Posts Tagged ‘Galway’

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.

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.