One of the most impressive passages of attacking play so far this year came in Round 3 of this year’s Allianz National Football League in Ballybofey in February.
On a day when Ódhrán Mac Niallais and Ryan McHugh scored a couple of points of the kind that are fast becoming their stock in trade, Leo McLoone’s goal in the 57th minute for Donegal against Mayo was a flashback to what Donegal used to be about a few years back and a hint of what they might yet become this summer under Rory Gallagher. Having dispossessed Donal Vaughan, a battalion of Donegal players attacked Mayo’s central column giving options both left and right to the man in possession before McLoone applied the deft touch to finish the move.
We may yet have to review McLoone’s goal in light of Mayo’s ineptitude last Saturday, but it was a striking passage of play nonetheless.
Up until their game against Fermanagh a fortnight ago, Donegal hadn’t won a match since that spring day in Ballybofey. The rot set in after the bad tempered encounter against Kerry in early March and Donegal went five games, or 15 weeks, without a single competitive win.
I’m not entirely sure the seven-point winning margin over Fermanagh will have dispelled the doubts, but another pattern in Donegal’s play emerged from the Ulster quarter-final, too. This story got a little bit of attention following the game two weeks ago but it come into sharper focus again this week with Pete McGrath’s comments and clarifications. When it comes to disruptive play, very few do it as well or as consistently as this Donegal team.
When Evan Regan won a second-half penalty for Mayo in the aforementioned league game, it took over four minutes and quite a bit of pushing and shoving before Diarmuid O’ Connor got to dispatch it. The gamesmanship went up another level a week later in Tralee and it was prevalent again in their opening game in Ulster. Whether you want to call it feigning or exaggerating injury, there was a distinct sense of play being interrupted, broken up and spoiled by Donegal players. This, of course, was best exemplified by the three minutes it took Seán Quigley to take the penalty that was saved by Mark Anthony McGinley just before half-time.
Pete McGrath was quite right to point out during the week that Donegal are not the sole perpetrators in the art of spoiling and breaking momentum, but they certainly are the exemplar of such tactics at the moment.
I expect this evening’s Ulster SFC semi in Breffni Park will see a lot of fractured play, some long periods without a score, just as we had in last year’s Ulster final, and a lot of zealous protection of the area around the ’D’. This could bring about a high wide count if both sets of kickers run out of patience as can so often happen in games such as these.
I just hope we don’t see any repeat of the antics we see far too often from teams these days after they concede frees and penalties. And, as a former practitioner, I really wish that something was done to stop this incessant hounding of freetakers, which was once again in evidence in last Sunday’s game between Tyrone and Cavan.
Rule 4.19 of the latest version of the GAA Treoraí Oifigiúil is unequivocal. “To interfere with a player taking a free kick or sideline kick by jumping up and down, waving hands, or any other physical or verbal interference considered by the referee to be aimed at distracting the player taking the kick” is a technical foul. Why then are these technical foulers continuing with impunity in this year’s league and championship?
Back to that McCloone goal against Mayo and the business at hand. Even allowing for the space that opened up in front of the attacking Donegal players that day, and assuming that it won’t reappear anytime soon, there was something in it for Donegal to get excited about.
It’s something that Dublin have perfected since Mark Ingle and Jason Sherlock began coaching the forwards, and, of the chasing pack, it’s something Donegal appear to be putting more work than anyone else into. The goals scored by Ódhrán Mac Niallais against Fermanagh two weeks ago had their genesis in the goal scored by McCloone in spring. Many of the personnel making these upfield bursts remain the same, but, on the evidence of a fortnight ago, there has been a subtle change in the running lines and direction taken by the supporting runners.
For the first goal there were 15 passes before the goal chance presented itself to Mac Niallais. The first seven or eight passes were slow, settled and lateral but the remaining passes involved a few quick changes of direction in a confined space, culminating in Frank McGlynn’s decisive input that sent Mac Niallais in on goal.
Each player giving the pass shields the arc around him from the tackler about to move in. There is an unorthodoxy and an intricacy to it that can confuse teams such as Fermanagh and Armagh who haven’t been exposed that much to it. In most cases, it’s perfectly legal and entirely fair but I doubt Monaghan, who’ve done quite well against Dublin and Donegal recently, will get sucked in by it.
As usual, in games between Monaghan and Donegal, we can expect the two captains, Michael Murphy and Conor McManus, to leave some imprint on the day.
In the league game earlier this year they scored a grand total of one point from play between them (McManus 0-6, five frees, Murphy (0-3, two frees, 1 45) but McManus’ was by far the more telling contribution.
In last year’s championship encounter Vinny Corey kept Murphy scoreless from play for the third consecutive Ulster final. In the same game Conor McManus went early on but was kept quiet by Neil McGee. Once he got going, however, McManus knocked over three big points from play as well as three frees.
At one stage, about 20 minutes in, their paths crossed as Murphy hit McManus an awful hop. Two lost souls recognising in each other the necessities of the modern game. Some of us will always lament the fact great artists such as Murphy and McManus must go artisan to survive. Neil McGee’s absence today swings the advantage in Monaghan’s favour and any suggestions Karl Lacey would be capable of reprising his role in the pre-McGuinness era as one of the best man markers in the game seem hopeful, given his lack of recent game time.
Even though the likes of Ryan McHugh, Frank McGlynn, Eoin McHugh, Leo McLoone and Martin O’Reilly can hurt Monaghan when they get forward, the same willingness or capacity for defensive work just doesn’t seem to be there with Donegal these days.
Gaps are appearing more frequently than they used to because Donegal are playing without a ball-winning midfielder such as Neil Gallagher, a player who allowed the aforementioned players to take a breather by stabilising things under their own kick-outs. In Karl O’Connell, Kieran and Darren Hughes, Dessie Mone, Colin Walshe and Fintan Kelly Monaghan have players who can sprint through a gap but, worryingly, they have yet to find a play-making half forward to service McManus.
A goal would be huge, and though I still have those waves of yellow Donegal jerseys and that Leo McLoone moment in my head, Monaghan look better equipped to advance.
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