ALL-IRELAND SFC RD4 QUALIFIER:
Donegal 0-14 Laois 0-8
When it was all over, when Jim McGuinness had finally escaped the embraces and back-slaps from relieved supporters, the Donegal manager found a quiet spot to share his thoughts.
On a pitch behind the main stand in Carrick-on-Shannon he warned about the cynicism and physicality that has left four of his players concussed in recent weeks and turned his thoughts longingly to Croke Park.
“I don’t think Dublin will play like that,” he said after Justin McNulty’s side subjected them to another episode of survival of the fittest. “I don’t think Kerry will [or] Mayo and I think the championship will open up again for us.”
No team has made massed defence and a prodigious work rate more of a virtue than this Donegal side and yet they have undoubtedly suffered for their efforts by spawning imitators in the form of Down, Monaghan and Laois.
Whatever about accusations of cynicism, all three counties eschewed fanciful football in favour of regimented, gritty defensiveness in the belief that it is the only possible means by which victory can be achieved against them.
Down came very close to it and Laois clawed them back to within two points with seven minutes to play on Saturday evening, but only Monaghan managed to tick all the right boxes on the day and the results were clear to see.
McGuinness was speaking prior to the quarter-final draw but the suspicion is that Donegal have been paired with a less than ideal opponent. Dublin or Kerry may well have offered a more accommodating canvas but Mayo will fight fire with fire.
James Horan’s men are another of those counties who have shed their loveable losers tag in favour of a more promising and effective cloak and they will make for Dublin with revenge for last September at the forefront of their minds.
Donegal? McGuinness made mention of four or five things which they felt had fallen below their usual high standards in the Ulster final and, though he refused to elaborate, he did admit that all had been addressed two days ago.
They will benefit for the extra game-time afforded to the less than 100% fit Karl Lacey, who came on as a substitute, and Neil Gallagher but the team is by no means purring as it did 12 months ago.
Time and again they were deprived of possession by a gritty Laois side and there were too many occasions when passes went astray. Once again it was their supernova full-forward line that pulled them through.
Between them, Patrick McBrearty, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden accounted for all but three of their scores but this is a side that clearly misses the metronomic presence of the injured Mark McHugh at both ends of the pitch.
“We’re by no means the finished article,” said Murphy. “There were a hell of a lot of mistakes made out there, but I thought the attitude from each and every man that took the field was top-drawer and that’s all you can ask for.”
In winning, Donegal became only the third team in the history of the qualifiers to avoid defeat the week after losing a provincial final but they were fortunate to meet a side like Laois who pressed without really punishing.
It took a full dozen minutes for the first score to arrive. Laois ended the first period with just a Ross Munnelly point to their credit — against five for Donegal — and it would have been fascinating to see them go for the jugular earlier.
Donegal, after all, wereonly six days out from the disappointment of Clones and all the physical and mental pain that involved, but Laois’s defensive approachallowed the champions to bed themselves down early on.
Had Mark Timmons put away an open goal after 20 minutes, or Laois taken one of two chances when two points down late on, Donegal could well have fallen to the Leinster side in the qualifiers as Tyrone did when champions in 2006.
As it is, they stutter on now to next weekend’s house party at Croker to face a Mayo side whose supreme test thus far this summer was an already fabled challenge match prior to the Connacht final against their Monaghan conquerors.
The one thing Donegal can say for certain is that they know perfectly well what to expect. Yet again.
Scorers for Donegal: C McFadden (0-6, four frees), P McBrearty (0-3), M Murphy (0-2, one free), David Walsh, N McGee, L McLoone (0-1 each).
Scorers for Laois: R Munnelly (0-4, two frees), D Kingston (0-2), C Meredith, D Conway (0-1 each).
Donegal: P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee; Declan Walsh, F McGlynn, A Thompson; R Kavanagh, N Gallagher; R McHugh, M Murphy, R Bradley; P McBrearty, C McFadden, David Walsh.
Subs for Donegal: K Lacey for McBrearty (55); M McElhinney for Bradley (65); L McLoone for David Walsh (67); D McLaughlin for McHugh (71).
Laois: E Culliton; P Begley, M Timmons, P O’Leary; D Strong, K Lillis, P McMahon; P Clancy, J O’Loughlin; R Munnelly, B Sheehan, C Begley; C Meredith, D Kingston, E O’Carroll.
Subs for Laois: C Boyle for Clancy (27); S Attride for O’Carroll (31); D Booth for Begley (43); D Conway for O’Leary (52); C Kelly for Sheehan (68).
Referee: M Duffy (Sligo).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved