Posts Tagged ‘Monaghan’

Another Missed Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Victory, Always.


The Tortoise and the Hare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Victory, Always.

Time to Circle the Wagons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Victory, Always

A Final Failure

Of course, I had most of the below written before today’s significant news, so the opening paragraph is a late addition, but let’s get the elephant out of the room.  It seems that Mark McHugh has left the Donegal panel.  Of course, three other players (Gary McFadden, Antoin McFadden and Thomas McKinley) also have appeared to opt out and no harm to them, but I don’t think any of us expected them to figure at any stage this summer.  Only one of them, Gary McFadden, had seen any time during the League, and he had seen a grand total of two minutes against Louth for his efforts.  No surprise then that these lads would walk away at this stage of the year.  Mark McHugh is another story of course.  The Democrat had the scoop earlier today and we got a bit more detail via the Donegal News this evening.  Damien Diver acknowledges that his form has been ‘indifferent’, which I think most of us would agree with.  The reasons for quitting aren’t exactly a surprise given what we hear about the intensity of training and the level of commitment required, but it’s undoubtedly a blow to our Championship preparations.  We can’t afford to lose someone who was an All Star in 2012 and played a key role in our All Ireland success, and of course this will bring more heat on McGuinness, especially in light of Sunday’s performance.  And, you would wonder – is Mark McHugh the only Donegal player ‘disillusioned’ with football after three hard years under Jim?  I sure hope not.

Anyway, back to business as usual, and it’s a longer than normal blog this week.  This is what happens when we lose, I typically have more to say than when we win.  Most people are struggling to keep perspective given our display on Sunday.  I think if we had had lost a competitive game by the odd point, we might not feel as glum.  But the fact is we looked well off the pace and I don’t think many of us expected to see such a lethargic performance with four weeks to go until the Ulster Championship.

Monaghan’s intent was pretty clear from the throw in on Sunday.  Starting Colin Walshe and Darren Hughes told me that that much.  Paudie McKenna was also a late addition to the Monaghan starting fifteen and he had a fine game.  For Donegal, most of us would have been surprised to see Luke Keaney starting at this stage of the season given his lack of game time to this point – he had played one minute against Galway and one minute against Louth.  He was named as a Colleges/Sigerson All Star earlier in the year, so I would have liked to see him get more time during the League, but Declan Walsh looked to be our first choice back up in defence.  On Sunday, he replaced Keaney after 65 minutes.  An odd call by Jim McGuinness.  Stranger still was the sight of Conor Classon replacing Odhran MacNiallais after forty six minutes.  Classon had not played one minute during the League this year, and as far as I can make out, his last appearance for Donegal was in February 2012 in a League game in Newry.  Why does he suddenly appear now, ahead of, say, Marty O’Reilly or Hugh McFadden?  I guess we can’t say for sure who has looked good in training etc. lately but it seems inconsistent with what we have seen so far this year.

We started well enough, with a fine point from Paddy McBrearty and then a free to go two up. But Monaghan levelled through two fortunate enough scores. Their first score came via a Rory Beggan 45 (he has a very languid style, it almost looks like a chip shot, even from that distance) after Luke Keaney appeared to block Kieran Hughes, but replays suggest there was no contact, and Keaney himself wasn’t taking credit for the block.  Monaghan’s second score came via a Darren Hughes ‘Hawkeye’ point came after it seemed to me Rory Kavanagh had been fouled while carrying the ball out of defence.  Watching the game you can see Rory getting a fairly raw deal from the referee throughout, something which may well have contributed to his frustration that may have contributed to his actions leading to the sending off in the second half.

But this was a common theme for the afternoon – Monaghan continually hit while tackling.  Donegal got a few advantages, a few frees, but the effect was calculated.  They certainly played to the margins of the rules, but that’s not a criticism, just an observation.  Indeed watching Monaghan on Sunday I could not help but think of how we played in much the same way in 2012, which seems like longer and longer ago now.  Monaghan were faster, fitter, more focused.  It’s nearly two years since we’ve seen anything like that from Donegal.  Aside from our game against Laois earlier this year, can anyone say when we last played with the sort of verve we recall from 2012?  And Laois aren’t where it’s at.   One thing that I can’t say anymore is that Donegal are better than Monaghan.  Whatever the circumstances, they have now beaten us twice comprehensively in recent ‘trophy games’.  Ignore the result from Letterkenny earlier this year. They have our number for sure.

I guess one positive was that we managed to score as much in the first half on Sunday as we did in 70 minutes in Clones last July.  But the rest of the stats make for ugly reading – 1-14 to 0-04 scored from play and 11 different scorers (seven different Monaghan players scored in the first half).  At half time, the wide count was 7-2 in favour of Monaghan (according to TG4, the Irish Times had it as 5-2).  Missing in that statistic are the three balls that Donegal dropped into Rory Beggan’s hands. This was reflective of the strength of the wind we played against in the first half perhaps, but not something you want to see, especially when up against a team that was so effective on the break.  But I counted two more in the second half as well as two balls caught by Monaghan defenders in the square.

The stats are ugly enough, but watching the game back it is worse still – much like it was watching the Ulster Final last year after attending.  When viewed on TV, it almost seems like Donegal weren’t really trying all that hard on Sunday, at least in the first half.  At least in the second half we looked like we were interested.  The sending off might have derailed our usual third quarter surge, even if we did get level via a dubious penalty.  Regarding the sending off, I have no argument with the red card for Rory, but how any Monaghan escaped some kind of censure for that incident is frustrating, but largely irrelevant.  On Rory, I have seen quite a bit of negative comment regarding his undoubted stupidity, but I’m pretty sure no one is more disappointed than the player himself.  He’s been our most consistent performer this year and now he misses what is the biggest game of the year so far, and what could well be his last game in the Ulster Championship.  We’ll miss him on 25 May for sure.

It was hard to pick out anyone who played well for Donegal on Sunday.  I thought our inside forwards worked hard in difficult conditions – due to the Monaghan tenacity in defence, but also due to the quality of the ball they received, and the ponderous build up play.  While you could look at the 1-14 conceded from play and think that the defence played badly, it’s hard to lay the blame solely at their door when we were turning over the ball so much further up the field.  Our defensive system relies on having bodies filter back at pace – when teams play us at our own game and we don’t react quickly enough, that system breaks down.  Any analysis is made more difficult by the fact that there seemed to be several switches made during the course of the game so it was hard to track who was playing where.  But, I think it’s fair to say that Neil McGee had a tough afternoon when matched up with Ciaran McManus.  And, we struggled, again, to contain the influence of Kieran Hughes, who seemed to be everywhere.  Luckily for us, he had something of an off day in front of goal, even if he did end up with 1-1 from play.

It’s hard to say why Martin McElhinney and Christy Toye were hooked so quickly and simultaneously.  McElhinney had turned the ball over on several occasions and Owen Lennon was doing well at midfield, so maybe Neil Gallagher’s steady play and physical presence was needed.  As for Christy, I didn’t see any obvious reason why he would be replaced – maybe he was not getting back quickly enough when Monaghan were breaking, or maybe Mark McHugh was going to play as a sweeper, although he certainly didn’t seem to play in as deep a role as we had been used to seeing him occupy.  Stranger still that McHugh didn’t start in the first place, even if his form hadn’t been great.  But, knowing what we kind of know now, maybe it’s not so strange that he didn’t start, although it’s also curious that he was picked to come on at all.

Jim McGuinness said afterwards “We tried to push on as best we could but the bodies weren’t able to do it” – which almost suggests we were lacking fitness.  I don’t know what scenario is more concerning – the idea that we weren’t interested in winning, or the fact that we weren’t fit enough to win.  Recall that 14 man Derry were able to kick on and beat Mayo two weeks ago.  I said at the time that I felt Mayo were poor in that game, but still, Mayo are probably a bigger test than Monaghan.  Does this suggest Derry are ahead of us in the fitness stakes?  If so, can we close the gap in the next four weeks?  Declan Bonner has a good piece in the Donegal News, reflecting many of the concerns I’m sure most of us have at this point.  I guess if you want to take anything else from it, the relaying of the conversation with Tommy Carr regarding training camps taking three weeks to yield results will fit the narrative that hard training would lead to the display we saw on Sunday.

