Posts Tagged ‘Mayo’

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.

Hard Written

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Victory, Always.

Just Coming up Short

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Victory, Always.

Dromod

Putting days like Sunday 23 September 2012 into words isn’t easy.  That’s probably why I’m an amateur writer.  Separating reality from emotion is a tough ask.  I’m not always up to the task.

Without a doubt, the 2012 All-Ireland Final will go down as one of the greatest days in my life.  I can’t put it ahead of my wedding of course, and I don’t have children, so maybe I don’t have much to compare it to, but it was and will always be special to me.  The feelings when Michael Murphy’s goal went in and again at the final whistle are moments that will live with me forever.  I was lucky to be there.  Lucky as well to meet so many good friends, old and new, with whom I could share the day.  You all know who you are.

Donegal could not have wished for a better start to the game.  Michael Murphy did what we have long known he could do when given any sort of reasonable ball – it was an uplifting goal, especially for someone like me who wondered about his form and fitness for so much of the Championship.  What better time to produce than in an All-Ireland Final.  Watch carefully his fisted/palmed point in the second half as well – Michael turned away grimacing at the thought that a goal opportunity had been missed, but look at the effort he made to rise up and make contact with that ball. Those are the moments when great players prove their worth – who cares how they look in games that can be won be mere mortals?

Of course, Michael deservedly won Man of the Match, but there were many fine performances.  Frank McGlynn – what can you say about the man from Glenfin.  His point in the second half epitomises what he has brought to the team this year.  I’m course you will have noted that he kicked it off his right foot, when in the Semi-Final, he kicked a similarly brilliant point off his left foot.  Simply phenomenal.

What a fitting performance from Eamon McGee on the day of his 100th Senior appearance for the County.  This from a player who we thought we might not see play for the County again – indeed I had little time for him after hearing stories of his off field antics during Championship season.  But this game clearly means a lot to the eldest McGee bother.  He was obviously disappointed after missing the chance to play in this year’s Ulster Final through injury, having missed out last year due to his late addition to the squad.  He’s proven a lot of people wrong, and for me, he was Man of the Match in the Final.

And Neil Gallagher.  A man who we thought was destined to be a bit part player under Jim McGuinness – after a colossal Semi-Final where he was man of the match, he was his usual steady and quietly effective self in the Final, adding that rarest of cherries on top, a point, in the second half.  Most supporters I associate with identify greatly with the likes of Neil Gallagher and Frank McGlynn – it was fantastic that both were so involved in the Final.

All in all, I think many of us would agree (and I’ve spoken to quite a few of you since the final whistle on 23 September) that this was not Donegal’s best performance of the year.  There were a number of players who might have been a bit disappointed with their performances in the Final, but who cares really?  Finals are hard won, and despite all the physical and psychological preparation, a certain degree of nervousness was always likely to be evident on the day.  People will say ‘ah but if ye hadn’t got the early goals who knows what might have happened’.  Sure, who knows?

The facts are that Mayo never really threatened our goal, and, but for some good goalkeeping to deny Colm McFadden in the first half and a pretty poor pass from Rory Kavanagh when looking to find Anthony Thompson in the second half, Donegal may have had a few more goals themselves.  And even though the statistic that Mayo outscored Donegal after Donegal went 2-1 to no score ahead early in the first half, Donegal ‘won’ the second half.  No, any objective analysis of the game would have to suggest that Donegal were worthy winners on the day, and I think it’s also fair to say that we have been the best team in the Championship from start to finish.  All Ireland’s are rarely won on just the day itself, they are earned over the preceding years and months. What we have seen since May, and especially since the Ulster Final, is as a result of months and months of the hardest type of training you or I could possibly imagine.

Perhaps the most astonishing stat I have seen is this – on 3 July 2005, Eamon McGee, Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher, Christy Toye and Colm McFadden all played as Donegal lost an All Ireland second round qualifier to Cavan in Breffni Park.  Massive credit goes to Jim McGuinness for turning around this team, but also to those players themselves who will no doubt have wondered over the years was it worth continuing to make the sort of sacrifices expected of the inter-county player in the 21st century.   Keep in mind that of the five players I listed above, three are odds on to be All-Stars and we might even have a fourth in that group.

