Donegal happy to win ugly
Not a pretty picture for football in Ballybofey as zero-risk strategy gets job done for McGuinness' charges
Published 16/05/2011 | 07:24
If the football championship scored like a round of golf for entertainment purposes, then it is already heavily over par after just one hole.
The opening round of the Ulster championship in Ballybofey represented a visit to the trees, water and finally a greenside bunker all in the one trip from first tee to green.
Admittedly, the conditions were terrible, showers and a swirling breeze making it difficult for the players to exercise any real control of the ball.
But one of the protagonists believes that there is a much more inherent problem facing the game than just inclement weather.
Liam Bradley, the outspoken Antrim manager, left MacCumhaill Park adamant that if he was a supporter he wouldn't be prepared to pay to watch what he had just contributed to.
In the build-up to this preliminary quarter-final, Bradley maintained that Donegal were playing a brand of 'puke football', the phrase coined by RTE pundit Pat Spillane to describe the styles adopted by Armagh and Tyrone at the beginning of the last decade.
Bradley admitted coming to Ballybofey that his team would play a game of containment first and foremost. There was, he argued, no other option because that is the way the game has gone.
The memory of a high-quality 2010 championship, full of excitement and great scores, already seems a distant one.
But we've been down this way before. When the championship launches with a preliminary Ulster fixture, generally a sense of doom will follow.
Last year in his annual report the GAA's director-general Paraic Duffy defended the slow nature of the championship start, drawing parallels with how other major sporting tournaments started. It was a point well made.
But if there were games in other provinces yesterday then maybe the awful standard of Ballybofey might have been diluted. As a stand-alone fixture it was magnified.
For Bradley, the game needs a rule change to avoid what was on view yesterday.
"If I had paid in to watch that I wouldn't go to it, plain and simple, because it was brutal," he conceded.
"But that's the way the game is going, that's modern football and unless they bring in a rule change, that's the way it's going to be for years to come.
"I don't know if it's less numbers on the pitch -- I think maybe there should be some sort of a rule only allowing three handpasses and then you have to kick the ball. But that would be hard to referee."
On a day when just 7,385 spectators paid in, Bradley's commentary won't aid the sale of future Ulster championship matches. Teams are afraid to lose, he conceded, and that frames certain game plans.
"We certainly were not going to come down here today and get beaten by 10 or 15 points, which a lot of people had said," he admitted candidly.
"So you set up a defensive plan to try and counteract the other team and it is succeeding for plenty of sides.
"It is a pity that I hadn't two or three forwards that were able to break tackles and if I had those guys, we would certainly have won that game."
The lack of ambition in both teams was quite startling. In terms of frees, 42 in total, and yellow cards, just four, it was well below average for a game of this nature. Indiscipline wasn't the problem, it was the way the game was played.
Neither team was prepared to take a risk, whether that was a 30-metre pass forward into space or taking on an opponent and trying to go by him.
Possession was everything even if it had them going around in circles and moving laterally.
By the end, the crowd had become conditioned to this style of play and had clearly disengaged. It had become as predictable as a Eurovision vote.
For Donegal, it was mission accomplished. Without an Ulster championship win for the three previous seasons, the destination mattered much more than the journey.
They had lost first-round Ulster fixtures to Derry, Antrim and Down so it was a record that simply had to be fixed.
"It was definitely important to get the win. Three years on the bounce and we were beaten at home we had to set that record straight," admitted Donegal manager Jim McGuinness.
"That was encouraging. There were a number of things we would be happy with but in the last third we were lacking composure, and lacking composure putting the ball between the sticks."
McGuinness expressed the hope that maybe they could "let the shackles off" against Cavan in four weeks' time.
"I suppose a lot was made during the week about defensive systems; from our perspective every game is different and we try to prepare for games in that way. Some days you have to be offensive, some days defensive, most days you try to be both."
They were no more or no less defensive than Antrim but caution was clearly a priority.
Once Donegal established any sort of lead, it was always going to be difficult to prise anything off them.
Neil McGee was solid at full-back, Kevin Cassidy drove his team forward relentlessly in front of McGee, while Martin McElhinney and Rory Kavanagh were by far the more mobile midfield partnership.
Up front, Michael Murphy struggled in the conditions and had effective company in Richard Johnston and the curbing of Murphy and Colm McFadden was something that pleased Bradley.
The first score from play didn't arrive until the 21st minute courtesy of Donegal's impressive half-forward Ryan Bradley. It was their first score since the opening minute when McFadden pointed a free and the game would feature several other barren spells of this nature.
By the break, Donegal led by 0-6 to 0-3 and in the conditions that was a sizeable cushion.
Any hope of a spike in quality or excitement was dashed with the onset of more rain and even less ambition.
Even when they trailed by six points, 0-10 to 0-4, Antrim were still minding the house zealously at the back.
Eventually, they got some traction through Mark Dougan and Tomas McCann scores in the last quarter but Dougan's red card for elbowing Karl Lacey on 67 minutes killed any further advances they could make.
In injury time, Kevin Rafferty and Mark McHugh punched a hole in the Antrim defence for McHugh to fire home the only goal. It was easily the game's most exuberant moment.
By that stage, Paddy McBrearty, a powerfully built minor who had earlier played in Donegal's defeat to Antrim in the curtain-raiser, was on the field, emulating Benny Coulter's feat for Down in 2000.
Donegal will only improve from this. And so too will the football championship.
We've come to expect bad days like this in its embryonic stages, days when it seems it can't get any worse.
Scorers -- Donegal: M McHugh 1-1, M Murphy 0-3 (3f), C McFadden (1f), R Bradley 0-2 each, D Molloy, A Hanlon 0-1 each. Antrim: P Cunningham (1f), T McCann, K Niblock (2f) all 0-2 each, M Dougan 0-1.
Donegal -- P Durcan 7; F McGlynn 7, N McGee 8, P McGrath 6; A Thompson 5, K Lacey 7, K Cassidy 8; R Kavanagh 8, M McElhinney 7; M McHugh 7, D Molloy 6, R Bradley 7; A Hanlon 5, M Murphy 6, C McFadden 6. Subs: Marty Boyle 6 for Hanlon (19), M Hegarty 6 for Molloy (52), P McBrearty 7 for Hanlon (52), K Rafferty 6 for McElhinney (57), D McLoughlin for Bradley (65).
Antrim -- S O'Neill 7; K O'Boyle 7, R Johnston 7, C Brady 6; T Scullion 8, J Crozier 7, A Healy 6; C Murray 5, A Gallagher 7; B Herron 5, T McCann 7, M Sweeney 5; P Cunningham 6, M McCann 5, K Niblock 7. Subs: K Brady 6 for McCann (41), T O'Neill 5 for Sweeney, S Burke 5 for Herron, M Dougan for Cunningham (57).
Ref -- M Deegan (Laois).