Donegal cannot have any excuses after losing the Ulster senior football final in Clones last Sunday. One can cite the referee David Coldrick for having a poor and inconsistent game.
However, Donegal lost the Ulster final rather than Tyrone winning it. We were tactically perfect in the first half. Tyrone were under pressure. They needed to adopt a different approach at half-time but we also needed to counteract their obvious change in tactics. We didn’t or were unable to and in the final analysis our negative system cost us.
It is easy to be critical in hindsight. I feel that our superior ability was stifled by adopting an over the top defensive system. Tyrone had no option but to try to penetrate. Even when the game was on a knife edge midway into the second half we persisted in lateral play which is fine when leading by several scores.
I stated last week that the team who had courage would win this game. We did not have the courage to put Tyrone on the back-foot. This was tactical and not an expression of a player’s individual free will. Our players, like most other teams nowadays, seem to be programmed to play containment and risk-free football.
Nobody will tell me that Donegal had not got the more talented team last Sunday. That counts for nothing when a player is not given licence to take a chance. Going into the last few minutes of the match we were trying to protect a one-point lead.
When I was an inter-county player it was hammered into me by Brian McEniff that the best means of defence was attack. We needed someone just to take that chance and drive at the Tyrone defence as Sean Cavanagh and Peter Harte did for Tyrone. I appreciate that this was a game of cat and mouse but we played like mice. We seemed to lack the ambition and confidence to penetrate and ask questions of the opposition.
One can forgive the players of both teams for playing at a pedestrian pace given that there was intense heat. I do not believe that this was the main reason though. I watched Paddy McBrearty coming off his man on a few occasions when it was blatantly obvious that he should have received the ball. There were times when Michael Murphy and McBrearty were isolated inside without the protection of sweepers Colm Cavanagh and Justin McMahon. We refused to kick the ball into them. I don’t know if this was a directive given by team manager, Rory Gallagher, or that the players in possession did not see what was in front of them.
The outcome may have been completely different had Colm Anthony secured a ball in the closing minutes and stuck it in the net. The game would have been over. This is a hypothetical situation though and the reality is that we lost the game.
Nobody will ask more questions than Rory Gallagher himself but the questions which I heard all around Clones centred on the slow employment of the Donegal bench given that the conditions were so humid; not using Leo McLoone, taking off Anthony Thompson and putting him back on again and where are our gifted U-21 players? I don’t know the answers. Only the team management can do this. We are all managers when we can sit in the luxury of the stands.
Donegal have struggled in the closing stages of this year’s championship games. We seem lethargic and energy drained. Last Sunday’s game was one of the most frustrating and depressing games that I have watched for years. I recognise that teams are not in the entertainment business and winning is all that matters. It was a poor advertisement for the game of Gaelic football and particularly Ulster football which, by the way, both teams contributed to, not only Donegal.
If we are feeling sorry for ourselves, please spare a thought for the players whom we are free to criticise in defeat and free to glorify in victory. I played in five Ulster finals (six if I include the replay against Tyrone in 1989) and lost two of them. I remember the hurt of losing more than I recall the joy of winning. We didn’t have a second chance though. These lads do.
As I stated last week, our Donegal players owe us nothing. They have spoiled us in recent years and have instilled tremendous pride into the people of Donegal. Collectively Rory and his players will have had a look at the game on video. They know that there is more than a glimmer of hope for the remainder of the championship.
Donegal move on to play Cork in the qualifiers on Saturday week. It is important that we do not dwell on last Sunday’s defeat but simply to learn from it. Thankfully we will have almost two weeks to recover and prepare.
Our players have genuine clear consciences who lost their Ulster final without any drama. We have not become a lesser team as a result rather I believe we can take a greater resolve from our defeat.
Chins up Donegal and as always; keep the faith!