Boom goes the cloak of invincibility! Or was it more like a whimper?
Put to the very sword that they themselves forged. This was Ulster Championship at its very best. Unpredictable, intense, brilliant.
The bookmakers had Monaghan at even money with a seven-point head start. The supporters wanted a good performance. The optimistic journalists believed Donegal would win in a two- to three-point game. But when you analyse with a rational mind, this is not a major surprise. The signs have been there for Donegal since the first round against Tyrone. They were amplified against Down in the semi-final. They were exposed yesterday.
So where did it go wrong for Jim McGuinness?
Start with number six, Karl Lacey. Lack of match practice and fitness. He was supposed to be working hard on his own and was supposed to be fit. But yesterday was not the day to experiment with Karl from the start. He had only played 15 minutes against Tyrone before the game and that was back on May 26. He was unable to drive forward the way we remember him, he failed to shore the centre of defence and he failed to man mark.
Neil Gallagher was deemed unfit to start but able to come on after 15 minutes, by which stage Monaghan were four points up and completely dominant in the middle sector. A sector that is well recognised as being weak in his absence, the Down match testament to this.
It’s an area which was, and has been, completely dysfunctional in this year’s championship. An area which wasn’t helped by the early injury to Mark McHugh, who bravely collided with the equally brave Stephen Gollogly.
And finally the scoring potential of the full-forward line which produced no score from play. In fact none of the starting six forwards or the first two subs to the forward line scored from play. This lone solitary point attributed to Ryan McHugh came at the start of the second half.
Don’t let this mislead you to think that Donegal were their own destroyers. In fact it was a tremendous display of defensive and counter-attacking football by Monaghan which set the platform for victory.
Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke coached his players to execute the plan to perfection. A plan that assigned man-marking duties for Vincent Corey and Drew Wylie on Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden respectively. Corey totally negated Murphy in the air and on the ground and was perfect for the task. Wylie was superb on McFadden, particularly his discipline in the tackle.
Darren Hughes was assigned to link defence with forward units. His fitness was phenomenal and his willingness unmatched by Donegal. Definitely my man of the match. He is strong, direct and powerful.
Padraig Donaghy was a surprise starter for Christopher McGuinness. His role was to mop up breaking ball, get in tackles in the middle third and generally disrupt play. He excelled in this role, so much so that the loss of Gollogly due to that collision didn’t affect the system of play.
Finally Monaghan had Kieran Hughes. He gave a display of work-rate, handling and scoring that was second only to his brother, Darren. He is the perfect foil for Conor McManus and gave Neil McGee his worst display in a Donegal jersey under Jim McGuinness.
Monaghan’s system of play was not dissimilar to Donegal. Both teams played sweepers, both attacked from deep, both relied on runners coming through. The difference was that Monaghan had freshness about them. They didn’t look mentally stale. They attacked everything with purpose and passion. They had more quality players doing what they were asked to do. They had forwards who scored from play.
When it came to the vital stages of the match they believed they could win this game. And finally on the day that mattered, the star players all stood up and were counted.
When it comes to systems of play, we need to critically reassess all our models, assumptions and theories for their continued accuracy and relevance. Malachy O’Rourke didn’t just copy Donegal style, he improved it. He did this because he has a better squad to improve upon.
GAA is constantly evolving on the field but the resistance to change at this moment appears to be higher than it has been in a long time. Donegal’s style is presently the dominant paradigm which has many detractors, me included. But maybe there is an uneasy coexistence between this and what I favour. Maybe this is what will be widely accepted in the future.
For now, Monaghan are worthy Ulster champions and the scenes on the field afterwards brought me back to Armagh’s heyday when the field filled with supporters. There remains something special about the Ulster Championship and congratulations must go Monaghan on the minor and senior double.
Donegal have another chance to improve but if Jim McGuinness turns this year round, it will be his greatest achievement.
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