Posts Tagged ‘GAA’

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.

What is Rare is Wonderful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Victory, Always

A Game to be Won

Well, it had to be Antrim, didn’t it?  It would have been nice to get a shot at Fermanagh for two reasons.  Firstly, we had some nasty battles with them back in the early 00s, and while I don’t really believe in ‘payback’ way down the line, it would be nice to get a Championship win over them.  Secondly, I would love Jim McGuinness to take down a different Ulster team to add to the list. In his fourth year in charge, we have yet to beat Armagh, Monaghan or Fermanagh in the Ulster Championship.  I was hoping to cross at least two off that list this year, which could well be his last.  Oh well.

It was a surprise to see, sorry, hear, sorry read that Antrim had beaten Fermanagh (Ulster has really lost out as a result of the Sky deal and BBC don’t seem too keen that anyone who can’t get Radio Ulster on MW can listen to games). They looked out of sight at half time, but were sweating mightily at the end and needed a goal line clearance to stay alive. 2-18 is a fair score to put up.  But, they conceded 3-13.  I know which stat I am more excited about.  If we even concede 1-9 to Antrim after conceding 0-11 to Derry, I would be surprised.   This game is there to be won and that’s all.  If we win well, so be it, but any kind of victory will do.  This is a semi final and nothing else.

Losing to Antrim would probably be the biggest shock for us since, well, we lost to Antrim in 2009. But those were the John Joe years and Antrim did go on to the Ulster Final before losing to then All Ireland Champions Tyrone and ended up exiting the Championship in Killarney to eventual 2009 Champions Kerry, who were probably at the peak of their powers.  And we were wearing green rather than our lucky white ‘away’ kit (both teams will wear alternate kit on Sunday, I guess O’Neills need to make money too).  However, 11 of the Donegal panel in action that day will likely see action against Antrim in Sunday.  Before that, we lost to Monaghan in Ballybofey back in 1995, when we were two years removed from winning the All Ireland, and that qualified as a big shock back then.  We weren’t in a dissimilar position to where we are now, although that defeat was on the first day out, as was the Antrim loss in 2009.   To be fair, JoeJoewe don’t tend to lose to heavy underdogs, but we are more likely to lose heavily to favourites. 

If Antrim drink the Pat Spillane kool aid, they will play good traditional football with lots of kick passing and shooting.  And I’d say they would lose heavily.  If they are smart, and I’m not sure that Liam Bradley is, they will put every player behind the ball that they can and hope to frustrate us and then hit us on the break.  However, that tactic is likely to be doomed to fail also.  Cavan essentially played this way in 2012, but they were a better team even then than Antrim are now.  They might frustrate us, but they will still need to score more than us to beat us.  Maybe they have been planning for this game for months in the expectation that they would meet us at this stage, and they will come out and play a system that nobody will have seen before, but I would be surprised.  I guess the other way they could surprise us is with a level of intensity we really didn’t face against Derry.

However, there are some things I would like to see on 22 June.  Firstly, a better day for our corner forwards, Colm McFadden and Paddy McBrearty.  Both struggled against Derry, but for very different reasons.  Paddy had his chances, but failed to convert the majority of them, his second half point breaking a duck.  Colm’s issue was more troubling.  He failed to create or take any opportunities, aside from one shot in the first half.  In saying that, reports since the game suggest he may have been laid up with ‘flu in the run up to the Derry game and so that will surely have had an impact on his performance.  Antrim will surely be more generous and hopefully this will rebuild any confidence that may have been dented in Derry.

Next, I would like to see another good 70 minutes from Paddy McGrath.  It was pretty remarkable to see him go the distance against Derry given all the time he has missed.  And it was an impressive 70 minutes, full of tenacity and aggression.  It was great to have him back.  Another strong outing against Antrim would show us that he is fighting fit for the rest of the summer.  I for one can never have too much reassurance.

