Thursday 29 September 2016

Five things we learned from the National League semi-finals

Published 12/04/2015 | 18:41

Donegal and Cork players in a tussle during the second half.
Donegal and Cork players in a tussle during the second half.

With Dublin and Cork set to contest the 2015 National Football League Final, here is what we learned from today's action at Croke Park

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Attacking football not yet dead and buried

It may only be April, but maybe the blanket defence hasn't entirely suffocated GAA's sharpshooters.

The Dublin/Derry encounter made headlines for all the wrong reasons last month, but there was no repeat today on Jones' Road.

After last season's trimmings at the hands of Dublin in the league and Kerry in the championship, Cork were expected to curb their attacking instincts somewhat to ensure such collapses are not repeated. Donegal of course are the team that have taken defensive strategies to a whole new level, so a tight encounter similar to their earlier meeting was predicted. However the first semi-final was a full of attacking play and eye-catching scores.

Four goals, 30 points and some clever work by both sets of supporters gave the sparse crowd something to cheers about. For Donegal to score 19 points and still lose by four indicates the busiest men were arguably the umpires beside goalkeeper Michael Boyle.

Dublin will get the opportunity to make it a third title on the trot in a fortnight's time, but were pushed all the way by a battling Monaghan.

Brian Hurley celebrates scoring his side's third goal at Croke Park, Dublin.
Brian Hurley celebrates scoring his side's third goal at Croke Park, Dublin.
Donegal and Cork players in a tussle during the second half.
Brian Hurley shoots past the Donegal goalkeeper Michael Boyle to score Cork's third goal in the 40th minute. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
12 April 2015; Cork goalkeeper Ken O'Halloran and full back Michael Shields combine to stop this shot on goal by Donegal's Colm McFadden. Allianz Football League Division 1, Semi-Final, Cork v Donegal, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Cork defender Tom Clancy shoots to score his side's first-half goal in the National league semi-final against Donegal at Croke Park. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Donegal's Eamonn MaGee in action against Tomas Clancy, left, and Brian Hurle. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Eamonn MaGeein action against Brian Hurley at Croke Park. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
12 April 2015; Karl Lacey, Donegal, in action against Kevin O'Driscoll, Cork. Allianz Football League Division 1, Semi-Final, Cork v Donegal, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
12 April 2015; Mark Collins, Cork, in action against Eoin McHugh, Donegal. Allianz Football League Division 1, Semi-Final, Cork v Donegal, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
12 April 2015; Frank McGlynn, Donegal, in action against Conor Dorman, Cork. Allianz Football League Division 1, Semi-Final, Cork v Donegal. Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Piaras ? M?dheach / SPORTSFILE
12 April 2015; Michael Murphy, Donegal, in action against Eoin Cadogan, Cork. Allianz Football League Division 1, Semi-Final, Cork v Donegal, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
12 April 2015; Diarmuid Connolly, Dublin, in action against Vinny Corey, Monaghan. Allianz Football League Division 1, Semi-Final, Dublin v Monaghan, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
12 April 2015; Dean Rock kicks a free for Dublin. Allianz Football League Division 1, Semi-Final, Dublin v Monaghan, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
12 April 2015; Conor McManus, Monaghan, in action against Brian Fenton, Dublin. Allianz Football League Division 1, Semi-Final, Dublin v Monaghan, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
12 April 2015; Jack McCaffrey, Dublin, in action against Kieran Hughes, Monaghan. Allianz Football League Division 1, Semi-Final, Dublin v Monaghan, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
12 April 2015; Darren Hughes, Monaghan, in action against David Byrne, left, and Jonny Cooper, Dublin. Allianz Football League Division 1, Semi-Final, Dublin v Monaghan, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
12 April 2015; Jonny Cooper, Dublin, in action against Thomas Kerr, Monaghan. Allianz Football League Division 1, Semi-Final, Dublin v Monaghan, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

After a cagey opening period, the second half was a riveting affair as the Ulster side showed no ill-effects from the hammering at the hands of the same opposition last time out to almost claim the scalp of the boys in blue.

It wasn't to be, but few of the 20,013 punters would argue they didn't get value for their money.

Forward class

Brian Cuthbert's issues last year in a disappointing campaign for Cork were clearly at the back, but in Colm O'Neill and Brian Hurley, the Rebels possess two of the most lethal inside forwards in the game.

Hurley set the tone in the opening minute with Cork's first attack. Out in front of Paddy McGrath, the Castlehaven attacker jinked, stood up his marker and then slotted over courtesy of the left-hand upright. Later in the half he repeated the trick, only this time fed Fintan Goold who could have raised the green flag but slotted over for a point.

Within four minutes of the restart of the second half the pair had both found the net to ensure a game that was delicately poised on level matters at the break soon became a six-point advantage for the Rebels.

O'Neill's finish was opportunism at its best, reacting before Neil McGee to fist to the net while Hurley demonstrated strength, power and composure to put the game beyond doubt.

In the second game Conor McManus ploughed a lonely furrow, but yet again showed why he is considered one of the best attackers in the business. The 2013 All Star was at times the only Farney attacker in the final third, but finished with a tally of eight points, five from play.

All the talk recently has been of defences, but Croke Park today witnessed some top class forward play.

What a difference a week makes

Last week in Clones the 2013 Ulster champions were on the wrong side of an eleven point drubbing at the hands of the Dubs. At Croke Park today a far more effective defensive display, with largely the same group of players, ensured there was no repeat of a runaway victory, and could possibly have nicked a draw at the death

Their game plan was evident very early on, as the attack funnelled back leaving Ciaran McManus to cast a lonely figure in the Farney attack.

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It might not appeal to the purists, but they were on level terms with 10 minutes remaining before Jim Gavin's side appeared to pull clear, before Dick Clerkin and McManus reduced it to the bare minimum.

Donegal defensive frailties

The resurgence of Donegal football, led by Jim McGuinness was a resolute defence where every player knew his role. Attackers dropped deep and broke with pace.

Last year the Ulster champions conceded just four goals in the entire championship and in the group stages of the National League kept a clean sheet on four occasions, but today's defeat will give Rory Gallagher plenty to reflect on.

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It was the first time Donegal had conceded four goals in league or championship since the Mayo massacre in the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2013 and the space afforded to Cork players in the final third was most un-Donegal like.

Tyrone lie in wait in the Ulster championship opener in five weeks time and Mickey Harte will have watched on in interest at the generous defending on display by Gallagher's side.

Dublin solid if not spectacular

Dublin manager Jim Gavin will probably be pleased that unlike 12 months ago, his team are going about their business in an understated manner. A greater margin of victory would have been welcomed, but it gives the management team plenty to work on while still keeping on course for a third successive National League title.

After shooting the lights out in 2014 before coming a cropper at the hands of Donegal, they won four from seven in the Division One this year and scraping past Monaghan will have the hype machine kept well under wraps for the time being.

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One of the chief concerns will be the lack of cutting edge up front. Monaghan's tactics meant space was at a premium. Ciaran Kilkenny and Dean Rock failed to register a score from play, while the usual swashbuckling style was stifled by the losers.

Further silverware is up for grabs for Dublin in two weeks, and the bad news for the rest of the country is that there is still room for serious improvement.

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