Posts Tagged ‘Donegal’

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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Another Missed Opportunity

The result in Clones was very disappointing.  But, if we’re honest, it wasn’t really surprising.  Donegal have not delivered a quality 70 minutes all year and that finally caught up with us in the Ulster Final.  Like last year’s All Ireland Final, it must go down as a missed opportunity.  There can be no denying the fact that time is running out for this wonderful group of players to capture more silverware.  This isn’t meant to sound entitled, but we know that there will be lean years ahead and we know that this group of players are capable of delivering better, that’s what makes defeat hard to take.

There’s no harm in giving Monaghan credit for their win.  In the first half at least, their tactics were spot on.  Tony McEntee was more impressed than most, but I tip my hat to them for playing Donegal like a fiddle after going three points to one down early on.  At half time I felt that we needed a goal if we were have any chance of winning the game.  Once Monaghan went five points up, the game was over in my eyes.

Credit to our lads for finally getting going, but it took too long.  The performance in the first half especially was far too lethargic.  This was in spite of our fast start, with fine points from Paddy McBrearty, Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn.  We scored three points from our first three shots in the space of the first five minutes.  All from play.  And yet we ended the game with 14 wides and did not score from play for another 59 minutes.  Those stats are barely believable.  But, our conversion rate of 38% against Monaghan was actually better than our 34% outcome against Derry.  So the Ulster Final was not a freak event, it merely followed what we had seen in the semi-final.  Consider this for a moment – in 2012, we had a conversion rate of 59%.  Even in 2013, despite shooting 33% against Monaghan, we managed a ratio of 53%.  Last year it was 49%.  This year it is running at 46%.   Thanks to @dontfoul for the data.

The 25th minute was the turning point for me. We were still level at that stage, but after Neil McGee’s wide, Monaghan won their own kick out, showed great patience, working the ball out from the Donegal corner, and eventually dropped the ball into Eoin Duffy and took a nice score.  Donegal then went long to Michael Murphy when double marked and Monaghan snuffed it out easily.  This showed the contrast in the attacking approach of both sides.  Monaghan were clever and patient.  Donegal’s strategy was disjointed and lacked any imagination.

Monaghan scored two points in the last two minutes of the half to go in leading by four.  First, we had Christy’s turnover in the corner leading to a McManus point.  I thought he was a bit unfortunate, although he didn’t think quickly enough.  It was to be his last act for the day.  The final score of the half was the worst of all, coming from a Michael Murphy turnover when he was under no particular pressure.  Monaghan leapt on it.  They looked the hungrier and fitter team. Michael was wearing a flesh coloured bandage on his knee having been injured two weeks previously.  This was kept very quiet and even judging by the colour of the bandage, Donegal were trying to keep it quiet during the game as well.  It’s hard to know how much of an effect it had on his performance, but his impact was minimal, aside from a few big hits.

On to the second half, and for the first three minutes at least, it was like a perfect copy of the first.  Three shots from play, but the key difference was that all three went wide.  Odhran MacNiallais’ shot was a poor decision for sure, outside the 45 and in a hurry.  For Martin McElihinney and Colm McFadden, there was no explanation for missing from just outside ‘the D’ in fairly good scoring position.  It was just awful execution.

After that initial Donegal flurry, Monaghan kept the ball, recycled it out from the corner, switched the play to the opposite side and Eoin Lennon scored a great point on the run from under the stand.  Those first three minutes of the second half were the game in nutshell.  Monaghan looked like the well drilled, confident team.  Donegal looked nervous and poorly prepared.  That out Monaghan five ahead and was essentially the winning of the game.

After 49 minutes, McFadden turned the ball over and took a hit.  This led to Monaghan’s final score, another point from the brilliant Conor McManus, while covered by two Donegal defenders.  It was one play too late, but in the next few minutes, we saw Jigger introduced for McFadden.  Given the game we were playing, Leo McLoone might have been a better option, even more so when Jigger barely got a ball.  You would also wonder if we would have been better playing Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty closer to goal at that point.  Both were somewhat lame, but they are also our most dangerous forwards.  The work that they were being asked to do further out the field couldn’t have been helping.  It’s a big if, but maybe if Paddy had been a little fresher he might have been able to kick that last point but I have to acknowledge that he did manage to score a wonderful point from outside the 45 on 64 minutes.  Still, we wonder what a two man forward line of McBrearty and Murphy might accomplish.  It would tie up at least four or five of the opposition I’d say!