Then there is the seemingly unresolved issue of midfield.  Rory Kavanagh returns from suspension and will surely start.  Who partners him is still an open question.  I have been puzzled by the use of Martin McElhinney in the last two competitive games, but he certainly performed well against Derry as a substitute, compared with his fairly poor performance against Monaghan in the Division Two Final from the start.  Sunday could be the ideal time to get Neil Gallagher some much needed game time ahead of harder battles ahead this summer.  I think I’d like to see Neil start alongside Rory with Martin coming on during the second half.

Assuming Rory and one from Neil/Martin starts at midfield, then there is a choice (choices?) to be made in the half forward line.  Three from five from Ryan McHugh, Christy Toye, Leo McLoone, Odhran MacNiallais, Jigger O’Connor is how I see it.  And that’s probably how I would rank them.  McLoone impressed in Derry, MacNiallais probably less so.  Christy was given a job to do and did it well for the time he was given – I’d like to see him in his more familiar role for Donegal on Sunday.  Ryan McHugh continues to become more influential.  He’ll never be the same type of talent as his father, but his energy and ability to get in/on/around the ball is tremendous.  And just because he’s no Martin, it doesn’t mean he lacks for talent or skill at all.  Jigger did very well really, when you take into account his age and that fact that was his first Championship start.

(Edit – since I wrote this, the team has been named and it’s Rory and Big Neil at midfield, with Christy, Ryan and Leo named to start at half forward).

Before I conclude, only fair to briefly mention our Minor team.  It’s an early start for them on Sunday, as their game throws in at noon.  After a patchy win over Derry, they are favoured to beat an Antrim team, who scored 5-10 in their Quarter Final win over Fermanagh.  Any win at this level is a good win for Donegal, and hopefully they can make it back to the Ulster Final for the first time since 2006.  I look forward to watching them again.  As Alan Foley writes, that 2006 team will provide a number of starters for Sunday, not least a certain Michael Murphy.

Anyway, forgive the shortness of the post and the lack of depth of the analysis, especially of our opponents but I am struggling to get excited about this game.  It was interesting to listen to Peter Canavan on the BBC Sunday (jeez, I sound like Martin McHugh, where everything is “interesting”) where he was saying that Tyrone people were far too confident/complacent in the build up to the Monaghan game and that it looked as if this had filtered through to the players.  I have wondered about this before. GAA players aren’t professional, and so mix with supporters every day of the week. You would like to think that themselves and management are focused enough not to be caught up in what people around them are saying, but you wouldn’t know. Anyway, confident as I am, I hope that the general mood in the County is quietly confident rather than downright arrogant.

No talk from me of who we might play in any Final until Sunday night/Monday….we know who lies in wait.  In the meantime, there’s a job to be done in Clones.

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.

Back on Track (and that’s about the height of it)

Unfortunately, I missed my first league game of 2014 as I wasn’t in the form for the drive to Ballyshannon.  I followed the game via Highland Radio and Twitter, but disappointingly there were no highlights in TG4 on Monday night.  No surprise really.  So what follows are some pretty loose thoughts and opinions built on hearsay, conjecture and various other dubious sources.

Louth seemed to set up very defensively early on, with Donegal benefitting from Louth sitting two deep and conceding frees too easily.  They also suffered two black cards in the first half.  After news filtered through at half time that they had been relegated, Louth appeared to throw caution to the wind and had a right cut at Donegal.

So it seemed a strange game in many respects.  Louth came back to within three points when Donegal were in cruise control mode, and we ended up conceding 3-7, which is more than we have conceded in any other league game this year.  Indeed, overall, we have actually conceded more than either Monaghan or Down (only by a point or two).  We’re in line to match our averaged score conceded from the last time we were in Division Two at just under 13 points per game.  Strangely, we conceded on average two points less per game in the last two years we spent in Division One than we have in Division Two this year.  In a year where scoring in the league overall appears to be up (I am too lazy to research fully), maybe it’s not really surprising and Donegal are merely following this trend, the source of which is being laid partly at Eugene McGee’s door.  Still, in this era of elevated scoring, Donegal have one of the four best defensive records in the country, as tweeted by Niall McCoy of Gaelic Life earlier today.  Is this a genuine reason to be cheerful or a meaningless statistic?  Probably more of the latter – the three teams ahead of us are Cavan, Monaghan and Down in that order.