In the same interview with the Donegal Democrat referenced above, McGuinness also seems unhappy with the discipline issue, and indeed with the focus on club fixtures.  He didn’t sound overly displeased with the result itself, and it’s hard to contest the view that it was promotion itself that was important.  He was neutral on whether or not the training camp contributed to the performance on Sunday, but that tends to be the usual response from managers – James Horan said as much about Mayo two weeks ago.  But, maybe there’s a theme there – both Donegal and Mayo have looked lethargic at Croke Park in recent weeks.  Both teams are at similar stages in their cycles (Horan took over Mayo in 2010, McGuinness took over Donegal in 2011) and have been worked very hard over the past three years or so.  Is what we have seen reflective of a deeper understanding from the respective managers as to what is required to play until deep into the Championship season or are we seeing players that are tired both physically and mentally. Is the well being refilled or is it running dry?

But putting down the performance on Sunday to the fact that we are working towards bigger goals is largely wishful thinking and based on hope or blind faith rather than evidence. We can only go on what we have seen up to this point, and on the whole, even if we have been promoted, it has not been encouraging.  This was only Division Two remember.

Still, I had a look back at what I wrote prior to the 2012 Championship.  I wasn’t too impressed by our League form back then, but of course the standard of opposition was higher.  I’ll be back to preview the Derry game in a few weeks.  I don’t really feel any worse about it today than I did before throw in on Sunday, especially in light of their hammering at the hands of the team that is undoubtedly out on their own as number one in the country right now.  But of course, then came the news on Mark McHugh and you start going over everything you’ve seen again.  There’s just under four weeks for us to reflect further and for Donegal to get their house in order ahead of the short trip to the big game in Celtic Park.

Until Victory, Always.

Donegal Easily Pass their Mock Exam

When Donegal were relegated from Division One last year, I felt that we might find Division Two tough going if we weren’t at the races as it may well be more competitive, even if the standard is lower.  Well, after three games, I don’t know what I was worried about.  Donegal are taking themselves seriously, which should be obvious based on the teams that Jim McGuinness is selecting and the margins of victory we are enjoying.  A win down here might be less impressive than a win in Division One, but one thing is for sure – we are building confidence again after our annus horribilis that was 2013.  And Jim McGuinness is on record in talking about how much he values building confidence.

On Sunday, we were very sloppy at times during the first half. But, for the third successive game, we took our goals well, with Odhran MacNiallais’ finish especially impressive (as an aside, I wonder when was the last time a Donegal forward not called Michael or Colm scored 1-3 in a game?  Chris McNulty reminded me that it was Paddy McBrearty against Cavan in 2011, on a day when Michael Murphy saw red from Marty Duffy early on and one of Paddy’s scores was from a free whereas MacNiallais scored 1-3 from play). Martin McElhinney appears to have done everything to be considered a nailed on starter now, putting in another industrious performance and adding a fine point for good measure.  Karl Lacey is looking good at corner back, well, he looks good to me, others have different views, suggesting he struggled, but I think Ciaran McManus would test any defender.

My immediate verdict in the aftermath was that we were comfortable without being convincing. It was a bit like last summer’s Championship win over Tyrone – the goals were the difference. First off, you have to acknowledge that Monaghan were missing seven or eight of their first choice 15. Owen Lennon and Darren Hughes were massive losses at midfield and while they managed to plug the gap with Kieran Hughes, moving him out weakened their forward line. The lead was six at half time and the game was as good as over when MacNiallais struck first and sweetly at the start of the second half.  Despite a few sorties from the full back line from Fintan Kelly and then Drew Wylie that led to points, Monaghan never got close enough to suggest anything other than a Donegal win was likely and the challenge I was looking forward to seeing from Monaghan never seemed to materialise.  Still, Donegal took care of business which is always good to see – can only beat what’s in front of you etc.