Many who have been there before said it – the atmosphere and the crowds around this All-Ireland Final were like nothing they had ever experienced before – this was the effect of such a novel pairing, the end result of pairing two teams whose supporters had experienced so much heartbreak in their lifetimes, testament to the feelings the managers of these teams had inspired in their followers.  It was in many ways a unique experience – unless maybe we see a Kildare v Derry Final next year, I can’t think of a pairing that will create the same type of atmosphere, and even then, I don’t think anyone else will rival the sights and sounds that were around Jones’ Road nearly three weeks ago.

I said before the game that Mayo supporters don’t have a monopoly on heartbreak – many of the rest of us have plenty of experience of it, just maybe not at the same stage Mayo have tended to feel the hurt.  In saying that, I was adamant that after the game, while I was overjoyed to have won, I took no joy in the fact that we had beaten Mayo; their supporters were nothing but magnanimous in congratulating us afterwards, and the banter and craic beforehand was part of what made it a great day.  I won’t hesitate in cheering them on as long as they don’t cross our paths next year, and I’m already looking forward to our trip to Castlebar in the League.  Mayo went toe to toe with Donegal this year and with a bit of luck and a continued focus on improvement, they will win an All Ireland in the next few years.

And so, there ends our 2012 All-Ireland Championship.  Who reading believed that we would find ourselves in this position after Crossmaglen in 2010?  Who would have thought that all three candidates for Footballer of the Year in 2012 would be from Donegal?  Can anyone believe that this has actually happened?  For me, it is still sinking in.  Every time I hear something negative or an argument brewing, I’m tempted to end it with ‘Who cares – we are All-Ireland Champions’.  Because, at the end of the day, that is all that matters this year.  Keep reminding yourselves of that in the weeks and months ahead.  If it doesn’t bring a tear to your eye or smile to your face, then I despair for you.  May this feeling never end.

Until Victory, Always.

Just in case anyone’s interested, Dromod (in case you didn’t know) is a place in Leitrim.  Some years ago, I think it was probably February 2004, Donegal played a league game against Leitrim at the ground in Dromod – you might wonder how we ended up in the same division as Leitrim ( it was 2A, which I guess is the modern day Division 3, or maybe not quite as bad as there may have been some odd shake up of the league going on at that time). Anyway, my good friend @gesimmo and I headed up from Dublin, assuming the game was on in Cloone (an even more anonymous place than Dromod) but discovering en route that it had been moved to Dromod.  We might have taken a wrong turn to get there, but we ended up driving down road with grass growing up through the tarmac.  We won the game, but we came away thinking “is this what we’ve been reduced to – playing games against the likes of Leitrim in places like this” (I honestly don’t mean any offence to anyone from Leitrim, but I know that sounds bad).  We kept mentioning ‘Dromod’ to each other when times were bad over the next few years, as a reminder of where we were at back then – the whole thing was like a bad joke.  How far we have travelled since then.

Contain, Control, Conquer. How the All-Ireland will be Won.

I’ll come right out and say it. If Donegal play as well as they did against Cork we will win the All-Ireland on Sunday.  Of course, we’ll need a bit of luck as well, but I said after the Cork game that no team would beat us if we show that kind of form again.  But I’m taking nothing for granted.

I’m pretty sure Donegal’s template for victory will be similar to that we’ve come to expect.  The pattern has been largely similar – playing largely even for the first half, establishing dominance early in the second and then seeing out the game with their vastly superior fitness.  We’ve seen two caveats to that this summer.  Firstly, Donegal got a ‘surprising’ early lead against Kerry, thanks largely to a somewhat fortunate Colm McFadden goal.   They then retreated but Kerry was largely unable to punish them.  Secondly, we saw Mayo take a 10 point lead against All-Ireland Champions Dublin.  Donegal have not faced such a deficit in the past two summers and many analysts suggest that they would not handle it well, or at the least it would be interesting to see how they deal with it.