Given his good form in previous games when introduced as a sub, it was disappointing that Paddy McBrearty failed to score, and seemed to have little impact on the game in general.  In mitigation, he is the main man for the Under 21s so maybe he was holding back given there is an Ulster Semi-Final taking place tonight (Wednesday), and maybe he was asked to hold back by someone?  A tinfoil hat theory, but it suits my narrative.

Of more concern at this stage is the fitness of those who didn’t play versus those that did.  While it was good to see Frank McGlynn getting a rest (assuming of course it is nothing serious), it was concerning that we did not see any of Neil Gallagher, and his lack of game time over the course of the league has been troubling.  Is Jim McGuinness taking note of his advanced years and propensity to sustain injury and wrapping him in cotton wool now to give him the best chance of being fit for the Championship?  Or is his seemingly minor injury more serious that it would appear?  There is also the chance of course that he may now be seen as second choice to Martin McElhinney.  Given McElhinney was pulled before throw in on Sunday, it would have seemed like an ideal point for Neil to make his first start in the League. But, he remained an unused substitute.  I can only assume that was down to injury and no other reason.

We did have some encouraging news on Paddy McGrath last week.  But still no sighting.  He was not ruled out for Sunday’s game against Armagh, but that means little at this point.  It would be great to see him in action, but the fact that he hasn’t played for his club at all yet this year (even if there haven’t been a huge amount of opportunities) makes me wonder if we will see him before the Division Two Final (assuming everything goes according to plan on Sunday of course), or indeed if we will see him before the Championship.  Given that he has now missed over seven months of game time, I would be very concerned about his fitness for Championship, even if there have been hints at rehab work posted on Twitter.  The scenario is just too similar to Karl Lacey’s situation last year for comfort.

What else did we not see on Sunday?  Well, from following on the radio, we seemed to create few goal chances, despite our dominance.  Of course, we got a goal when we probably needed it most and for much of the game it sounded like we were taking what we were given, which is smart football in my opinion.  20/29 chances sounds a lot better than what we saw in the previous two games.  Of course, the standard of the opposition was lower, with Louth likely to have been the worst team we have faced (or will face…) in Division Two this year.

So, we go to Armagh needing a win to ensure we return to Division One for one year at least.  Down’s defeat to Meath and our win over Louth was not quite good enough – if Monaghan and Down win and Donegal lose, we will remain in Division Two.  Armagh have been very up and down this year – drawing with Galway and losing to Louth should tell you enough.  Injuries have been a problem for them, and a loss on Sunday could see them relegated to Division Three.  Wouldn’t that be a shame?  No league win will banish painful orange tinted memories from the noughties, or indeed to shame of Crossmaglen in 2010, but I don’t think I’ll tire of beating Armagh in any competition for a long time yet.

Hopefully Donegal put together a good seventy minutes, something like what we last saw against Laois, which seems like a long time ago now.  Even if we win, we have a three week break until the Division Two Final (very likely to be against Monaghan on 27 April), so it would be nice to win and settle the mood for the next few weeks.  Given that both teams need to win to guarantee progress/safety, I’m hoping for good contest, with Donegal to prevail of course.

Until Victory, Always

Back to the Future

Four months ago, I sat down to write the epitaph for Jim McGuinness based on rumblings I had heard and a feeling in my gut that he would not be seeing out his term as Donegal manager.  Now, as we head into 2014, Jim is still at the helm, although much seems to have changed since the end of the 2013 All Ireland Championship.

