Saturday 16 December 2017

Eoin Liston: Champions still alive but McCartan exposes chinks in their armour

The purists may disagree, but for me yesterday's clash in Ulster was hugely entertaining. Two teams going hell for leather in tough conditions for the full 70 minutes – it's hard to ask for more.

Sure, there wasn't a massive amount of the traditional skills such as long kick-passing and high fetching, but I don't mind a short-passing game as long as it's done at full pelt, with players emptying the tank to support each other. Every player involved displayed a pure desperation to win the match and that's what the championship should be about.

The game also would have offered food for thought for the likes of Dublin, Cork, Kerry and Mayo. Down asked a lot of questions of Donegal. When they ran hard at them, the Donegal defenders resorted to fouling, and at times there was a cynical element to their approach.

Jim McGuinness must surely note that his team got a number of yellow cards, and at least one of them could have easily turned red had it not been for some leniency from the referee Eddie Kinsella.

Huge credit must go to James McCartan and, without wanting to come across as patronising, he can be extremely proud of his players. Again, we have seen how a shrewd manager and tactician is so vital. James altered the way his team played in order to tackle the Donegal juggernaut.

The free-flowing, gung-ho attacking style long associated with Down was replaced by a short defensive game, reliant on counter-attacks. Indeed, it was only a few short weeks ago that they played such an open style to defeat Derry.

He got his tactics spot on. Their main downfall was when they worked the ball into scoring positions where too often the final pass let them down and the basic decision-making was poor.

At times, it was a case of the wrong man in possession at the vital moment. In the last quarter, there was a reluctance among the players to shoot and chances came and went.

Some of their basic handling skills also let them down and they will look back on this one with regret. Donegal were there for the taking. If a more ruthless team like Dublin had them on the rack like that, they would have put the All-Ireland champions to the sword.

Indeed, had they a Benny Coulter of old, Down would have won. That's how fine the line was. Benny has been one of the top forwards in the land over the past decade.

To be fair, he was often left isolated yesterday, particularly in the first half, and Donegal were able to tie him up. But Father Time waits for no man and it showed at times yesterday when he just wasn't as sharp as before.

And therein lay the difference. Even though Mark Poland and Conor Laverty impressed and Donal O'Hare was excellent from frees, they lacked that X-factor in attack that Benny used to bring.

At the other end, Donegal could call on arguably the deadliest duo in the country right now, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden. Those two will, more often than not, be the difference in games like this.

McFadden was actually quiet by his own high standards for the majority of the match. But he stepped up to kick two huge points in the final stages. Not only did they give his team much-needed relief when they were under pressure, it also knocked the heart out of the Mourne men.

Murphy did something similar when he kicked a ball over with something to spare from all of 60 yards on a wet, windy day. Incredible stuff.

And even though they were exposed at times, and a better team would have taken them out, the reality is Donegal are still standing. Yesterday they were without Karl Lacey and Neil Gallagher from the start. Then they lost Ryan Bradley and Frank McGlynn by half-time.

Paddy McBrearty and McFadden weren't firing for long periods. All those mentioned are central to their style of play and hugely influential. Yet they emerged with the victory against a well-organised and hugely motivated team.

The main doubt about Donegal is the size of their squad and it will be tested to the limits now. It's hard to see how they will be stopped in Ulster, but without their full complement fit and ready in August, they will be in trouble.

Nobody will need to tell Jim that, though. I have long said his achievements with this team have been nothing short of phenomenal. He'll know better than anyone coming out of Breffni Park that he will need to work some more of his magic.

Irish Independent

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