For years we’ve had supposed superstars who never quite lived up to their billing.  Nowadays we seem to have ordinary players doing extraordinary things.  I don’t believe that – we have plenty of very good players; we wouldn’t be in an All-Ireland Final if we didn’t.   With Andy Moran out, Donegal are likely to have the edge in terms of talent.  But Paddy McBrearty in particular needs to prove he can do it in Croke Park – after looking really good during the Ulster Championship, I’ve been a little disappointed in what I’ve seen from him in the quarter-final and semi-final.

I said after the Mayo Quarter-Final (when Andy Moran got injured) that while they would miss him, if they were a proper team, this incident would galvanise them and they would find a way to overcome his loss.  So it proved to be true – it didn’t seem like he was missed against Dublin.  But he will surely be missed against Donegal.  He’s a very talented and intelligent player – exactly the sort of player you’d want to see lining up against a team as well organised defensively as Donegal.  It’s a real shame we won’t see him grace an All-Ireland Final this year, but as a Donegal supporter, we’ll take all the breaks we can get, and make no mistake the loss of Moran is a huge break that has largely been forgotten about in the aftermath of Mayo’s win over Dublin.

Donegal had only one yellow card against Cork and conceded only one free within scoring range.  That’s quite extraordinary given the way they play the game.  In saying that, I felt that the game was refereed in a manner that suited Donegal, but not overly so.  A similar pattern in the Final would be most welcome.  I don’t recall every being too upset with Maurice Deegan, so I’m sure he will do just fine.  Against Dublin, Cillan O’Connor kicked seven points from placed balls, including three 45s, so Donegal will need to be wary of conceding 45s as well as frees.  Of course, both Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy showed that they too are well capable of long-range points from dead balls, but O’Connor is probably the most consistent free taker in the Country at the moment, save perhaps for Stephen Cluxton.

Donegal have beaten Tyrone, Kerry and Cork by two points.  Despite the quality of the opposition, the margin of victory is some cause for some concern.  A late goal in any of those games could have turned what looked like an emphatic victory into a heartbreaking defeat.  Against Tyrone, it almost seemed like Donegal lost focus.  Against Kerry, they played too conservatively once they had built up a lead.  Against Cork, they had a number of awful wides.  The goal was late, and came from some poor decision making from David Walsh, taking the ball into the tackle against three men, so was certainly avoidable.   Will they allow Mayo to be within a goal come the last few minutes?  Watching Seamus Darby’s late goal against Kerry in 1982 on Seo Spoirt tonight reminded me of possibly the most (in)famous occasion when a late goal did for heavy favourites.  Interestingly, that goal was scored by a Mayo man (in an Offaly jersey) or so I was just told….

In terms of ‘who they’ve played’ Donegal have by far the more impressive record in this year’s Championship.  If we ignore facile wins over Cavan, Derry and indeed Down, Donegal have still beaten Tyrone, Kerry and Cork.  Mayo have beaten Dublin and that’s about it.  Donegal have played tight games against quality opposition.  Mayo made heavy work of Sligo, who at the time I thought looked a tough team to beat, but Kildare pretty much put paid to that myth.  Of course, Sam Maguire is handed over to the winners on the day, so what has gone beforehand is slightly irrelevant, even if it does give us some feel for what might happen on the day.

Watching the Mayo v Dublin game, Mayo’s midfielders in particular were excellent.  Not so much in terms of their fielding, but in their work rate and defensive play.  Aidan O’Shea in particular had a big influence in the first half in sweeping up and turning over ball.  Alan Dillon was the other player I was really impressed with – a lovely footballer and well able to kick a score.  What I took away from that game after watching it for the first time tonight was that while Mayo played very well, the game got away from Dublin and Mayo built a lead that allowed them to foul at will and forced Dublin to panic and make some poor mistakes and kick some bad wides (something we’ve seen from them in the past).  If not for a great save from David Clarke with around five minutes to go, who knows what outcome we might have seen. Of course, Mayo had their own goal chances that might have put the game beyond reach.  They went nearly 22 minutes without scoring in the second half – a stat similar to Donegal in the first half against Kerry when we had built a lead.

