You have to wonder what must have been going through the Down manager James McCartan’s mind when he watched the game last Saturday evening between Donegal and Tyrone from the Gerry Arthurs stand in Clones.
He must have wondered how on earth he was going to get his Down players to play with the same intensity as both the Tyrone and Donegal players went at it.
From the minute that the game started there was no let up from either set of players; whenever a player was in possession of the ball they were surrounded by two or three giving very little time or space to play the ball. Both sets of players were extremely disciplined in the tackle giving away very little opportunities for the free kick takers on both sides.
If you could draw a difference between the teams, it was Donegal’s superior fitness in all areas of the field. Tyrone had players who lasted the game but it was their older players like Owen Mulligan, Stephen O’Neill and Ryan McMenimin who struggled to keep pace with the younger Donegal players.
Donegal started again with a much more attacking minded game strategy. The fitness of the players has enabled Jim McGuinness and his management team to allow them a broader range to express themselves; the likes of Mark McHugh, who while still playing in a sweeper type role, has joined in attack a lot more this year. Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn went forward at every opportunity and never let their markers settle at any time.
I thought when Neil McGee had to go off with a hamstring injury that our full-back line might have struggled but Paddy McGrath, Eamon McGee and Declan Walsh came out on top and were the springboard for a lot of Donegal’s attacks.
The availability of Rory Kavanagh was a huge boost to Donegal; he gives us that extra dimension where he links the play between the defence and attack and is always good for a score. It was his two points at the start of the second half that set us on our way.
The critics had their usual spat at how many hand passes there were, the amount of frees that were awarded and the lack of free running play, but there always is a anti-Ulster slant with most of the pundits. It certainly wasn’t a game for the purists but it was a battle that everyone would have expected between two sides who have been hard to separate the last few years.
Overall Donegal were the better side but only for the left boot of big Paul Durcan we would have had to do it all again. As I said earlier the full-back line coped well with the loss of McGee, the half-back line never stopped tackling and joining the attack, midfield is no longer for the high fielding of the past but both Kavanagh and Neil Gallagher played well; the half-forward line of McHugh, David Walsh and Bradley got through an enormous amount of work with Ryan Bradley outstanding once again. Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden were closely watched by the Tyrone defence and they got very little supply of ball but were excellent from dead balls and McFadden’s point on the run from out side the 45 was probably the score of the day.
Patrick McBrearty, while not in a attacking role in the second half, used the ball well and like McFadden hit a brilliant score of his left foot in the first half.
Jim McGuinness will now prepare his players for another Ulster final and like last Saturday’s game we will go into the game as favourites but I don’t think that will bother this present squad. There seems to be a great mindset and confidence within the players and a belief that they are destined for maybe greater things.
Over the weekend there was a lot of football on the television and while I am not having a go at match officials there was very little consistency when it came to what was or was not a free. We have a game that has evolved over the years yet the rule on tackling has never changed. Maybe it’s time for Eugene McGee and his committee to finally do something that will make the referee’s job easier and take away the frustration of both the players and supporters.