The positives – Ryan McHugh, McElhinney and MacNiallais all played well. Right now, you would have to say that they should be in our first choice 15 but Jim has come out and said he sees the starting line up as more fluid than was previously the case so we’ll see I guess. One criticism of MacNiallais (and I saw this against Galway too) – he coughed up possession a little too easily in the lead up to Monaghan’s first point.  There was another very impressive cameo from Paddy McBrearty for the third game running. I haven’t checked, but I think he’s scored at least two from play from the bench in each game so far. It was also good to see Jigger in action, he did well, although probably should have taken a score himself late on instead of passing.  The one concern I have of course is that all these lads look good in Division Two which isn’t necessarily an indication of how they will perform come May.  Not to be unkind, but many of us would have felt that Brick Molloy wasn’t good enough for intercounty football, and yet he has impressed in what we’ve seen so far.  I hope that he has improved as much as it would appear, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The areas for improvement – well, there were a few. Michael Murphy probably had one of his poorer games in the gold and green and only had one point from a free to show for his efforts, but, he did assist for MacNiallais goal and there was one brilliant trademark flick at the death to set up a score for Declan Walsh. After a very encouraging return against Laois, Christy Toye’s performances seemed to have tailed off in the last two games, but perhaps that is not suprising given how much time he has missed and the fact that pitches are heavy at this time of the year. Launching Neil McGee as an attacker didn’t really work well, and I’m pretty sure he turned the ball over twice in the Monaghan half. Leo McLoone continued his habit of carrying into contact and looked fortunate to get two frees. I wonder – if/when everyone is fit, could we play McElhinney at centre half back? My concern is that he seems like more of an attacker than a defender, but he is stronger in possession, or at least better at avoiding contact than McLoone.

Hopefully Frank McGlynn isn’t badly injured – Jim didn’t seem to think so, but with Eamon McGee available again (I don’t know why he didn’t get a run on Sunday), I’d like to see Frank get a rest next weekend, even if we are short on cover at corner back with Paddy McGrath still missing.

After last summer, Meath appeared to be a team on the rise again.  They put it up to Dublin and Tyrone last summer, and in Donal Keoghan and Mickey Newman, have two very fine young footballers at both ends of the pitch.  They started their National League campaign by running up a big score against Galway, albeit they conceded heavily in the same game.  Since then however, their poor run of form continued against Ulster teams.  When you consider that Monaghan on current form ran up twenty points on them, you start to feel confident.  And, to throw away the lead at several times at home to that Armagh team and you feel more confident, even if Meath come getting desperate for points.  Donegal have home advantage – and Ballybofey is where we seem to have started building some kind of home advantage and so I expect us to win.

Until victory, always.

A Win out West but a Showdown in Letterkenny Looms

It’s almost like our last game was part of a different season due to the two weekends that have passed with no game, but I’ll write briefly about Galway before moving on to Monaghan.  Thankfully the game went ahead after multiple pitch inspections across different venues. After that, I was happy to get the win.

But, it wasn’t really a great game. There were some nice moves by Donegal in the first half, including the one that led to Colm McFadden’s well taken goal. We were well on top at midfield – Galway made two changes to their midfield before the throw in as far as I could tell. I was happy enough at half time given that we were playing against the wind and Galway only seemed to be able to hit us on the break.

The second half was kind of odd. Galway probably played better than they had in the first. I guess the pitch didn’t help, the going was heavy and players slipped quite a bit as well.   In interviews after, Jim reckoned that the lads tired in the second half.  We could sense that from the stands, and, on a heavy pitch, it was no surprise that there was a drop off in intensity as the game went on.

I don’t think anyone really stood out over 70 minutes, but Martin McElhinney had a good game. Brick Molloy didn’t do much wrong. Anthony Thompson had a really good first half, but seemed to tire as the game went on. Christy didn’t play as well as he did last week and one or two things he tried didn’t come off. Karl Lacey was good, mostly in a defensive sense. Neil McGee played pretty well. Paddy McBrearty came on and kicked three good scores. Big Neil made his return, which was good to see.