It was a shame to see Ryan Bradley taken off so early against Cork, but the truth is, on some days the game just seems to pass him by.  He is not a good runner without the ball, so a mobile half back line will always cause him problems.  Midfield is probably his best position – he had his best game in the Ulster Final when Neil Gallagher was absent through injury.  But unless either Neil Gallagher or Rory Kavanagh sustain an injury, it’s highly unlikely that he will start there on Sunday. I would have seen the only selection dilemma would be whether to start him or David Walsh at half forward.  Well Donegal named their team today and Ryan Bradley is named to start, so maybe that answers my question.  Is Walsh perhaps suffering due to the late error against Cork?  Or was Bradley indeed carrying an injury as Rory Gallagher said today?  Bradley certainly seems to be a favourite of Jim’s, and I think that on balance his displays this year merit a start in the Final.  If he struggles however, Jim won’t be long making the change.  Martin McElhinney is likely to feature at some stage, and I’d love to see Christy Toye get a run.

As both the O’Se brothers have said, while you think you can prepare for Donegal, you have no idea what you’re really up against until you actually play them.  And this is a point I have been making for a while now – Donegal have been building up their intensity over a long period of time – since January at least – no team can bring themselves up to that level in a three week period.  In addition, I don’t care how intense the training sessions, Mayo cannot replicate what they will see from Donegal on the day.  The view of many after the Semi-Final was that Mayo were visibly tiring in the last 15 or so minutes.  If that is a fact, then they should be worried.  Donegal are a 70 + minute team – and the intensity from Donegal is likely to be twice as high in the last 10 minutes as it was in the opening 10 – whatever happened Mayo against Dublin, if they fade in a similar fashion again, Donegal will have far too much in the tank for them.

Reading Alan Foley’s wonderful piece on Mayo dads with Donegal sons in today’s Irish Examiner, Mick Murphy said one thing that I have been thinking and saying myself – the margins between winning and losing can be so fine.  I often think back to that night in Breffni Park over two years ago when Michael Murphy’s late late penalty hit the bar and Donegal lost the U-21 Final to Dublin.  That was the first time I’d seen a Jim McGuinness team play and I wasn’t that impressed, but little did I know that a fair number of the panel had been ill during the week.  If not for illness and woodwork, how different the result might have been.   Recall too Karl Lacey going off injured in last year’s Semi-Final and what that meant for the game- I think we’re better able to cope with such a loss this year, but I saw one bookmaker today saying that the odds would be very different if Lacey were not fit to start on Sunday.   So let’s hope that we can avoid injury or illness in the build up and on the day itself.

Dessie Dolan made a good point on the Sunday Game this week – echoing something I have been saying myself for a while.  It’s hard to know for how much longer the Donegal players can keep up this level of intensity in both their preparation and their performance – who knows what the cycle is.  They need to win an All-Ireland sooner or later or there is a chance that their motivation will fade. Now seems as good a time as any.

I’ll be there on Sunday.  Will you?

Until Victory, Always.

The Mind behind Mayo – Q&A with James Horan

After the recent Mayo GAA Press Night, Samsforthehills met with Mayo Manager James Horan away from the hacks and the hangers on for a real interview.

SFTH: James, the hype in Donegal has been something else.  Pretty much any village with a pub has been calling to host the homecoming.  How many sheep have been painted in Mayo?

JH: Well it’s the strangest thing; you’d swear we weren’t in a Final at all!  I have heard tales of some Nigel fella from Castlebar running around like a lunatic bleaching sheep and buying up all the copies of the Mayo News he can get his hands on.  But I’ve not met anyone who’s actually seen him.

SFTH: Mayo fans see you as a cross between Jack Bauer and the ‘Jed’ in Jedward.  How do you feel about that?

JH:  I’d say it’s about right.

SFTH: You won 2 All-Star awards back in the day – does this make you twice the man of Jim McGuinness?

JH:  Yes, of course, but I would have given at least one of them up if I could have had curls like Jim had back then.