Despite the traumatic way in which Donegal exited the 2013 Championship, it was absolutely right that Jim and all of the players returned in 2014.  They may not have owed us supporters anything, but they owe it to themselves to give a better account of themselves in 2014.  There were too many ‘flash in the pan’ type of views being aired in the wake of the defeat to Mayo, with some people conveniently forgetting that Donegal were at least the third or fourth best team in the Country in 2011 as well as being the best team in the Country in 2012.  Maybe Donegal have reached their peak and are a team in decline, but 2013 doesn’t take away from what went beforehand.  Still, performances in 2013, with the Tyrone game aside, were largely uninspiring, even if they were out of character.

Now, let’s not dance around the elephant in the room any longer.  We won’t know until it’s too late what impact the implosion in the Donegal backroom team has had on the playing squad.  Rory Gallagher is widely renowned as a brilliant football man and it’s hard to believe that Jim McGuinness won’t miss the man that stood at his shoulder over the past two seasons.  His replacement, Damien Diver, has less of a pedigree at this stage, but he was a man Jim wanted involved previously, so he hasn’t come from nowhere.  If nothing else, it’s great to see one of Donegal’s most likeable servants involved again.  As to what Maxi and Francie brought to the party, it’s harder to say.  I would hope that Paul McGonigle and John Duffy won’t do any worse.

Given the dispiriting manner in which we exited the 2013 Championship and the manner in which we finished the League campaign, it’s hard to know what to expect from Donegal in 2014.  Unlike 2011, when at least we had an infusion of talent (both on and off the pitch) from an Under 21 team that had come within a width of a crossbar from winning an All-Ireland title.  In 2012, we had come within a kick of a ball of making an All Ireland Final the previous year and had won the Division Two League title.   There is no real feeling of momentum heading into the 2013 season.

So what are realistic expectations for Donegal in 2014?  Promotion from Division Two and an Ulster Championship seem attainable when looking at the competition.  Still, I expect Division Two to be competitive, and if Donegal’s fitness and attitude aren’t right, we could find ourselves playing at that level again in 2015.  I would hope it gets no worse than that.

Turning to the Ulster Championship, we couldn’t really have hoped for a better draw, even if we must play away from home in our opening game.  Derry will play Division One football in 2014, but there is little to suggest that they are a team on the rise.  If we can get past Derry, something will be badly wrong if we can’t beat Fermanagh or Antrim.  After that, we’ll have to see.  If that sounds arrogant or disrespectful to other Counties, so be it – Paddy Power agree with me, with Donegal listed at the quite short price of 15/8 favourites for the 2014 Ulster Championship (Derry are 5/1; Fermanagh 30/1 and Antrim 35/1).

Regarding playing personnel, I don’t expect our Championship 15 in 2014 to be much different from the team that started the 2012 All Ireland.  But, in the challenge games played so far, there have been hints that new things are being tried – Leo McLoone featuring at centre back and Karl Lacey in the corner stands out as interesting, but until the full panel is available, it’s hard to know how much will change.  It would be good to see some new faces tried out during the League.  Some of those who were named in the training panel might not end up being good enough to feature in a Championship match, but it would be good to see for ourselves.

The main issue Donegal will face in 2014 is that which saw us fail last year – the fitness of our best 18 players.  We had a degree of luck in this regard in 2012, with our first choices largely available and capable of playing seventy minutes from June through September.  2013 was a different matter, with more than half of our starters suffering injury at various times throughout the season. You could argue of course that we need a deeper squad, but in reality, most, if not all, Counties would struggle in such circumstances.  But it’s probably fair to question the preparation in 2013 – hopefully the positive noises coming from the camp at this stage indicate that things will be different in that regard in 2014.

