by John O’Hara
Disappointing Day but Solid first Season from Rory
The post mortem will be well underway in the Donegal camp after their disappointing defeat in the All-Ireland quarter final at the hands of Connaught champions, Mayo.
The final score line read Mayo 2-13 Donegal 0-11 but in truth, it could have been much more, such was the gulf between the two sides yesterday, but it’s not all doom and gloom for Rory Gallagher and the Tir Conaill men, with a lot of positives to be taken from this season.
When Donegal supporters think back to the autumn of last year, when Jim McGuinness announced his departure after a four year golden period, they will remember the fear that many of the star players were on the verge of retiring. Only Rory Kavanagh left the squad due to retirement, although McLoone, Thompson and Molloy all left for personal reasons, the former two coming back to play pivotal parts in the season.
Rory Gallagher came on board, steadied the ship, secured Division One status and should have won his first Ulster Championship as a manager. Had Donegal done that, they would have played Tyrone yesterday and not Mayo, with a good chance that they could have progressed to an All-Ireland semi-final. This would have constituted a real success for the Erne native, and these are the fine margins that exist at this level, but people should realise that Donegal had an impressive 2015, even if they did exit at the quarter-final.
Last season, Donegal players were playing senior championship in November last year, with all games suspended until Donegal’s involvement in the all-Ireland series was finished. This delay has added to the workload of the Donegal players over the past four years and perhaps this season will see them get the rest that they both deserve and need.
Back to yesterday’s game, where they faced a very strong Mayo side, who may just have the required pedigree to finally lift an all-Ireland, after a fifty four year gap. Their tackling was absolutely astounding yesterday, with Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn being uncharacteristically dispossessed on a number of occasions, as they tried their trademark runs into opposition territory.
The first-half was a cagey affair, with scores at a premium for both sides and it looked like a real nail biter was in store. Michael Murphy was in superb form at the edge of the square, with five first half scores, despite a limited supply, showing just how important he is to the Donegal cause. At the other end, Aidan O’Shea looked dangerous, but was well marshalled by the McGee brothers, but it was the runs of Lee Keegan and Kevin McLoughlin who were causing all sorts of problems for the Donegal defence. While Donegal worked harder and harder for their scores, Mayo seemed to be easing through the gears, while staying in front of the Ulster men, with relative ease.
A long punt towards the Donegal goal, saw Paul Durcan rush from his goal and collide heavily with full-back Neil McGee, with the latter apparently suffering from a collapsed lung from the incident. This was the turning point of the game, as minutes later Aidan O’Shea, who had been very quiet, pounced with a fantastic catch and brilliant finish, although the defending of Mark McHugh left a lot to be desired. The whistle for half-time came just seconds after and it was a real blow for the Donegal management to go in four points down after a fighting first half performance.
When Lee Keegan drove forward at the beginning of the second half and his effort of a point dropped into the top corner, it was game over for Donegal, who saw Neil McGee leave the pitch, with what we now know was a very serious injury. Donegal tried valiantly to get back into the game, but errors all over the pitch from the Tir Conaill men meant that they were never going to claw back the eight point advantage the Connaught men had notched up.
It was always going to be an uphill battle for Donegal to get past Mayo, who had only played two games, compared to the five played by Donegal, who were nursing a number of injuries, with Karl Lacey, Eamon McGee, Martin McElhinney and Michael Murphy all spending a lot of time on the treatment table over the past couple of months. The eight day turnaround was also an issue that Rory Gallagher had to contend with and they just were not able to replicate the form that saw them being billed as possible champions earlier in the summer.
Tactically, Rory Gallagher will have a lot of thinking to do for the rest of the summer, as he tries to come up with a new game plan for this Donegal team to succeed. Yesterday, the decision to not challenge Mayo for their kick outs was a disastrous one. Mayo were able to retain possession from all of their kick outs, as Donegal sprinted back to their own ’45. Using this tactic requires the players to be extremely solid and disciplined in their defensive duties and Donegal just weren’t able to do this with any type of conviction. You only had to look at how hard Donegal had to work to try to retain possession from their own kick outs to see how much of an advantage it is, to have all the time and space you need to find a pass from a kick-out.
Mark McHugh’s role in the team will also have to be assessed by Gallagher. Many supporters yesterday were vocal in their criticism of the Kilcar man, asking the question, what exactly does he do? His form in 2012 went a long way to securing Donegal’s first all-Ireland in twenty years, but he has not replicated this form in any way over the past season, following a year long absence.
There will also be question marks over the elder statesmen in the team, but Rory Gallagher will be hoping not to lose any of his players over the winter, as all of these players can contribute something to the panel, whether as a starter or off the bench. He will also have to try to blood some new players during the league and McKenna Cup to add to the depth of the squad. Hugh McFadden and Eamon Doherty made their mark this year but new players need to be added every year to keep the panel fresh.
On the plus side, Donegal have one of the best players operating in the sport, with Michael Murphy showing his class yesterday and at 26, his best years are ahead of him. McBrearty, McLoone, MacNiallis and the McGees will all be part of the squad and are as good as any players in the country, so it gives Gallagher a platform to build on next year.
Five years ago, we exited the championship in disgrace, after a mauling by Armagh in the qualifiers. This year, we were a whisker away from winning another Anglo-Celt cup, we retained our Division One status and got to an all-Ireland quarter final, where injuries played a major part in our defeat. It was a disappointing day, but there are positives to be taken from this season.