SFTH: There have been rumours that Conor Mortimer was actually dropped from the squad because he was too fond of dropping the soap in the shower?  The other players weren’t tempted, but you felt it was becoming a distraction.

JH:  Well, I can’t really deny that.

SFTH: So to Andy Moran’s ‘injury’.  My sources tell me that Andy is actually ineligible to play for Mayo, being from Ballaghadereen in Roscommon.  The shame of a Roscommon man actually being the Mayo captain got too much for you and you ordered Ger Cafferky to hobble him?

JH: That’s a lie.  It was Colm Boyle who carried out my orders.

SFTH: What role do you see Ciarán McDonald playing on Sunday?

JH: We see him as the ideal man to track Neil Gallagher. He has the legs for it.

SFTH: Billy Joe Padden said he left Mayo to go to Armagh because you told him he just wasn’t cynical enough to play for your Mayo team.

JH: Yeah, we see ourselves as a cut above Armagh in that respect.

SFTH: Word on the streets of Westport is that you are thinking of bringing in Liam McHale as a Maor Uisce, allowing him to reprise his role as enforcer (if the need arises) that saw him sent off in the 1997 Final Replay.

JH: Well if Pat Shovlin steps out of line, we’ll take him down.  I’ll say no more than that for now.

SFTH: So James was your proudest moment leading Ballintubber to their first ever Mayo Senior Championship or beating the All-Ireland Champions in last month’s Semi-Final

JH: Well Sam, I’d actually say it was getting the Airport for Knock back in the day.  It was a great way to get people from all over to come and pray for Mayo.  Hasn’t done us much good mind…

SFTH: Still, people from Ballyhaunis can get to Birmingham quicker than they can get to Dublin.  There are bound to be externalities.

JH: The Knowledge Economy the man from Islandeady wants to build calls for an airport in Knock.  It will have paid for itself by the next time Mayo wins an All-Ireland.

SFTH: Is it true that Pee Flynn has promised you one of his many houses if you win on Sunday and Louis Walsh has said that he’ll let you get behind the mic on X-Factor?

JH: Yes, Pee has promised me a nice mews in Rathmines that will come in handy when I’m up at various meeja events in the Big Smoke next year.  And it’s always been a dream of mine to make it in the music business.  I do a great version of ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ that I reckon could be my golden ticket out of the distribution business and into the big time.

SFTH: Well James, It’s been a pleasure. Thanks very much for your time.  I’d wish you all the best for Sunday, but I’m not a very good liar.

JH: No bother Sam, sure we won’t need luck, we have this one in the bag.

Note to readers: There is no such person as Samsforthehills, so at least half of this interview is pure fiction.  The other half is completely made up.

Do You Come Here Often?

Next Sunday’s All-Ireland Final is a novel event in so many ways.  It’s only the second ever meeting of Donegal and Mayo in Championship action; it’s the first Ulster versus Connacht pairing since 1948 when Cavan beat Mayo and of course it’s only Donegal’s second Senior All-Ireland Final appearance ever and their first in twenty years.  For Mayo, Final appearances are a bit more common place, with 12 appearances in all.

Mayo reached back-to-back finals in 1996 and 1997, with the 1996 replay going down as perhaps one of the most infamous finals ever, with Meath proving too cute for Mayo, for whom Liam McHale saw red for one of the oddest looking attacks on a GAA pitch I can ever recall (certainly outside of the club game). Of course, the consensus at the time was that Mayo left it behind them after the first game when they frittered away a six point lead, but they also had a nice lead in the replay.  Rightly or wrongly, it is perhaps these two games against Meath that have given rise to an unwanted label in Mayo.   Read between the lines for I won’t go into it any further here – no more than Donegal supporters like hearing the jibes of ‘party animals’ or latterly the sort of ‘anti-football’ nonsense that has been spouted, folk from Mayo don’t deserve to hear any such lazy stereotypes applied to their team.

