Distant memories flooded back as I walked up the main street in Clones with my son and nephew.
I told them about how Monaghan had beaten Armagh, the All-Ireland champions, in Clones in 2003 and as our bus came to a stop outside the Paragon pub the Monaghan crowd, delighted with their win, started to rock the vehicle from side to side. It was a testing moment for a team trying to behave with dignity as gallant losers.
Imagine my surprise when I looked out to see my wife’s uncle by marriage leading the merry band of Monaghan brothers in chorus.
Fortunately I have many good memories of growing up in Three Mile House, Monaghan whereby my mother’s family mean that I have a close affiliation to this county and where bad memories are few and far between.
Sadly the 2014 Ulster final is a bad memory. This game provided little for spectators as the standard of football and indeed referring was consistent with has been a very poor year for football.
What little amused the neutral centred on off-the-ball incidents and the entertainer that is Niall McGee. His ability to be in the proximity of any spat is humorous.
On the football side there are many things different with Donegal. Defensively they are much more tactically aware than previously. Players actually take up a defensive position on the field as instructed or trained.
Take Michael Murphy as an example. Michael was named at full-forward but lined out as a half forward and duly marked by Vinny Corey. However defensively he was deployed in a left half back position for Monaghan’s forward play. The reason for this was that Paddy McGrath, named at 7, could play as one of the sweepers in front of Kieran Hughes and Conor McManus. The result meant Donegal defensively kept their shape, a major reason for success yesterday, but as an attacking force they were devoid of their talisman. Murphy registered a single wide for the first half and totalled a meagre two points from frees. He did not have another shot on goals in 75 minutes of play.
Still Donegal won pulling up. Does the end justify the means here?
The ability of Donegal to attack in packs has also improved. This is evident in breaking balls around midfield and also when the opposition attack down the flanks. The best way I can describe it is as ‘a shock and awe tactic’ for break ball. Whereby the major result is gaining secondary possession and the minor result is forcing the opposition to recycle the ball backwards thereby slowing momentum.
Defensively when it is deployed it panics the opposition player in possession, narrowing his choices and forcing him to focus on the ball in hand and not the pass or shot thereby narrowing his field of vision. This is extremely effective.
To circumvent this system the opposition need to have significant composure and vision to thread passes and see the runners. Few teams possess this ability and certainly Monaghan was not that team yesterday. Malachy O’Rourke played with one forward, generally Kieran Hughes, and opted to play long ball into him while he was marked by, not one, not two, but three defenders. Hughes only managed to score a long range point late in the second half.
There was no composure or vision demonstrated here. Conor McManus, who also played this role, didn’t score until the second minute of injury time in the second half.
How do you stop Monaghan? Stop Hughes and McManus. How do you stop them? Place a wall of men around them and let the opposition shoot from distance. That’s what Donegal did and they were excellent at it.
It is not pretty, God knows it is horrible to watch but imagine playing against this system?
I can only believe that Hughes and McManus must wish that O’Rourke had given them some support and played with more structure in the forwards. Had they not worked on opening up the Donegal defence in training? What were they expecting? It is crystal clear that you cannot beat Donegal by having limited forwards and launching long high ball into them.
The provincial winners are all that can realistically put their hats in the ring for All-Ireland success.
The managers of the other three need to watch the video from this game and respect this Donegal team for what they do.
This is the team Jim Gavin should fear most.
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