With the Anglo Celt firmly in the grasp of Michael Murphy for another year maybe it’s time for us all to set our ambition for the rest of the championship a bit higher. The importance of retaining our Ulster crown is not so much about winning another title but the fact that the team has maintained the momentum of last year and have progressed to a much fitter, stronger and better side.
I don’t think I have been at a Ulster final where I have seen a better performance from a Donegal side. All over the field Donegal players were head and shoulders better than their Down counterparts. If I would have one concern it would be that Down seemed to be able to open up our defence and had numerous goal chances.
James McCartan believed he found the way to break down the Donegal blanket but they were guilty of some poor shooting. But there were so many positives out of the Donegal performance; yes we’re not as defensive as last year and I think Jim McGuinness realised after last year’s defeat to Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final that the defensive tactic that was employed last year would not do if we were to take the next step and get our hands on the Sam Maguire.
So now the likes of Mark McHugh, Anthony Thompson and Frank McGlynn have the freedom to go forward and support the attack but at the same time have the fitness to get back if the move breaks down. Indeed their fitness levels in the last fifteen minutes of Sunday’s game is a credit to their conditioning.
Another positive out of last weekends performance was the players that came off the bench, especially Declan Walsh, who had a super game both in his position in defence but also getting forward to kick two great scores at a vital stage just before half time. Both Martin McElhinney and Daniel McLaughlin both got points after being introduced so Jim and his management can be content that they have back up when they need it.
From goalkeeper out Donegal were excellent but there were certain players who stood out. Declan Walsh was excellent; Frank McGlynn, who has had a brilliant season so far, like Walsh was excellent and his goal was the turning point and finished the game as a contest. Ryan Bradley was again at his best until he was withdrawn with an injury but his couple of points and his overall performance was what we have come to expect from Ryan.
Rory Kavanagh got through an enormous amount of work and like most of his teammates, his unselfish running and making space for others was typical of the way he has matured as a player.
Up front the starting six all caused problems for the Down defence. Mark McHugh was again all over the pitch helping out both in defence and attack; he kicked some great scores and was worthy of his man of the match award. David Walsh, Leo McLoone and Paddy McBrearty worked their socks off with McBrearty hitting a brilliant score in the first half.
Colm McFadden weighed in with his usual half dozen points and he, too, kicked some great scores in the second half. While Michael Murphy was not as potent in front of goal, his ability to win ball and distribute unselfishly to his teammates his probably one of his greatest strengths.
What can we expect from this team for the rest of the championship? Jim and his management team will want to keep his players’ feet firmly on the ground. They will also know that there are only a few teams left in the championship that can match them in fitness, strength and intensity in the way they play the game.
They will look back on last year and know that they had a chance to get to last year’s final but for maybe the injury to Karl Lacey and maybe that lack of self belief that seems to be there now.
While it’s one game at a time, have we now got a side that are capable of bridging that 20 year gap and maybe stretch the summer out a few more weeks.
Well done to all last Sunday.