We were a point down when Paddy scored his 64th minute point and there was still 8 minutes including added time to draw level but we couldn’t manage it.  People rightly focus on the number of shots missed – from the seventh minute to the 64th, we took 15 shots from play without scoring.  Some were shots under pressure, but it’s still far too high a number.  The one thing that struck me watching it was that there was no real build up or patience involved.  The strategy seemed to be run until you meet some kind of resistance and then shoot.  That was only slightly better than what we saw in the first half – isolated Donegal runners being swallowed up by the Monaghan defence. Where are the support runners?  Where is the type of patience we saw from Monaghan in the first half and have shown in the past?

Monaghan clearly played with a chip in their shoulder, with several references in the aftermath to feeling that they didn’t get the credit they deserved for their Ulster Final win in 2013.  Make no mistake, they were there for the taking in the second half, with Donegal bossing possession and Monaghan only converting 38% of their scoring chances, but after they went five points up, you could see why they might try to hold what they had.  There was no shame in losing to them, but you can’t help but feel that we didn’t perform as well as we can.  But it’s getting harder and harder to determine just what we can and should expect from this team.

And so we now must face Galway in Croke Park in a Round 4 Qualifier.  Our last meeting was at the same stage in 2009, when we beat them in Sligo.  What happened next doesn’t bear repeating.  Indeed, the last time we played in a Qualifier, we got the result, and a good night out in Carrick on Shannon, but were on a hiding to nothing.  So if we bow out in the gloom on Saturday evening, I’m probably ok with that.  But, I think we will probably have enough in us to win, given we have managed to beat Tyrone, Armagh and Derry this year.  Galway have a very similar record, having beaten Armagh and Derry after losing to Mayo in what was a competitive enough game for the most part.  They are more defensive this year than previously, which is a pity for us as the Galway team I watched play Tipperary and Kerry last year would have been a joy to play against.  This year’s edition might be a slightly trickier proposition, but the one thing that has struck me watching them is that their tackling can be very undisciplined.  Mayo made hay against them, attempting 11 frees, with Cillian O’Connor scoring eight of them.  But five of these were won by the powerful Aidan O’Shea and Donegal have done poorly at winning frees all year – something I put down largely to our attacking strategy above anything else, and unless we start to utilise Michael Murphy as a more orthodox forward, we might struggle to generate the type of returns we saw from Mayo.

I am backing Donegal (on here at least, not with cash) to win, but with no real conviction.  If Galway come with belief and show intensity in defence and on counter attack, then we are definitely vulnerable.  The fitness of Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty is not beyond doubt and Karl Lacey is out.  I had hoped to see something different from what I had seen in every other game this year against Monaghan, but I didn’t, and I fear it is too late to make any real changes this year.  It will be as you were on Saturday night.  I am not relishing it.

Until Victory, Always.

The Tortoise and the Hare

I missed the Ulster Semi-Final against Down in 2013 (well, I saw it, but on a laptop several thousand miles away).  I didn’t think we looked great, but we got the job done.  But a few people who were at the game were much more worried than me by what they saw, and have compared it to the performance against Derry.  After attending and then watching back our Semi Final win over Derry, I have plenty of concerns of my own this year.

I really don’t know what to make of Donegal this year.  Sure, we have played well at times, but too often we have looked very ordinary.  Outcomes have been very satisfactory – keeping our place in Division One and making an Ulster Final is what I had hoped we would at least achieve in 2015.  But performances have been lacking something.  It’s just not clear to me whether this has been by accident or design.  During the Championship at least, we tend to start fast but fall away as the game winds down.  This leads to highly tense situations for supporters in the stands.

If, at the start of the year, you wanted to remain in Division One and win the Ulster title, the road ahead would have seemed daunting.  Planning for that would be a huge challenge.  As the League progressed, it would have been tempting to write off Tyrone and Derry.  But they were different animals come Championship.  Any degree of complacency would have seen us beaten, but we looked like we were playing well within ourselves compared to what I know the players we have are capable of showing.

