Donegal can take advantage as old order is breaking up
THE most consistent county of the spring are league champions and the most unfortunate are runners-up. It is as if God has ordained that, irrespective of who wins, it must be at the expense of Mayo.
Yet the players keep trying and the supporters never lose the faith, someday the rock will be struck and water will spill out, until then their Croke Park drought continues.
Donegal were the better team last Sunday but if Andy Moran had stuck one in the net when he had a great chance in the last quarter, the long and windy road home might well have been a lot straighter. As it was, Moran was the only Mayo forward who consistently caused problems, yet only four points from play indicates a major area of concern ahead of the championship. This, on a very nice day for football.
However, there were serious concerns about the pitch and it is just as well they are being addressed this week. Good grounds give an advantage to a fast skillful forward, but Croke Park last Sunday was a backs’ pitch: attempts at quick turns generally meant ending up on the carpet. The long dry spell and the compaction caused by so many games this spring has not helped, but it certainly needs to be a lot better for the big games of summer.
Donegal are good and could be great. They have the players, even if I was disappointed by their performance, but when a team is trying for their first big win the result becomes the issue. With a bit more experience they will put the emphasis on performance.
What interests me most about Donegal is where they go from here. Will the victory whet their appetite or wet their whistle? Will they become one-day wonders or push on to become a serious team?
The fact is, they could not be coming along at a better time. The old order is breaking up. Assuming that the Kerry dynasty will last forever, there are still going to be a lot of All-Irelands to go round, and Tyrone and Armagh don’t look as formidable as they were over the last five years. They are not going to melt like snow in spring, but after every set of rivalries breaks up it leaves the way open for new teams.
Donegal are best placed to be that side. They need leadership from players and management to put away the high stools for the summer. Really great players enjoy winning the first title for a couple of days before moving on, some get left behind forever by victory.
Donegal are very much a work in progress. The full-back line would not cope with top class forwards on this showing and the leopard’s spots shone brighter than ever at some of the rough patches last week. Back came the endless short passing: it was pass the parcel time. It even became contagious as Mayo got in on the act. They have a lot of backs who love running forward with short handpasses, but they don’t know how to mark, while most of the forwards lack forwards’ instincts.
What might appear strange on a day for fast football was that David Heaney and James Nallen won a lot of ball against Neil Gallagher and Kevin Cassidy. The old dogs for the hard road.
Yet, despite the shortcomings of both sides, it would be a surprise if they are not back in Croke Park for the All-Ireland quarter-finals in August. And they will give whatever opposition they meet a right run for their money because they are well organised with a very honest approach.
Today, the Division 2 final takes place in Cavan, far away from the empty spaces of Croke Park last Saturday evening. Players love the opportunity of playing on the big pitch, but there was often better atmosphere and more noise in the funeral cortege of a man whose life was long and well spent. It is hard to know whether the atmosphere caused the bad games or the other way round. By the time the second match was over there was few left after two games you would not wish to see the likes of again.
The best football of the evening was played by Roscommon in the first half of their demolition of Cavan. It was sharp and crisp with good foot-passing and a bit of speed and mobility about their forwards. The rest of that match and almost all of Meath and Monaghan was boring. Both games had similar patterns. Early goals for Meath and Roscommon meant the outcomes were more or less guaranteed by half-time.
The second half in both games was just awful and it was hard to credit that Monaghan and Cavan had gone through the group stages unbeaten. Now they face the Ulster championship with their limitations totally exposed. The most corrupt builders at the Tribunals had better defences.
Meath lashed in high balls and the Monaghan full-back line could not cope, they will probably do the same today. Stephen Bray is a very useful corner-forward, he scored one goal and made the other in the first few minutes. The Monaghan response was all business, plenty of possession and effort but the wides flowed easily and the last quarter had no meaning.
Ger Heneghan and Gary Cox were very dangerous for Roscommon, while Séamus O’Neill and Michael Finneran dominated midfield. O’Neill is a significant loss today as he has a very physical presence and can get the odd spectacular point too.
With bigger games looming, there should be a bit of urgency about the football and hopefully the quality will be better than the semi-finals. This match won’t get much attention but is important for both counties to lay down a marker. Players who don’t perform here won’t do the business in another few weeks either.
Maybe Meath have a stronger panel and the long awaited fight-back is starting. Today should tell whether that is wishful thinking.