It seems kind of significant that Hugh McFadden has got twenty minutes or so in each of the first two games.  He’s a guy that has a lot of talent, and the physical size that could be an asset.  Jigger got the game time in the McKenna Cup, but McFadden wasn’t fit.  If I had to wager on one of them to make an impact this year, it would be McFadden, although seeing Jigger in action for the Senior team intrigues me.

Ryan McHugh struggled at corner back and was switched with Frank McGlynn. He also blew a great chance for a goal and didn’t even get a point out of it. Still, he’s got a good engine.  And, he did kick a point later in the second half.  Like Odhran MacNiallais against Laois, he didn’t let his head drop after his miss.  And, think back to his point in last year’s Ulster Final.  The lad doesn’t lack confidence that’s for sure.

People (including me) say that Division Two won’t test us and that Jim McGuiness won’t know what he has with the younger players until we reach the Championship.  To a certain extent, that’s nonsense as I’m sure Jim knows what he has, it’s the rest of us who need to see it to believe it.  But, I do have a concern that certain players are getting away with things in these games that they will not get away with in the heat of a Championship summer.  We know that the Frank McGlynn’s, Neil Gallagher’s, Mark McHugh’s and Michael Murphy’s of the world have done it in the Championship before – some other lads haven’t yet and Laois and Galway in February are not the measure of what we will face this summer.

Out of all the supposed top teams in the Country, Donegal have probably been playing with more of our first line players than any other contender.  So we should be doing well.  It’s good to win games – last year we lost too many and our performances in the league were largely disenchanting.  We bet the farm on the Championship and it didn’t work out.  Next up, we have one of our conquerors from last summer and a traditional nemesis.  Monaghan will undoubtedly present us with more of a test than either Laois or Galway has in our first two games.

By the time Monaghan come to town, the first choice fifteen may become clearer.  Eamon McGee will have returned from suspension.  Neil Gallagher should be fit to play a full part.  Paddy McBrearty should be in contention to start and has been going well in the Sigerson Cup. I assume that these three lads are still part of our first choice team, although I do wonder if Eamon McGee starts when everyone is fit again.  He wasn’t the only one, but he looked very out of sorts against both Monaghan and Mayo last year. This is perhaps reflective of the overall issue that affected Donegal last year – the collective failure put our full back line under more pressure than they had been subjected to in 2012. I’m hoping that when he comes back my niggling doubt about him from last year will be put to rest.

If I think back to last summer, my recollection is that Monaghan were fortunate enough to beat Cavan and looked pretty average against Antrim.  They certainly didn’t disgrace themselves against Tyrone, but they never really looked likely winners either.  The Ulster Final was the one game where they looked truly impressive, but we need to temper that by acknowledging that Donegal were a shadow of their former selves that day.  I was impressed with them, but on reflection, I’m not convinced.  If we are to lose any of our home games in Division Two, this could be it however.

For anyone who wonders why I would refer to Monaghan as our nemesis, here’s a reminder of our pretty horrible recent history against the Farney men.  2013 Ulster Final – lost (when chasing a historic three in a row).  2008 All Ireland Qualifiers Second Round – lost at home by one point.  2007 All Ireland Qualifiers – hammered in Omagh.  Our last win of any consequence (and this is arguable) was in Division 2A in 2004.  Only Armagh have given us a worse time in the last twenty years.

Monaghan let Down come back to draw with them in their first game but then ‘put a hurting’ on a Meath team that racked up 3-18 in their first game.  Donegal have a perfect record and seemed to have got some of their mojo back.  This game in Letterkenny feels like the defining game in the Division.  Win well, or even win a hard fought game, and we will continue to feel good about things.  Lose, and a re-assessment of what we’ve seen up until now will be in order.  Things aren’t that simple of course.  Recall that in Division Two in 2011, we actually drew two home games (against Sligo and Kildare) and lost to Laois away.  We subsequently won the Ulster title and came within a kick of reaching the All Ireland Final.  Even in 2012 our league form wasn’t wonderful, winning only three games and having to beat an Armagh team in obvious state of decline at home to stay up.  That was the year Laois embarrassed us in Letterkenny live on TG4.  So, it’s far from a foregone conclusion that we will beat Monaghan, or indeed that we will go all out to do so.  But I’d like to think that we will.

