GAby John O’Hara
Despite a few first half scares, Donegal achieved the comprehensive win that Rory Gallagher was looking for in their ten point win over Galway in the final round of the qualifiers.
The losing Ulster finalists showed their class in the second half, with stellar performances from Odhran McNeilis and Ryan McHugh. Colm McFadden also proved the doubters wrong with a fine contribution both on the scoreboard and as Donegal’s chief playmaker.
However, question marks remain over this side, with some wayward shooting coming to the fore, just like it did against Monaghan in the Ulster final a fortnight ago. Martin McElhinney, Neil Gallagher and Ryan McHugh were guilty of squandering chances throughout the game, and this will not be good enough against their next opponents.
Another major worry for the Donegal backroom team is the injury sustained by Eamonn McGee in the second half yesterday. It would seem likely that if the Gweedore man were fit, he would be the man tasked with the job of marshalling the in-form Aidan O’Shea. His brother Neil, who also shone on Saturday, will be given the role of shadowing Cillian O’Connor so it is vital that Eamonn is fully fit, if Donegal have any hope of reaching the last four.
One of the major positives to be taken from Saturday’s game is the energy shown by the squad, which was brought into question in the Ulster Final. It is clear that the players were hurting at the defeat and they were on a mission to prove a point. Michael Murphy provided some breath taking moments with fielding of the highest order, while also playing the unselfish role of provider with a brilliant assist for Ryan McHugh’s goal.
Patrick McBrearty again showed flashes of brilliance, despite repeated question marks over his fitness, which will be a major worry before next week’s game. In fact, Gallagher’s biggest threat is not the green and red of Mayo, but the fitness of his key players. With Lacey unlikely to start, he can’t afford to lose any more of his trusted lieutenants.
He will, however, be buoyed by the performances of Hugh McFadden and Eamonn Doherty yesterday, who both came in following the Ulster final defeat. McFadden looked lively and saw plenty of action, contributing two first half scores. Leo McLoone seems to be also edging from a peripheral player, following his return, to a key member of the team. His strength and ball carrying ability will be needed to break down the Mayo defence, whether as a starter or from the bench.
Christy Toye cemented his reputation as an impact sub with a beautifully taken goal, with his first touch and it may occur to Gallagher that he is better served having Toye as an option from the bench with Hugh McFadden and Martin O’Reilly as starters.
Midfield will be a big battle next weekend and it is worrying that Donegal have not decided on their middle two. Gallagher and Murphy started the game in the middle, with McElhinney entering the fray at half time. If the St Michael’s man partners Gallagher in the middle, he will have a big job picking up the older O’Shea brother and he will need to be better with his shot selection, which has been poor in the last two games. Anyone who has watched the Creeslough man in action will know that he has the shooting ability in his locker, but he needs to be more composed in the big games.
Neil Gallagher proved his reputation as Donegal’s ‘go-to man’ with the top possessions on Saturday and his worth cannot be underestimated. He is one of a rare species, who continues to improve as he gets older. His meteoric rise from average midfielder to the country’s finest continues unabated and if Donegal are to prevail, Gallagher will have to be at his very best.
Mayo were incensed that Donegal got to play at headquarters last weekend, claiming that it would give them an unfair advantage, ignoring that fact they got the opportunity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents, whilst also casually ignoring the hypocrisy of claiming unfair advantage, after playing two games to get to the quarter final, while Donegal have played a gruelling five times.
Next week’s game will see free-scoring Mayo, facing the blanket defence of Donegal and it will be interesting to see what tactical approaches are taken by the men on the line. Aidan O’Shea looked unstoppable against Sligo, but the tactical naivety of the Yeats’ men will not be replicated by Donegal. He will not be allowed the space he got in the Connaught final and will find the physicality of the Donegal defence a lot different from that of Sligo’s, but the problem for Donegal is that O’Connor is also prolific in front of the sticks and the Mayo half back line is full of pace and energy. Donegal will be looking to exploit the attack minded defenders with the quick ball to McBrearty and Murphy when he goes to the square. Mayo will be reminded of this tactic from the 2012 final, where Donegal used this tactic to perfection.
It may not be a game of beauty and a high scoring game is doubtful but next Saturday will be a fascinating duel between two contrasting styles. An epic battle awaits with both camps ready to do battle, but which gladiator will lead their tribe to victory? We await with bated breath.