It was a mixed bag for Donegal in Clones on Saturday. The minors bowed out rather tamely while the seniors almost paid a price for being lethargic.
The minors just didn’t get into gear and even on a bad day at the office, they almost pulled off a shock in the final seconds.
It was tough on Conor Doherty as the responsibility rested with him taking the penalty in the final seconds. It reminded me of Michael Murphy’s responsibility in Breffni Park in 2010 in the U-21 All-Ireland final. Murphy’s came back off the crossbar while Doherty’s went just over.
It was good to see Declan Bonner say that no blame was being attached to Conor ‘Doc’ and the Kilcar man will just have to put it behind him and concentrate on displaying his talents at a higher level in the coming years.
The minors were just flat, being completely dominated around midfield until Stephen McMenamin moved out in the second half.
It would have been a great comeback and if they had got a another couple of minutes they would have got the draw. They should have had more than three added minutes in the second half but referees are reluctant to see anything more than three minutes put on the board. There were a number of stoppages and Derry were quite content to waste time in the second period and it worked for them.
Overall, Donegal didn’t deserve to win, but they could have sneaked a draw on the day.
The opposite was almost the case with the Donegal seniors as they held a five point lead ten minutes into the second half but were hanging on a little at the end with a two point lead, which is not comfortable for players or supporters.
As the players were quick to point out afterwards, the talk of All-Irelands after the Armagh game was silly talk. There are many twists and turns in a championship season and the comparison between the Donegal display in the Athletic Grounds and in Clones on Saturday against Derry was stark.
Nearly everything they attempted against Armagh came good while on Saturday, they huffed and puffed without really threatening to shake Derry off.
They have to be thankful again for the two great leaders in their side - Glenswilly pair Neil Gallagher and Michael Murphy, while Paul Durcan and Neil McGee also gave outstanding performances.
Big Neil Gallagher is like a fine wine, he gets better with age. His ability to read the game is central to the Donegal success of recent times and he pounced on Saturday when he read the Derry kick-out ten minutes into the second half. He was on to the ball like a flash and his long strides took him clear of the cover before releasing Martin O’Reilly. The MacCumhaill’s man was again as cool as a cucumber as he slipped around the Derry ‘keeper before firing home.
On Saturday the Glenswilly pair were the top two in the possession stakes with Big Neil handling the ball 36 times to Murphy’s 30.
The goal was a huge turning point. Donegal, while not fully comfortable, never looked like losing after that. But based on the overall performance, they have plenty to work on before the final against Monaghan on July 19th.
The decision to leave Patrick McBrearty on the field of play for the entire game, even though he looked to be seriously curtailed with a leg injury, was the big talking point among supporters outside the ground afterwards. Even though McBrearty was clearly not as mobile as he normally is, two Derry players were being detailed to keep an eye on him. Maybe that was the reason the Donegal management decided to leave him on the field. Hopefully, he has not done any further damage by remaining on the field. Near the end, just before Michael Murphy’s final point, McBrearty had taken the free which came back off the upright and when challenging for the rebound, was hit with a very heavy challenge, which could have done damage. Amazingly, referee Rory Hickey did not see it as a free as the ball broke free and Michael Murphy fired over. (See above pic)
McBrearty was limping heavily on Sunday when attending the club game between Four Masters and Kilcar and had a scan on Monday to determine if there was any damage. All Donegal supporters will be keeping their fingers crossed that he heals quickly, as he will be needed for the tilt with Monaghan.
One felt that Eoin McHugh or Stephen Griffin could have been thrown in for the final ten or fifteen minutes when McBrearty was struggling. We have yet to see Eoin McHugh get a chance at senior championship level and Saturday may have been an opportunity lost.
But then we are not privy to what is going down on the training fields. Donegal started without Mark McHugh on Sunday last for what are believed to be ‘tactical reasons’. They will probably need a sweeper against Monaghan and McHugh, if fit, could return to fill that gap in front of the Donegal full-back line. It was interesting to see in the Athletic Grounds that his instructions were to stay back and any time he crossed the ‘45’ he was reminded of his duties.
While Donegal have a panel of around 30, and 26 are named on the day, the players being used on any given championship match, beyond the starting side, are few, with maybe two or three serious substitutions and others being used to break up play in the final minutes.
This is nothing new in the championship and happens in most counties. Dublin are probably the only county where the nominated 26 are all in contention for a starting berth or being used during the game.
Donegal have two weeks from Sunday to finalise their plans for another Ulster final - their fifth in-a-row. For the likes of Paul Durcan, Karl Lacey and Colm McFadden, it will be their seventh Ulster final, a new record for a Donegal player; for many others it will be their sixth. That is the level of experience in the Donegal panel at the moment.
They will need all that experience and leadership in the coming weeks and on the day of Sunday, July 19th.
The performance on Saturday last will not be good enough to win an Ulster final. The timing of the game at 7 p.m. in the evening could be a factor in the reduced levels of energy and intensity on Saturday last. Having to hang around all day waiting for a game can be difficult. Even professional athletes like Ireland rugby captain, Paul O’Connell, has voiced his dislike for playing in evening games.
Derry had plenty of chances and a more clinical team would have had Donegal in great difficulty.
Rory Gallagher and his management team have a short time to get it right. Winning an Ulster title in 2015 after coming through games against Tyrone, Armagh and Derry to reach the final would be a magnificent achievement.
For the moment, that is all Donegal have to focus on. To win four Ulster titles in five years would increase the stock of this group of players well above any team that has represented Donegal in their history.