Keyser Soze and the Clones Horror Show

It was Kevin Spacey who used the famous phrase ‘the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist’.  In the light of what we witnessed in Sunday’s Ulster Final loss to Monaghan, Jim McGuinness might have come close pulling a Verbal Kint.  What’s far from clear is whether this feat has been accomplished by accident or design.

Congratulations to Monaghan on their first Ulster title in 25 years.  The scenes of joy at Clones on Sunday brought back fond memories of 2011 and 2012.  They had us (me anyway) all fooled.  At no point while watching their Semi-Final win over Cavan did I feel that they had what it took to beat us.  In my preview, I said that they would get to 12 points at best, and privately I felt that they would get 0-9 or 0-10.  Still, we haven’t conceded more than 0-13/1-10 in Ulster under Jim McGuinness.  But on Sunday, 13 points may as well have been 30 as we never felt like getting close to Monaghan.

I had a bad feeling from the word go on Sunday. Despite my happy and positive countenance on BBC, I was wary after Monaghan had made a great comeback to beat Tyrone to win their first Minor Final in 68 years.  From the time the ball was thrown in, my worst fears were confirmed.  It’s unkind to say that Donegal didn’t turn up yesterday, but they left something behind them wherever they last trained, or never got out of second gear.  No disrespect to Monaghan, they played very well, but our lads clearly weren’t playing at the Championship level of the past two and a half summers.

I’d have to question some of the decision making.  First off, Marty O’Reilly for David Walsh appeared to be a tactical switch as Walsh was considered fit enough to replace Mark McHugh after 10 minutes.  O’Reilly was taken off after 25 largely ineffective minutes, even though he seemed to be more involved than Leo McLoone, who was also replaced (again) before half time.  Next, Neil Gallagher should have started – he certainly looked fit enough.  He was our most effective midfield player when he came on, but it felt like the game had already slipped away from us that that point.   Lastly, Karl Lacey was clearly not fit.  Monaghan seemed to sense this, as they operated at will in his area for three of their first four points, running directly at him for two of those scores.  In the context of the game, this was huge.

It’s a mystery to me as to why Lacey started when so obviously not fit.  One theory is that he needed the game time, irrespective of the result.  That would make sense in the context of the overall performance.  The other one of course is that once we started him, we dare not take him off for fear that Monaghan would get a lift.  I think this is less likely, but given we were never out of the game on the scoreboard, it could be plausible, but it would seem to hinge slightly on Jim underestimating Lacey’s fitness.  Does this really seem likely?

Even when Big Neil was breaking the ball, we were typically second best at gathering possession.   This is being touted as a sign of a lack of hunger.  It’s certainly a worrying sign that with our Ulster title and a three in a row on the line our performance was so lethargic.  Has the hunger declined since last September?  We certainly didn’t seem to lack intensity when beating Tyrone back in May.  But the signs were there against Down and were very evident on Sunday.  Is this a sign of a general mental malaise, or, as some have suggested, has Jim McGuinness succumbed to looking beyond Ulster to the greater challenges ahead?

The loss of Mark McHugh didn’t help.  But the reality is, he was on the pitch when we conceded the first four points, and three of these involved Neil McGee (twice) and Eamon McGee being isolated against Ciaran McManus and Kieran Hughes respectively.  So he didn’t appear to have been doing an effective job as a sweeper up to that point.  Of course, he would have had plenty of time to recover (had he not needed to be replaced), and his ability as a link man was of course sorely missed, especially with Lacey obviously hobbled.

