When Derry manager Brian McIver looks back on last Saturday night’s game he will wonder how they didn’t get one over on Donegal. They had enough chances and with a little bit of composure in front of goal we would be on our way through the Qualifiers.
Derry were by no means at their best either. Everyone knew it was never going to be an open, fast, entertaining encounter with scores coming from all over the place but it was expected that Donegal, after their excellent performances against Tyrone and Armagh, would have too much for a Derry team who struggled in the National League and were lucky to get past a Down, who are only a shadow of the teams of the past.
Unlike Sligo the week before against Roscommon, who were in the faces of the opposition from the throw-in and never stopped until the referee blew the final whistle, Derry had a plan and stuck to it. They lobbed high balls in on top of the Donegal full-back line who struggled at times to get to grips with Caolan O’Boyle and if it were not for good reflexes of Paul Durcan early on we could have found ourselves chasing the game.
They set up similar to Donegal withdrawing a lot of men behind the ball and giving very little space for the opposition forwards to work in; they tackled in numbers and were patient when Donegal didn’t give them space to play. They were a mirror image of what we have come to expect from watching Donegal and when teams adopt such tactics we struggle to beat them.
If Derry were that bad and we struggled to beat them what does that say about the Donegal performance. It certainly wasn’t their best, especially after the Armagh game but you can’t expect players to be at their best all of the time. I have heard it suggested that they took Derry for granted; don’t believe that for one minute. First of all the manager wouldn’t let that sort of complacency set in and the older lads have too much experience to get caught in that trap.
At times Donegal didn’t look like themselves. Some of their passing was not near the standard that we have come to expect. Our shot selection was all over the place with numerous chances landing in the keeper’s hands. At times we went long but the ball into the full-forward line wasn’t near good enough and far too often the player was left isolated with no support.
It’s true that Rory Gallagher and the management team will have plenty to work on for the Ulster final but they would have to do that work anyway. They would have to prepare for what they know Monaghan are going to throw at them anyway. The question of why Derry were able to find space to run through the centre of the Donegal defence and create numerous goal chances and kick a number of handy points will cause the Donegal management to consider their options further.
When the Donegal ball carriers pushed forward there was a lack of support when they were bottled up by the Derry defenders. The usual forceful attacking by the Donegal defence was limited and only for some brilliant point taking by the likes of Colm McFadden, Martin McElhinney and Michael Murphy we struggled to reach the heights that we have come to expect.
Donegal set up as usual and to be fair started well but there was something missing; the usual drive was not there. Maybe the first two games of the championship had taken it’s toll and the Derry game came a week early.
No matter what result we got against Derry there were always going to be questions. it’s true that many of the comments coming from supporters and indeed many corners of the press would suggest that Ulster was only a matter of time and how were we going to deal with the Dubs or Kerry but that’s not the way it works. You only can play one game at a time and players, regardless of how good they are or how well prepared they are, it’s not a given that they are going to perform to the high standards they have set for themselves. Very few players have that gift. It would be to easy to say that it was just an off day and we got out of jail but if we are to achieve something greater than another Ulster title this year we have to make sure that there are no more off days.
Donegal were the better side and got over the line because they had the players. When they needed it most they showed that composure and experience you need when you’re not playing your best but you still wrangle out a result. Colm McFadden was back to his best and put in a huge performance kicking a number of brilliant points; Martin McElhinney, Marty O’Reilly and Christy Toye were full of energy and gave the Derry defence plenty to think about throughout; Michael Murphy was his usual composed self keeping things tight around the middle of the field and kicked two exceptional points when they were needed most; Neil Gallagher defies the old man tag with another brilliant performance and without him we would certainly have struggled to reach our fifth final in-a-row.
The players will get a few days off; when they return to training they will have no problem focusing on the game against Monaghan. Nothing like the sight of a bit of silverware to clear the mind!