Saturday 23 September 2017

McGuinness' mean machine finds way to stutter forward

Donegal 0-12, Down 0-9

Donegal’s Ryan McHugh and Mark McHugh combine to challenge Conor Laverty of Down - McHugh is set to replace his brother
Donegal’s Ryan McHugh and Mark McHugh combine to challenge Conor Laverty of Down - McHugh is set to replace his brother
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

In a brief interview he conducted for television less than an hour before throw-in, Down manager James McCartan made a point of referencing how his team had been advised that they were merely fulfilling a fixture and might be better served not turning up.

In a brief interview he conducted for television less than an hour before throw-in, Down manager James McCartan made a point of referencing how his team had been advised that they were merely fulfilling a fixture and might be better served not turning up.

It was tongue in cheek of course but that was essentially the backdrop to this Ulster football semi-final against Donegal in Kingspan Breffni Park.

Having succumbed so easily in the second half of last year's Ulster final, the gap looked an impossible one to bridge, especially with their list of absentees, but McCartan was quite prepared to absorb lessons from Clones almost 12 months ago and put them into practice.

More often than not they played with two sweepers and invited Donegal to play them at their own game. Ambrose Rogers and Kevin McKernan invariably filled the space around Peter Turley, while Conor Laverty and Mark Poland also dropped deep from the half-forward line to embellish the strength of the human cordon.

ABSORBING

It made for an absorbing contest, if not a great game. That neither side created a goal chance, never mind scored a goal, tells everything about it.

It was Donegal's sternest test in Ulster since the 2011 semi-final win over Tyrone when they were just a few weeks on the championship road under Jim McGuinness.

They are much more battle-hardened now and their faith in their system of play and comfort with it is much greater, which gives this Down performance an even greater context.

Yet Donegal were almost always comfortable and, as McGuinness put it afterwards, they "found a way to win within the rules" when their squad, limited in its resources the higher the numbers go, was stretched to the limits.

Two players – Ryan Bradley and Frank McGlynn – were forced out by half-time with concussion to join Karl Lacey and Neil Gallagher, who were sidelined beforehand.

Five times Down cut the deficit to two points in the second half, but five times Donegal responded with a score to keep them at arm's length; that's the profile of champions just doing enough.

"When you take four or five players out of the team that are normally leaders, and you find a way to win in those circumstances, that is the most pleasing aspect of it," acknowledged McGuinness afterwards.

There was plenty in Donegal's performance to pick holes in however and their normal economy of possession was absent at times.

Mark McHugh's overcooking of a crossfield ball under no pressure and putting it out over the sideline, as he did in the 47th minute, highlighted an unusual malaise that often affected their counter-attacking game.

Some of the execution of basic hand and foot-passes, even allowing for the pressure exerted and the underfoot conditions, were of the poorest quality from both sides.

Donegal's levels of concentration continue to amaze though. After beating Tyrone, a match they had planned nine months for and spoke little else of, if any game could show up a chink in their mentality, this one surely could.

But that chink never materialised as an 11th championship clean sheet under McGuinness was filed away. They have now conceded just four goals in 15 championship games since 2011.

"There was a lot of nonsense talk in the lead-in to the game about big winning margins," said McGuinness. "The Ulster final last year was very similar to today only for that we pulled away in the second half. We were planning for that. We knew that was coming down the track and that stood to us in the second half."

Rory Kavanagh's driving runs consistently gained territory for Donegal and Ryan McHugh's introduction for McGlynn at the break helped to curtail the dangerous Laverty.

But ultimately it was Colm McFadden and to a lesser extent Michael Murphy that divided them. McFadden posted three superb second-half scores from distances ranging from 35 to 46 metres between the 53rd and 62nd minutes to preserve the three-point lead that Kavanagh had given them to make it 0-7 to 0-4 early in the second half.

"It was their ability to stick the ball over from outside of the 45-metres line that was keeping them ticking along, maybe even against the run of play," reflected McCartan afterwards.

"We set up the way we wanted to. Defensively we wanted to keep them away from our goals but they kicked points from outside the '45' so you can't argue with that."

How Murphy and McFadden escaped yellow cards for some of the challenges they made on Down defenders breaking out was a reflection of referee Eddie Kinsella's commitment to allowing the game to flow.

A game of 60-plus frees could have had many more if Kinsella wasn't so intent on playing an advantage, but more often than not the advantage intended didn't work out in such congestion. Thus, it was a day when there was profit in fouling because it was obvious from early on that the risk of picking up a card was relatively low.

Resolute as they were in their defensive set-up, Down were just too cautious when they got into the last third. That they dropped six shots into Paul Durcan's hands, three times the number of wides they had, underlined just how deep that caution was.

Too often they were reluctant to shoot and Benny Coulter fell down in that regard as much as anyone. Donal O'Hare's accuracy from frees was a redeeming feature of their attacking play however as they trailed by 0-6 to 0-4 at the break, having been 0-6 to 0-2 behind after 22 minutes.

As he shot the breeze with 2014 Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley –who was at the match with his father and former Donegal player Mick – afterwards out on the pitch, McGuinness could bask in the preservation of an unblemished record in Ulster as Donegal manager.

"It's nowhere close to our best performance but we found a way to win the game within the rules of the game," he acknowledged. "We worked hard for each other and it is a big shot in the arm to the younger lads to come in to a packed house at Breffni Park – the prize for us is the Ulster final."

That's as much as they came to achieve. Nothing more.

Scorers – Donegal: C McFadden (2fs), M Murphy (4fs) 0-5 each, R Kavanagh, P McBrearty 0-1 each. Down: D O'Hare 0-6 (5fs), M Poland, D Savage (f), J Johnston 0-1 each.

Donegal – P Durcan 7; N McGee 7, E McGee, 7, P McGrath 7; Declan Walsh 6, F McGlynn 6, A Thompson 6; R Kavanagh 7, R Bradley 6; David Walsh 6, L McLoone 6, M McHugh 7; C McFadden 8, M Murphy 7, P McBrearty 5. Subs: M McElhinney 6 for Bradley (33), M O'Reilly 6 for David Walsh (33), R McHugh 6 for McGlynn (h-t), R Wherity 5 for McLoone (46), D Molloy for McBrearty (65).

Down – B McVeigh 7; D McCartan 7, B McArdle 7, K Quinn 6; D Rooney 6, P Turley 8, R Boyle 6; K McKernan 7, K King 5; A Rogers 6, M Poland 7, C Laverty 8; D O'Hare 7, N Madine 5, B Coulter 5. Subs: R Mallon 6 for Quinn (49), J Johnston 6 for Coulter (56), D Savage for Madine (62).

Ref – E Kinsella (Laois)

Irish Independent

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