My expectation that Fermanagh would make things horrible for Donegal in yesterday’s Ulster final never materialised. Perhaps I hadn’t factored in how much of an occasion this was for the Fermanagh players.
You don’t appreciate what it means to people until you spend a little time in the county and it did appear that the occasion got to them.
In fact they played the occasion more than the game.
From a Fermanagh point of view, this one was over before it started. They just had no opportunity to implement their gameplan.
A facet of the game that was in some way watchable for the neutrals was the Fermanagh kickouts.
They clearly fancied themselves in the middle of the field as Ryan Jones and Eoin Donnelly are a strong partnership but they didn’t take into account that Donegal big-time fancied themselves in that area with Ciaran Thompson, Michael Murphy, Michael Langan, and Odhran McNiallais in there.
Donegal hunted in packs and won the majority of the kickouts and eventually one was going to be punished. When Thompson fed McHugh to Eoghan Ban Gallagher for the opening goal, the game was more or less up.
Donegal corner back Eoghan Bán Gallagher gets on the end of a swift attack for the opening goal in today's Ulster Football Final against Fermanagh. Watch highlights tonight at 9.30pm @RTE2 pic.twitter.com/6AdZWB1XMk— The Sunday Game (@TheSundayGame) June 24, 2018
After 14 and a half minutes, I noted that Ryan McHugh had not touched the ball.
One thing we hone in on these days is ‘possessions’ and he had six or seven from then until the end of the half.
I remember Ciarán Kilkenny being lauded for having 50-plus possessions in a game but I bet he wasn’t as productive as McHugh was with his six or seven.
He is incisive, he is decisive, and 100% of the time he seems to take the right option and sees the right pass or takes the right shot. Everything that he touched was positive and had the desired effect and an end product.
Fermanagh had no chance to implement their plans and went man-to-man on a few players with Che Cullen on Murphy, and he did rattle him a bit early on.
They put Paul McCusker on McHugh and Mickey Jones on Paddy McBrearty. They had targeted certain match-ups and wanted to nullify those three players. After 14 minutes they probably thought ‘this is working well’ but they continually lost those long kickouts and eventually Donegal started to make hay.
Lesser lights stood up when other key men were quiet, in particular Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Paul Brennan, who is still not rated as highly as he should be.
Donegal seem to be rejuvenated under Declan Bonner. If he was going to make a big impact in his first year with the senior team, personnel had to change or tactics had to be changed — the change of tactics has indeed rejuvenated them.
Paddy McGrath, Frank McGlynn, and Michael Murphy looked tired last year but they are clearly enjoying themselves now. McGrath spent most of the afternoon playing as an auxiliary corner-forward, coming on to the ball rather than coming off the shoulder or getting tackles in defence.
Fermanagh never gave their supporters a chance to get into the game.
Donegal bossed it, injected a little pace into it, and they got into great positions. How many times did a simple fist pass over the top release Jamie Brennan, while Eoghan Ban followed the flight of the ball and got on the end of it for the first goal which was the decisive score.
Fermanagh had very little bite about them and never even kept it tight. They get mass bodies behind the ball and although they looked a well-drilled team against Monaghan, they didn’t this time out.
Maybe the occasion got to them or did they just come up against a team they couldn’t hold?
That will be a question for Donegal to wonder about too going into the Super 8s.
There is a lot they still don’t know about themselves but they have used 26 players in the championship so far, and that will stand to them.
I think Donegal can compete with any team in Ireland except Dublin and they’re going to find out about that very quickly.
They’re right to enjoy the next few days and start thinking about Dublin after that.
As impressive as they were in Ulster, I hope Ulster football hasn’t gone backwards because Dublin handled Tyrone very easily at this stage of the competition last year.
I would like to think Ulster has progressed but I fear Dublin could take advantage of Donegal’s defensive frailties that have not been exposed yet. They have not been tested and that is a problem for Declan Bonner, but in three weeks’ time against the Dubs in Croke Park, he will know exactly where he stands.
Kerry and Donegal are in very similar positions going into the Super 8s because they have good age profiles and have integrated exciting forwards into their sides, but we still don’t know about their full-back lines.
Everything about Donegal smacked of class. From players going over to shake Rory Gallagher’s hand afterwards to Murphy mentioning the late Pat Shovelin in his speech, everything about them had an air of class in the way they got on with their business.
It is job done. I know they have aspirations of more, and I don’t know if they’re capable of it, but my gut tells me they’re still a way off Dublin.
Of course there is no shame in that, there’s two or three other counties in the exact same boat.
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