course, kick outs have been an issue for Donegal this year and Armagh’s goal in our final league game can be traced back to a poor kick out.  And, were it not for Sean Cavanagh’s timely intervention, Monaghan might have had at least one more goal in last year’s Championship.  Will goals be the difference on Sunday in what might be a fairly tight game?  Donegal appear to have a much better chance of scoring them, and so I expect us to win on Sunday.

Finally, just to say that even has someone who doesn’t really have a stake in the game, it is desperately disappointing to see the issues regarding club fixtures continue.  I don’t really understand why the Good Friday games were not ‘starred’ some time ago as the training camp was known about well in advance.  The request/call to postpone or ‘star’ was made very late in the day.  I have to believe that something JimMcGuinness saw or heard in Portugal changed his mind on the County panellists playing on Good Friday and he wasn’t being disingenuous in making the call only a few days in advance.   If I were to believe otherwise, well, I don’t know where that would leave things. 

Until Victory, Always