Eugene McGee: Quality of Coulter and Murphy lights up mediocre affair
Published 31/05/2010 | 05:00
T here might not have been a whole lot for neutrals to get excited about in yesterday's game in Ballybofey, as neither Donegal nor Down are not likely to win any titles this year, but I enjoyed the game for one reason -- the fact that a player from each team far outshone their respective team-mates and played pivotal roles.
Benny Coulter's record is well-known and he is a proven performer of long standing, but he passed the only genuine test of a great player by getting the crucial scores at the most important times in the game for Down.
Michael Murphy is only starting off his senior inter-county career and, not surprisingly, the Down defence crowded him out of possession by having two or three men in his vicinity every time the high balls descended on him. Despite that, young Murphy had a hand, or fist, in a rake of Donegal scores and one shudders to think just how low Donegal's scoring tally would have been but for his contribution.
Donegal must take a lot of blame for not pumping far more direct ball into Murphy instead of indulging in their silly short-passing game. Why ignore your best player?
Great individual performances like these can often make even a poor game like this one worthwhile for spectators and, of course, the exciting finish, coupled with extra-time, added to that, so the patrons in Ballybofey can't say they did not get their money's worth.
Quality is often secondary to excitement and passion in football games and on this score, the game provided the goods. The reality is that about 20 teams in the country play poor-quality football anyway, so the fans are accustomed to watching and paying into such matches, but will usually settle for a bit of excitement.
There were other very good performances in this match, such as the silken skills of Down's Daniel Hughes, a player who looks like matching some of the wonderful wing-forwards produced by the county over the years going back to the Paddy Doherty and Sean O'Neill days.
His high-quality points from play were in marked contrast to the way the Donegal forwards approached their efforts at scoring, which were ghastly at times -- although newcomer Dermot Molloy must be excused from that condemnation as he played excellently and scored 1-4 in the first half.
An orgy of Donegal crossfield handpasses all through this game played right into the hands of a not-very-impressive Down backline. Slowing down the play in this manner can make even poor defenders play well, because they have so much time to tightly mark the inside forwards waiting to receive the ball. This was Murphy's problem yesterday, with the delay in sending in high balls to him allowing extra Down defenders to corral the talented youngster.
We have often commented on the Donegal style of football before, usually after another championship defeat, so not many people have much sympathy for them when they lose in this manner. Several times yesterday they directed handpasses straight to a Down player and one can only assume that Donegal players overplay the ball because they have little or no faith in their own ability to kick it.
This applied particularly in attempting to take scores from inside 50 yards and they paid the price. Donegal only scored four points from play in the normal game time of about 74 minutes and, in perfect weather conditions, this is an appalling statistic. Down, in the same period, lofted over nine points from play.
What will particularly annoy Donegal manager John Joe Doherty is that his team dominated midfield for long periods, yet after 20 minutes of the first half, they had only recorded two scores, a goal and a point. And then, ironically, in the final quarter when the home side were maintaining their two-point lead, the midfield got lost. The outstanding Barry Monaghan, who had being playing very well, moved away and Down also brought Coulter far outfield with big Dan Gordon going to full-forward.
This allowed Down to play direct long balls into Gordon. The Mournemen scored four times in this period, while Donegal only managed two points in the final 25 minutes of the game proper.
In general, Down had a much more progressive and imaginative attack than Donegal. Down knew what they were about when it came to engineering scores and while Marty Clarke did not set the world on fire to match his recent reputation, he still provided many touches of class. Clarke is clearly a marked man in every sense of the word and his battle with the Tyrone backline will be a major challenge for him in the next game.
Nothing summed up the frailty of the Donegal attack than during extra-time. A brilliant Coulter goal in the second period sent Down three points clear, but Donegal still had plenty of chances to bridge that gap as they had lifted their game at that critical stage. But a few bad wides from players who clearly had little belief in themselves let Down off the hook.
But James McCartan's men have a lot of work to do before facing Tyrone and the injured players in their backline will certainly be needed before facing up to the Tyrone attack. As I expected, the recent handpass problem that, according to some people, was going to end the GAA as we know it, is gradually fading away and I only counted two frees yesterday for illegal passes.
There were some more, of course, but referee Joe McQuillan obviously was reading the Pat McEnaney version of the rule book -- 'See no evil, hear no evil' -- and nobody was complaining!