In 1997, they lost to Kerry by three points, with the manner of defeat less agonising than in 1996 perhaps, but a final defeat always hurts, especially when it’s your second in a row.  Mayo left themselves too much to do after a first half when they only scored three points, and had the misfortune to run into Maurice Fitzgerald in fine form while at the same time losing their own Maurice (Sheridan) to injury during the game. It’s worth noting that current Mayo manager James Horan was a sub that day, despite winning an All-Star the previous year.

In 2004, Mayo were back in the Final after overcoming surprise package Fermanagh in the Semi-Final, but a hungry Kerry team, hurting and motivated after suffering at the hands of Tyrone and Armagh in previous years were too much for them, running out eight point winners.

In 2006, after producing an amazing comeback to beat Dublin, a game which many of us took great delight in watching, Mayo again let themselves down badly to a Kerry team who it has to be said were perhaps at the peak of their powers, or very close to it, losing the final by 13 points after both teams scored three goals apiece in the first half.

Of course Mayo won All-Irelands in 1936, 1950 and 1951 – I’m not forgetting about that, but not being around at the time it’s hard for me to say much about them.  If someone wants to share their insight into those years, I’ll happily publish it here.

I do hope that I don’t need to give Donegal supporters a similar run through our recent history.  It consists of one game that everyone reading should be familiar with at this stage.  Of course, on the way to that Final in 1992, we beat Mayo in a game that was a ‘classic’ semi-final – everyone largely remembers the result and not the game itself, which is probably just as well as far as I recall.

In terms of the overall honours table, Mayo leave Donegal in the shade to be honest.  Three All-Ireland titles to one. Four Under 21 titles to two.  Six All-Ireland Minor titles to none for Donegal.  And 44 provincial titles to Donegal’s seven.  Even in the National Football League, Mayo have won 11 titles to Donegal’s solitary win in 2007, which of course came when they defeated Mayo.

All Ireland titles from 20 or even 61 years ago are likely to be of cold comfort to today’s supporters.  Both teams will feel that they didn’t do themselves justice in last year’s Semi-Finals, although the manner in which both teams exited the Championship was very different, with Donegal going down in infamy for their approach against Dublin and Mayo living up to a different sort of stereotype in losing to Kerry by nine points.  Still, one has to remember that both Jim McGuinness and James Horan were rookie managers last year and what they accomplished represented tremendous progress that has sown the seeds for this year’s success.

As managers, they have much in common – both have taken their club sides to County Championship success based on a system that relies largely on collective effort rather than individual brilliance.  Both are now feted as heroes, but not everyone in their respective Counties bought into what they wanted to do when they were first appointed.  It could be argued that both took over when each team’s stock was at a very low point – Donegal had just been hammered by Armagh in a first round qualifier while Mayo had been dumped out in a shock defeat to Longford at the same stage.  With even a little bit of luck, some progress was likely.  However, provincial titles and then All-Ireland Semi Finals for both rookie managers were likely to be seen as a bonus.  And perhaps that was reflected in the Semi-Final performances last year – there was a real danger that a Final appearance could be too much too soon, similar to Down in 2010 perhaps.

Both teams now find themselves on the verge of All-Ireland glory in the second year of what is likely to be a three to five-year cycle.  Ahead of schedule perhaps, but it’s hard to argue that both Counties aren’t the best teams in the Country at this point in time.  In both cases, who is to know when we will see either team in an All-Ireland Final again – I know for sure I am not taking it for granted after suffering through the last 20 years of disappointment.  Defeat will not be the end of the line for either of these fine young managers, but they too will know that the time is right for their team to claim the ultimate prize.

The scenes of celebration will be fantastic no matter who wins next Sunday.  Both sets of supporters are famous for their good nature and passion.  There is no bad blood or ill will towards the other on either side.  The banter and the build up will be something to savour over the next week.  We should all enjoy it as such occasions are here to be savoured – we are not Kerry or Kilkenny, where All-Ireland Final appearances and successes are as common as a shower on a summer’s day in Ballintra or Ballina.  Whatever the result, I’m looking forward to a great day out next Sunday – the sights, the sounds, the sense of occasion that I have envied while watching on TV over the years.  We can talk about the game itself later in the week – for now it seems almost secondary to everything else that will happen in the next seven days!