But the most shocking statistic I have seen from Sunday is this.  Not only did Michael Murphy not score, but he did not even have a shot on goal.  You cannot afford to have your Captain, your talisman, your best player reduced to such a marginal role.  All credit to Monaghan as they didn’t even concede a free that would suit a right footed kicker.  But serious questions have to be asked as to how Donegal could not find a way to bring him into the game.  It would be nice to think we can win games without Michael, but we’re clearly not capable of that feat at this stage.  Colm was given a torrid afternoon by Drew Wylie and was even amiss with his dead ball shooting.  Paddy McBrearty wasn’t effective – he had chances, and yes he was under pressure when shooting, but those are typically the kind of chances you need to be able to take at the highest level, and Sunday’s game might not have even fallen into that category.

No, even after watching the game again, I still can’t pinpoint exactly what went wrong on Sunday.  My final word on it is that I think it was a perfect storm of a ferocious Monaghan performance coupled with a below par showing from Donegal, who, even taking the Tyrone game into account, haven’t approached the levels we did in 2012 (the stats on shots taken and shots from play are enough to help explain why.  As Darren Hughes said in the immediate aftermath on Sunday, Monaghan have had two years to watch Donegal and pick out the chinks in our armour.  In addition, they were able to prepare for the final as overwhelming underdogs, a fact they have acknowledged helped them greatly.  Throw in the fact that they hadn’t won an Ulster title in 25 years and have never seemed to fear playing Donegal, and then maybe Sunday’s outcome shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

So where do we go from here?  Well, to Carrick-on-Shannon on Saturday evening is the simple answer.  There is no time for the kind of serious introspection you would feel we need after Sunday.  The Donegal players look like they could do with a week off, but there is no rest for the defeated.  I’m not even going to bother analysing Laois as I don’t have any footage of their Championship games this year and I clearly learned nothing from watching Monaghan’s previous game.  No, this game will go as Donegal go – if we play like we played against Monaghan or indeed Down, we will lose.  Monaghan will have given Laois great hope and some idea of how to beat Donegal and given their manager played on a team that had their way with Donegal for many years, he will have of his own ideas as to how to tackle Donegal.

Mark McHugh is out of Saturday’s game –we know that for sure now.  It’s really hard to know what we’ll get from Karl Lacey.  Was Sunday’s game a help or a hindrance in the ongoing battle to get him back to full fitness?  I have been bothered by the Lacey issue all year.  He missed too long a time away from training before the Tyrone game, and then had the keyhole surgery setback.  Remember than when he was voted Footballer of the Year in 2012, he had been training non-stop since November 2011.  It’s getting harder and harder to believe that we’ll see him approach his best in 2013.  Time is against him, that’s all.  Sunday’s struggles don’t diminish his status as one of our greatest ever players.

Even during the National League, no-one was able to fill the void left by Mark McHugh, when out injured, as the dynamo in the Donegal team.  We face the same problem on Saturday.  Is his brother up to the task?  He looks like the most likely candidate.  Marty O’Reilly or Leo McLoone could in theory do the job, but haven’t looked up to it based on what we’ve seen this year so far.  Neil Gallagher has to start after his display last Sunday – he certainly didn’t look short of fitness on the 50 minutes or so he was on the pitch.

After that, it’s hard to know.  Jim McGuinness tends to show tremendous faith in the group of players he selects, and no doubt this is part of the reason why they have committed so much to him.  I doubt we’ll see wholesale changes in reaction to what could just have been a bad day in the office.  No, I don’t think the fifteen we see on Saturday will be hugely different from that which started on Sunday.  I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Most analysts take the considered view that Donegal haven’t gone away.  Some feel they will come roaring back.  I am not so sure – I just find it hard to know where we are at this year. Last year, we were very clearing gaining momentum with each game.  After the euphoria of beating Tyrone at home, we have had two very flat performances, the latest of which denied us the chance to make our own bit of history in Ulster.

When all is said and done, we are still Champions, still contenders and still capable.  We still have great players, a great team, and a great manager.  Don’t forget that in a hurry.  Donegal to win.  I think.

Until Victory, Always