Donegal’s championship season is hanging precariously after their one point defeat in the Ulster final in Clones on Sunday last.
Patrick McBrearty’s last gasp chance seemed to be on its way over, but must have just tailed off. From most vantage points in St. Tiernach’s Park, it seemed as if it was over and we were headed for a replay.
The one telling factor which hints that the umpire’s decision was correct came when there was no big protest from the Donegal players. If you had wanted any player taking the shot to tie up the game you would have chosen McBrearty as he was by far and away Donegal’s best performer up front.
As for whether it was a point or not, we will never really know. Without Hawk Eye we have to accept what was a real disappointing end to a below par day for Donegal.
Apart from a good first five minutes, the first half was one where the Donegal players seemed well short of the intensity needed to succeed on Ulster final day. Monaghan were on top in virtually every position with only Frank McGlynn able to raise a gallop against the tide.
Despite that they would have got to the sanctity of the dressing room just two points in arrears but for two sloppy turnovers just before the break with Conor McManus punishing both in clinical style.
In the end that was the difference between Monaghan and Donegal on Sunday last - clinical finishing.
From a Donegal point of view you can’t fault Patrick McBrearty and if his final effort had been given as a point he would probably have picked up the man of the match award. As it was, Conor McManus deservedly picked up the gong - both finishing with 0-6 to their name.
Donegal were much, much better in the second half and when they ran at Monaghan they got some reward. McBrearty and Michael Murphy were on song from frees and if Donegal could have continued with their running game they would probably have engineered enough scores to win the game.
But they didn’t have the energy levels to sustain that running game and some of the shot selections were very untypical Donegal. Indeed, at times the patience and control that was a mark of Donegal teams of recent years was not to be seen.
Over the full hour only Frank McGlynn, Neil Gallagher and Patrick McBrearty returned a consistent performance. The McHughs were to the fore in the second half; Neil McGee had a titanic struggle with McManus and only one of the Monaghan man’s three points from play could be attributed to him getting the better of McGee.
Paul Durcan did nothing wrong in goals; Eamon McGee kept Kieran Hughes occupied, but after that there were deficiencies in the Donegal display.
There were outside factors. It was clearly obvious that Michael Murphy was less than fully fit. The rumour in the county on Friday that he was suffering from a knee injury which was being continuously iced the previous weekend sadly had substance. Then the loss of Karl Lacey to a knee injury five minutes into the second was another blow.
With Lacey off and Murphy only a shadow of himself, it was always going to be a big assignment, especially as Donegal were four points in arrears at the time - 0-9 to 0-5.
Donegal won the final 30+ minutes of the half 0-5 to 0-2, but ultimately those injuries were contributing factors. The 11 second half wides was the other statistic which left Donegal on the wrong side of the result.
WHERE TO NOW?
After a gruelling Ulster campaign Donegal must take on Galway in Croke Park in Round 4 of the Qualifiers and after that, Mayo will be lying in wait for an All-Ireland quarter-final a week later on Saturday, August 8th.
Can we expect this bunch of Donegal players to be able to lift themselves to be competitive against Galway and then, seven days later, take on a Mayo side who have played just two games in the championship to date? They gave Sligo a hiding in the Connacht final last week after having five weeks rest following their win over Galway in their only other game.
Donegal had to peak for their first game of the Ulster championship, the preliminary round tie with Tyrone on Sunday, 17th May. They then had to peak again for a trip to the Athletic Grounds to face Armagh on June 14th before having a tough encounter with Derry in the Ulster semi-final just two weeks later on June 28th.
Donegal had three weeks to prepare for the Ulster final while Monaghan (having played Cavan and Fermanagh) had four weeks between their Ulster semi-final and final.
That is the lop-sided nature of the Ulster and Connacht championships.
At the start of the year I wrote that if Donegal were to win the Ulster Championship in 2015 it would be the equivalent of winning the All-Ireland title. I think that has been proved correct.
The competitiveness of the Ulster championship is not replicated in any of the other provinces so to come through the preliminary round and not get through the front door to Croke Park is an arduous route.
In 2013 when Donegal had to go through Round 4 of the Qualifiers, they were running on empty when they reached Croke Park and Mayo were lying in wait.
There is a fear that the present Donegal team could end in the same watery grave. If the injuries to Michael Murphy and Karl Lacey are not cleared for Saturday week, then there is a possibility that reaching the quarter-finals may be a bridge too far.
At present Patrick McBrearty, despite being well short of full fitness, has had a fantastic year while Michael Murphy continues to be clinical from placed balls. But after that the Donegal forwards are not contributing nearly enough scores to win games at the business end of the championship. The only others on target on Sunday were Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn with early scores.
The spread of four players scoring and only three points from play on Sunday last was never going to be enough to win a provincial title. Monaghan had their homework done and they had Conor McManus.
The only issue Donegal could have with the final was the time added on in the second half by referee, David Coldrick. It seems that three minutes is the maximum that any referee will add on at the end of the second half of a Gaelic football match.
The three minutes allowed on Sunday was less almost equivalent to the time Monaghan ‘keeper Rory Beggan was down receiving treatment for an injury sustained after a Donegal point in the second half. The stoppage seemed tactical as Beggan showed absolutely no sign of the injury as he took the subsequent kick-out, but it was not allowed for in the time added on.
Indeed, I have not attended a game of Gaelic football where anything other than three minutes has been added. Has some edict been handed down from Croke Park on this issue? I’m not saying that Donegal wouldn’t do the same thing if they were ahead, but referees must take this time wasting into account and deal with it accordingly.
Donegal have to lick their wounds (and injuries) and prepare for Galway. They are a proud bunch and deserve a much better hand of cards than that dealt to them in 2015.
Their route of choice would have been through the front door. Given the tough road they have travelled you have to be worried about what the immediate future holds.