I really don’t like trying to make the case that we have been holding back, but I don’t think I have choice if I am going to make the case for Donegal winning on Sunday.  What else can explain what we have seen all year?  And, the clearest indication of all was when  Monaghan came to Letterkenny in March?  It was, without exaggeration, the worst game I have ever seen in person at any level.  We showed nothing, and Monaghan were happy to sit back and let us piss about with the ball, allowing them to take the initiative over the course of the game and pick off scores at their leisure.  That was the lowest point for sure, but there have been plenty of other odd looking performances, the latest of which we witnessed three weeks ago in Clones.

It’s a somewhat misleading stat in terms of impact, but none of Donegal’s substitutes used have scored in any of the three Championship games so far.  Some of that is down to the overall time that they are getting on the pitch, but the lack of impact off the bench is a concern.  That’s not really a new thing, but it certainly seems like it is more of a concern this year as it’s hard to see where scores come from on the bench.  Of course, until the Derry game, Michael Murphy hadn’t scored from play , but we didn’t expect that to continue – I don’t have a similar level of faith that our subs will come good for us.  Monaghan can bring on guys who can score, we can’t.

In saying all that, Rory Gallagher had some interesting things to say on Leo McLoone here.  I am delighted that it looks like he will be part of the match day squad for Sunday.  And I fully agree with Rory when he says ‘McLoone’s contribution to Donegal football in recent seasons means that he has been welcomed back into the panel with open arms.’  As he should be.  If anyone feels differently, well, the currency of 2012 wasn’t long being spent. Leo might not start, but wouldn’t he be a great option to replace Christy Toye (who has looked tired in every game so far) after 50 minutes?

Monaghan match up very well with Donegal, both in terms of how they play, and the talent they have at their disposal.  Monaghan play the defensive game without apology.   In the absent Drew Wylie, Colin Walshe, Dessie Moan, Darren and Kieran Hughes and Conor McManus are some of the best players in Ulster at the present time.  I was planning to re-watch both of Monaghan’s Ulster Championship games, but thought there was no point.  I am writing off a lot of what I have seen from Donegal, so even though Monaghan were facing lesser opposition, I don’t see then conceding ,say 15 points on Sunday, as they did against Cavan.  In contrast to Donegal’s fast starts, Monaghan have taken longer to get going.  In truth, I would prefer if Donegal could do likewise on Sunday. The circumstances were very different, but the way that game in Letterkenny earlier this year played out makes me squirm.

Two things I would take from looking at their stats from those games against Cavan and Fermanagh is that they have struggled to win primary possession from kick outs, but they have benefitted from the opposition being careless with the ball from either turning it over via a kick pass or dropping shots short.  So if Donegal can put pressure on the Monaghan kick out, do well on their own and take good care of the ball (i.e. don’t be doing anything stupid, like kicking it…) then we may be able to get the upper hand in terms of possession at least.  But our shot accuracy will have to be better than it was against Derry.

In  Conor McManus, for me at least, Monaghan have the best pure forward in Ulster, and one of the top marksmen in the country.  Don’t get me wrong, Michael Murphy is a better player, but he plays a very different role.  Paddy McBrearty has the potential, but he’s only really beginning to deliver lately.  McManus has been at the top of his game for a few years now.  And he seems to go about his business with a great attitude, never getting riled by the close attention he receives and he also works very hard.  Neil McGee will surely pick him up on Sunday and that should be a great battle.  The question is, will we also deploy Mark McHugh as a sweeper?

Whenever these sides meet, Vinny Corey has tended to man mark Michael Murphy, and it has to be said, do a pretty good job.  It’s been telling that no team to date has managed to mimic Tyrone’s tactic for dealing with Michael.  Armagh didn’t seem to have any game plan, let alone an effective way of dealing with Michael when he dropped deep, although he didn’t score from play.  Early on at least, it looked like Kevin Johnston of Derry might have been shaping up to track him, but they quickly moved to a more zonal marking system.  He made them pay with two great points from play.  I’m not sure Vinny Corey can do a more ‘effective’ job as Justin McMahon on Sunday, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him try.

For me, Sunday represents a decider of sorts over and above this year’s Ulster title.  It’s a chance for one team to claim ‘best of three’ over the other.  In 2013, Donegal were not themselves.  In 2014, Monaghan were in a not dissimilar position.  This year, neither side has, as far as we know, the sort of fatigue and injury concerns that impacted performance in the past two Ulster Finals.  Despit the perceived superior Monaghan depth, Donegal may have a slight advantage, as other than Paddy McBrearty, their first choice 15 appear to be fully fit.  Monaghan look like they will be missing Drew Wylie and Colin Walshe is not long returned from a very serious injury.

