As county finals go, it wasn’t the worst that has been played in the last few years. It was competitive from the throw-in, with both sides trying their best to impose their will on the game from the get go.
Gaoth Dobhair showed why a lot of people had them as their favourites for this year’s championship, while Naomh Conail of Glenties, for the second year on the trot, failed to show their potential in terms of scores. They showed plenty of endeavour, workrate, heart and commitment but in terms of all out attack they lacked the killer instinct required to win big games against good opposition.
Naomh Conail are a good side, full of brilliant individuals and when they move the ball forward are a joy to watch. But their mantra is always defensive. At times last Sunday everyone was behind the ball, making life easy for the Gaoth Dobhair defence, while on the other hand Gaoth Dobhair always kept at least two or more forwards up front, not allowing the Naomh Conail defence a chance to take a break.
Gaoth Dobhair started on the front foot, always with attack on their minds, players moving forward in support of the ball, players on the move making space for others to move into and at all times looking for the opening to have a go. While Naomh Conail certainly looked capable of unlocking the Gaoth Dobhair defence when they moved the ball at pace, more often they slowed the game down too much. Most of the time it was to allow their own players to advance into the Gaoth Dobhair half and their reluctance to play long direct ball into a forward line left it easy for the Gaoth Dobhair defence to get into a good defensive shape and not allow the Naomh Conail men to make the breakthrough.
Naomh Conail played the first half with a good breeze in their backs, yet they played the ball through the hands to try and open the Gaoth Dobhair defence. They offered nothing in the way they approached the game, thus not putting any questions to the Gaoth Dobhair management or the players.
Gaoth Dobhair, on the other hand, played Kevin Cassidy on the edge of the square, giving them an out ball if required, but primarily their main way of playing was playing the ball through the hands but having runners coming off the carrier at pace and driving at the Naomh Conail defence. And while Naomh Conail tried the same, it was the physicality of Gaoth Dobhair and their ability to draw the free or take their score was the difference in the end.
As I said last week, Gaoth Dobhair had the strongest team on paper, but championships are not won on paper; they're won by the team that has a real go. The good sides always go for the jugular at the start of both halves; they go for the game early and put the opposition on the back foot. Gaoth Dobhair have that in their arsenal. At times Naomh Conail have that but in the last two county finals they have failed to show that side of their game and without that ruthlessness in front of goal, they will struggle to add to their existing titles.
Harsh, I know, but sport is like that. Sometimes you don’t get what you deserve, it’s never that easy.
Looking from the stands it was easy to see why Gaoth Dobhair were most people's favourites and it was their championship to lose - a great blend of experience and youth, defenders that are good at tackling, good at breaking down the opposition in full flow and not bad at the dark arts as well. They have plenty of big men, who along with that physicality are brilliant footballers but their biggest asset is their ability to make scoring opportunities and take their chances.
After seeing them last Sunday it is hard to imagine that they are not capable of giving the Ulster club championship a real go. Considering the depth of talent they have at their disposal, the fact that many of the big guns who have dominated Ulster club football for the past few years are already out, and considering how well Kilcar did last year, there is no reason why this group of players couldn’t be the team to break that Ulster club voodoo.
Naomh Conail, I have no doubt, will come back stronger but losing successive finals can put a huge dent in the confidence of all involved. They will know that they will need to change their approach in the way they play the game, not by much but definitely a bit more emphasis in attack will make them a side better able to win another championship. They have a brilliant underage structure with plenty of young talent coming through, so they won’t be going anywhere for a while.
While Gaoth Dobhair will enjoy their first club championship in 12 years, they will get themselves ready for the Ulster championship and, like Naomh Conail, have a raft of talented players coming through and if they can sustain the level they are at right now, they will be the team to beat in the years to come.