Away from the training pitch, things are less than rosy.  Although agreement between the Clubs and the County was reached regarding fixtures, anecdotal evidence would suggest that club players themselves aren’t really on board.  Donegal are not the first County to pursue this format, but it has attracted national media attention.  So too has the standoff between the County Board and local media regarding the coverage of the County Convention.  It was embarrassing to hear PJ McGowan on national radio the morning after that event telling us that the ‘in camera’ provision was to ensure that a positive spin was presented on events in Donegal GAA.  I’d challenge anyone to show when our local media have presented anything other than a fair and balanced view of events within the County – which is all anyone should expect from them.  And then we have the missing money, the facts around which in the public domain remain scant.  At least we made the right choice from PRO.  The County Board need all the good press they can get at the moment.

It’s a new year.  It’s a new season.  We have a new jersey.  We have an All Ireland winning manager and eight former All Stars returning.  And hopefully the 2012 Player of the Year will be fit in 2014.  Expectations outside the County are low.  Let the good times roll.

Until Victory, Always.

Steady As She Goes

What’s the saying ‘Semi-finals are there to be won and nothing else’ – or something along those lines.  Donegal’s semi-final performances in Ulster have typically been underwhelming.  Last time out against Down was no different from 2011 or 2012 really, although you could argue that Tyrone in either year (despite injuries) were superior opposition to Down.  The notion ‘survive and advance’ seems particularly well suited to the Ulster Championship.

Let’s deal in facts first.  Donegal started without Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey and 2012 All-Star Neil Gallagher.  All Star half back (and scorer of a wonderful goal against Down in last year’s Ulster Final) Frank McGlynn departed the field in the first half with concussion, and one of our best players from the Ulster Final last year Ryan Bradley followed him to the sidelines with a similar malady.  Throw in the fact that Paddy McBrearty attended a dentist in Cootehill (would you envy him?) late the night before and played with a dose of pain killers and Anthony Thompson was not at full fitness after going off injured against Down and it’s clear that Donegal were not playing with a full deck.

No matter.  The game was won.  It wasn’t pretty, but the job was done with some efficiency (a 67% success rate from shots on goal, same as it was against Tyrone), and, the consensus was that while Down gave Donegal plenty to think about when Donegal were attacking, Donegal were fairly comfortable throughout – I think when you hold any team to nine points (three from play), you have a good chance of winning the game.  Given the weather, and the players we lost before and during the game, a less than sparkling performance wasn’t perhaps a surprise.

Ok, enough facts.  Facts can be boring at times.  Let’s engage in a little supposition.  Suppose Down actually had an offensive plan for Donegal?  Their whole approach was predicated on defence first, and that was about it. Think Donegal in 2011 against Dublin.  Fair play to them, they had a plan, executed pretty well, but ultimately Donegal never looked too far out of their comfort zone.  No surprise given that Down had played nothing like the way they played against Donegal in their exciting and high scoring win over Derry.  It takes time to change your approach – if Down continue on that path, then maybe it will yield results, but what we saw in the Ulster Semi-Final was more like a work in progress.  Suppose too that Down had Benny Coulter playing rather than the Ghost of Benny Coulter.  That would have made things interesting.  And suppose too Martin Clarke was lining out for Down rather than sitting on the fringes of an AFL squad in Melbourne.  Any chance we could see him return to the Mourne County again next year?  I guess what I am trying to get at is whether or not the Donegal performance against Down would have been good enough to beat a more complete team?  I’m not sure that it would have – but that’s probably neither here nor there at this stage.

No, Donegal advance, and now we face Monaghan with a chance to win a historic third Ulster Championship in a row.  It’s been done before and relatively recently, but the achievement would be massive in the context of Donegal’s history in Ulster.  Despite their underdog status, it would be nice to beat Monaghan – people recall Armagh in Crossmaglen and Cork in Croke Park, but Monaghan gave us a fair hammering in Omagh in 2007.  Indeed we have not beaten them in a Championship match since 1983 (meetings between the two Counties at this level are fairly rare all the same, but the record in the last 20 years is 3-0 to Monaghan).