The fitness of Paddy McBrearty is surely key to Sunday’s result.  Not just because of what he offers himself, but because of what Donegal will be forced to do if he’s not fit.  I certainly don’t want to see Colm McFadden despatched into the heart of the Monaghan defence where he struggled so badly in 2013 and again in 2014.  It’s a nice thought at times, but there’s virtually no chance we would see Michael Murphy play more than 20% of the game in around the square.  As we saw after he pulled up against Derry, the focal point of Donegal’s attack collapsed without McBrearty.  If he’s not fit to start, will we see a very different attacking formation from Donegal?  I have no idea what it would look like or how it would, indeed if it would, work.   This is where our ‘thin panel’ really hits home – we cannot afford any of our first choice 15 to be missing.

One thing I don’t want to see on Sunday is Neil Gallagher sent in to the edge of the square.  This tactic only works if we are playing a team that goes man to man as opposed to the likes of Derry, who had a handful of men back at all times and we wasted three balls in with zero return.  How many teams will fall for this tactic after seeing how it messed with Dublin last summer? I don’t think anyone on Sunday  will and it’s waste of time from an offensive perspective.  Look to what Cavan achieved against Monaghan with Michael Argue at full forward – another fish out of water.  The other thing it does is it weakens us defensively – aside from the offensive turnovers, it’s likely to yield negative returns even if we don’t kick any ball to him.

Our Championship record against Monaghan reads played 14, won four (H/T to Gaelic Stats).  And that’s spread fairly evenly across all decades going back to 1929.  Past performance is largely irrelevant, but it’s grim reading.  I will never forget 2013 or that trip to Omagh in 2007.  They beat us well those days – physically as well as on the scoreboard.  Last year, we were comfortable enough winners, although watching that game back earlier this year, perhaps it wasn’t as good as I had thought at the time.  I actually hope both teams are able to give 100% on Sunday and we get a full blooded game with the best team coming out on top with no excuses one way or another.  I really can’t call this game, and it feels like a coin toss at this point in time.  The difference may well come down to whether Donegal can get a goal or not (as they have in every Championship game in 2015), and whether Michael Murphy or Rory Beggan is more accurate from long range frees.  I’d always back our captain, but then again, I’m not much of a gambler, so I’ll keep my money in my pocket.

Until Victory, Always.

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

The Same but Different

So Donegal beat Tyrone in the Ulster Championship.  Again.  That’s four times in five years.  The faces on the sideline have changed, but the result is the same.  But, at no point during the second half did I feel comfortable about what I was seeing, but at the end of the day, if you had offered me a three point win beforehand, I would have gladly taken it.  I’m glad that I didn’t start writing without watching the game back and taking a good bit of time to reflect on everything as my initial reaction was probably one of relief and concern.  Subsequent discussion and reflection have tempered those feelings.

We were fortunate in some respects.  Darren McCurry’s free taking was poor.  Mickey Harte’s decision to start two underage stars didn’t really work out.  The Sean Cavanagh of five years ago would have been an even more influential player.  As it was, he had a fine game, with the usual antics thrown in.  At the same time, Michael O’Neill had a brilliant game in goals.  What they lost from Morgan’s free taking (assuming his returns would have been better than McCurry’s and his own performance in Ballybofey in 2013) was offset by O’Neill’s performance between the posts.

One thing that struck me was the lack of scorable frees we won.  Other than Michael’s tap over late on, that was it really.  Anything else was much deeper.  It’s hard to say what the reason for this was.  Maybe Tyrone’s tackling was that good.  Maybe Joe McQuillan didn’t give us the benefit of the doubt as much as he seemed to do when Tyrone were attacking.  Or, maybe we didn’t attack Tyrone enough to make them foul us – the stats seem to lend some weight to this idea with Donegal having 31 attacks to Tyrone’s 43.  Perhaps it was a combination of all of these factors.  I will be keen to see the stats at the end of Sunday’s game to see if anything changes.

