By John O’Hara
As the dust settles on Donegal’s defeat at the hands of Monaghan in the Ulster Football Final, the post mortem will be well underway in Rory Gallagher’s camp. The big question reverberating around the country in the aftermath of the defeat will be, ‘was this just an off-day or did we witness the beginning of the end of this Golden Generation?’
For what it’s worth, I am placing my faith in the former, putting Sunday’s defeat down to a mixture of an off day, a series of well-hidden injuries and bad decision making.
To put it into context, if just two of the sixteen wides that Donegal posted yesterday, they would have been champions for a fourth time in five years and everything would have been rosy in the garden. These are the margins that exist at the highest level and unfortunately for Donegal, they were unable to convert their superior possession into scores. However, this was not just simply poor shooting, it had a lot to do with poor shot selection, which I believe was a result of players not operating at their full fitness.
Yesterday once again highlighted Donegal’s reliance on Michael Murphy and that is not a criticism of Donegal, it is simply acknowledging just how good the man from Glenswilly really is. It was clear that he was not 100% fit and rumours have circulated since, that the Glen man had missed a fortnight’s training in the build up to the match. When you analyse his performance, it was clear he wasn’t doing what Michael Murphy normally does. He even opted to take a free from his hands, which he would normally take from the ground and the knee bandage he wore has added to the speculation.
Apart from his general play being hindered, his usual probing runs into opposition territory normally demand the attention of several attackers, leaving space for others to exploit, but yesterday this didn’t happen. You would think that it would be impossible to underestimate Murphy but this is an area of his game that few recognise and it allows the likes of McBrearty more time and space to execute their shots, which they weren’t able to do yesterday.
Karl Lacey went off at the beginning of the second half, which was a huge psychological blow to the Tir Conaill men. Lacey is a leader on the pitch, and that leadership was missing in the final minutes of the game. Donegal fans will remember the surging run he made in the 2012 semi-final, which put the final nail in the Kerry coffin, but yesterday he could only watch from the side-line, willing his team mates to get over the line.
So in my view, this is a game that Donegal lost rather than a game which Monaghan won. That’s not sour grapes, it’s simply cold hard analysis and despite Donegal playing so poorly, they were within an inch of the post of throwing the game away. Had Donegal played like that against serious opposition like Kerry, Dublin or Mayo, the game would have been over at half-time.
So what now for the two time all-Ireland winners? They play a rejuvenated Galway side, who have come through the back door after succumbing to Mayo in the Connaught Championship. Their win against Derry will show that Kevin Walsh has instilled a bit of steel into a side that have been considered ‘soft’ in the new era of gaelic football. The Tribesmen have often been described as the connoisseurs of the GAA, as they have refused to adapt to the defensive side of the game.
This year however, they have turned to the dark side and have developed their defensive prowess and combined with a lightning quick full forward line, it has made them formidable opposition for anyone. Corofin’s success in the All-Ireland club championship has buoyed many in the county and the likes of Gary Sice, Liam Silk and Micheál Lundy have replicated their club form at county level. Damien Comer and Danny Cummins have been immense in this year’s campaign and they were unlucky against Mayo, despite putting it up to the reigning champions for much of the seventy minutes. Beating Ulster side, Derry in the last round of the qualifiers will have given them the experience of playing against a defensive Ulster side and they will be confidant going up against Donegal.
For Rory Gallagher, he has a fortnight now to get his house in order and try to get his key personnel back to full fitness. He has no worries about club games and players will be eager to set the record straight after Sunday’s defeat. Lacey, McFadden and Toye will be determined to prove the doubters, who have written them off as ‘over the hill’ and this could be key to rejuvenating Donegal’s hopes of landing Sam.
Everyone knows that you don’t approach a wounded animal without caution and Kevin Walsh will be well aware of this adage when approaching this game. Murphy, who is among the greatest players in the country will be hurting from the final defeat. Misplaced passes and no points from play is not the Michael Murphy that we know and I have a feeling that Galway may be unable to contain this man, if he is out to prove a point.
Although it will be a tough game, I expect Donegal to have too much for Galway, with the firepower of McBrearty, Murphy and McFadden. With two weeks recovery, I expect everyone to be fully fit and eager to go, with a mouth-watering clash with 2012 losing finalists, Mayo, the prize for overcoming the Tribesmen in Croke Park.
Many are hailing this as a watershed, the final nail in the Donegal coffin, but for me, this is simply a setback, a blip, which will be long forgotten, if Rory can break through the back door.