In many respects, this year’s Monaghan team resembles the Donegal of 2011 in many ways.  They lost Ulster Finals to Tyrone in 2007 and 2010.  They lost to Kerry in 2007 and 2008 when they might have won in either year.  They are a mix of the relatively young and the quite experienced.  They have a new manager and won promotion in the League.  Their last Ulster title was in 1988.  They likely won’t fear us before the throw in.  I’m not exactly thrilled at the thought of facing them on Sunday, but, it’s a novel pairing, and if we win, we’ll have beaten five of the eight teams in Ulster since Jim took over.

I forced myself to watch their semi-final win over Cavan (I’m not having a go at either team, it just was hard to watch given I wasn’t watching it live).  It didn’t really offer any great insight into how they might beat Donegal – indeed Cavan will look back and wonder how they lost that game, with the key moment the Christopher McGuinness goal from a very poor Cavan short kickout.  They are primarily defensive and despite having Eoin Lennon and Darren Hughes at midfield, they struggled to win ball in that area, winning less than 50% of even their own kick outs against Cavan. Ciaran McManus is their obvious danger man, scoring 10 points out of their 1-21 total in the Championship to date.  Guys that you might remember like Tommy Freeman, Dick Clerkin and Paul Finley are still involved, but their influence is more marginal than Donegal’s veterans.  Darren Hughes doesn’t look as effective at midfield as he does in defence – whether he plays there against Donegal remains to be seen – if he was moved to wing back with Dick Clerkin starting at midfield I wouldn’t be surprised.  I would be happier if we had Neil Gallagher to counter Monaghan’s captain Eoin Lennon, but that doesn’t look likely, with Big Neil only named on the bench.

Back to Donegal.  Given that he missed the last two Ulster Finals, it would be fitting to see Eamon McGee shine on Sunday.  He and his brother have been immense so far this year. You’d also like to see Leo McLoone step up and show a bit more than he’s shown in the past two games.  Hopefully we see no more injuries as we have suffered enough this year, even if none have yet to end a season.   I think it’s fair to say that we haven’t kicked into gear yet this year, but with Karl Lacey named to start on Sunday, perhaps we’ll start to motor. It was the second half of last year’s Ulster Final where we began to show the form that carried us to All Ireland success.  No need to show our hand on Sunday, but it would be nice to see Karl Lacey put in a good shift – the cameo against Tyrone gave us a lift for sure, but we’re going to need more than that this summer from our Footballer of the Year.

It feels like this game might be very similar to the Down game, although the conditions will be much changed, with temperatures likely to be over 30 degrees on the pitch and virtually no wind.  It’s hard to know who will be affected more by the heat – I’d say that as the underdogs, it might just favour Monaghan, but that’s just my own theory.  Despite being outplayed by Cavan, Monaghan hung tough and scraped over the line.  It’s hard to believe that Cavan – although they are a team on the rise, or indeed Antrim, who are probably the worst team in the province by some margin, will have given Monaghan any taste for what they will face on Sunday.  Having the belief you can beat Donegal is one thing, only when the ball is thrown in will you begin to appreciate what you are up against.  I don’t think Monaghan are at our level, not for 70 minutes anyway.

Trying to look at this with a cold logic, Monaghan have scored 0-11 against Antrim and 1-10 against Cavan.  1-10 /13 points is as much as Donegal have ever conceded in Ulster under Jim McGuinness (1-10 against Cavan last year and 13 points in last year’s Ulster Final against Down).  And in both cases, these totals were conceded in the course of easy victories.  Add to that the fact that it’s hard to see Donegal making the sort of mistake Cavan made to gift Monaghan their goal in the other Semi-Final.  So, I think Monaghan get to 12 points at best on Sunday.  Donegal have scored 2-22 in two games so far this year, or an average of 1-11.  Last year in Ulster, we managed just under 1-15 a game.  Split the difference and I would expect us to score at least 1-13 on Sunday.  Doesn’t a scoreline of 1-13 to 12 points in Donegal’s favour seem realistic?

Put your money on it.

Until Victory, Always.