In the immediate aftermath, it was tempting to give Justin McMahon credit for a very effective job on Michael Murphy.  It all appeared legal, but there are suggestions that there was plenty going on that wasn’t picked up by the cameras and was missed from the stand.  All the same, it was an interesting tactic and I wonder if Armagh have anyone as bloody minded to shadow Michael for 70 minutes on Sunday.  Massive credit must go to Michael for keeping his cool and still having the composure for this monster scores from placed balls at the end.  It was good to see Paddy McBrearty and Colm McFadden show well at times.  If Colm especially can maintain form, that will give teams more to think about than just Michael.  Armagh will be doing well to keep all three quiet.  I would be hopeful too that we might see a bit more from Odhran MacNiallais the next day out.

The issue with what I saw from Donegal against Tyrone and how I feel ahead of Sunday is largely one of trust.  Jim McGuinness earned our trust over is four years in charge.  Even at half time in last year’s All Ireland Final, I felt good about where we were at during games where Jim was in charge.  At half time in Ballybofey two weeks ago, I felt that if we came out and reeled off a few scores, we would effectively put the game to bed, a pattern that we came to regard as the ‘third quarter surge’ under McGuinness.  But instead, Tyrone drew level and we didn’t pull away until much later than normal.  In fairness, Tyrone didn’t score from the 50th minute onwards, but they had several goal chances.  Worse than that, it was our failure to maintain possession late that bothered me most.

We probably learned a few unpleasant truths the last day.  First, Marty O’Reilly doesn’t seem to add much to the half forward line.  This wasn’t exactly a surprise, as his performances during the League bordered on anonymous (Cork in Ballyshannon aside), but I was looking forward to see if he had more to offer.  To be fair, an early booking may have cowed him, and, it seemed that perhaps he was charged with shadowing one of Tyrone’s more dangerous players, Mattie Donnelly.  Still, the booking was his own fault, and Donnelly did manage to exert some influence on the game at times.  If the team named for Sunday is the one that starts, O’Reilly has lost out.

The next was that Ryan McHugh should not start with any number lower than 10 on his back.  I had my concerns about his ability to play as a corner back last year, but now it’s apparent that he shouldn’t be used at half back either.  He may well have been at fault for the Tyrone goal – although Paddy McGrath may need to shoulder a fair degree of blame too, but he is also ill suited to stopping opposing attackers.  His talents are surely better utilised further up the pitch or at least in a more.  This is the current Young Player of the Year and he did not win it for his defensive work. Whisper it, but is there any danger that Ryan has been ‘figured out’?  As a team, Donegal did not have a good day, but above anyone else, he was anonymous in the All Ireland Final.  If Sunday’s team named is to be believed, we may well get to see Ryan play in a more advanced role with less defensive responsibility.  That can only be a good thing I guess, but I would still be worried that even though he is an intelligent and unselfish player, his size will begin to limit his effectiveness.

It was notable also that despite featuring often during the League, there was no sign of Hugh McFadden against Tyrone.  This despite Christy Toye sailing close to the wind with foul trouble and looking  visibly tired for long enough before he was eventually subbed.  McFadden might have been able to offer something and it would have been good to see him in action in a Championship setting.  But most people I speak to feel he is not good enough anyway – I am on the fence.  Has Rory Gallagher now come to that conclusion also?

And so, while Tyrone get another week to get ready to welcome Limerick to Omagh, Donegal must journey to Armagh.  It’s hard to analyse Armagh in too much detail given they spent the spring loitering in Division Three.  If Donegal were playing any other Division Three team, would we be too concerned?  No, but because this is Ulster and because of the fright we got last August and because of what happened over and over in the first decade of this century, we will fret more than we, in theory, need to.  Last year, Armagh had the benefit of a series of tough games – Cavan, Monaghan (twice), Roscommon and Meath in the lead up to facing Donegal.  They have had no such preparation this year.  On the flipside, they will have had this date circled in their calendar for around nine months now, without having to worry about too much else. I also think that  Armagh will miss the playmaking abilities and experience of Aaron Kernan as much as Donegal will miss Rory Kavanagh and Leo McLoone.  And, the lad who I feel caused us the most bother last year, ‘Soupy’ Campbell, has missed around three months with injury, but will likely be available on Sunday.  Still, close as they ran us last year, that is a game we should have won more comfortably.  If you don’t believe me, check out the stats.  I don’t know if Donegal are any better or worse than we were last year (I feel that we are worse, but we’ll see…), but I have no idea whether Armagh have improved or not.  We’ll find out on Sunday I guess.  Hopefully Rory Gallagher and his associates have a better handle on things than me.

Until Victory, Always.

Beaten at our own Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Victory, Always