Tuesday 20 February 2018

Perennial underachievers barge way into front rank

Tommy Conlon

They won't win the All-Ireland, Donegal, but they have a puncher's chance of taking out a team that can.

They will be dangerous opponents for even the best teams because they have, in Michael Murphy, a player with such an outsized talent that he could inflict terminal damage virtually on his own.

And as a team they are showing all the unmistakeable signs of men on a mission: the immense work ethic is proof positive that they are high on confidence, morale and unity.

They deserved their Ulster title last Sunday on the strength of their second-half performance. A few of them deserved it too, notably Hegarty, Cassidy, McFadden and Lacey, for services rendered and traumas accumulated during the barren years. And it is typical of sport's random cruelty that others who deserved it for the same reasons, the likes of Brendan Devenney, Brian Roper and Adrian Sweeney, were no longer around when the happy day arrived.

Neither, for Derry, were the Bradley boys, both of them jinxed by cruciate ligament injuries. It was 11 years since Paddy Bradley had played in an Ulster final. Eoin was looking forward to his first, having lit up the semi-final with a sparkling individual display against Armagh. Two weeks ago, seven days out from the final, the ligament tore in a training game.

As ever, the emotional commitment in serious amateur sport demands an all-or-nothing gamble. Those Donegal veterans got their pay-off last Sunday and it was euphoria all the way. For the Bradleys, it was devastation before a ball was kicked; for their team-mates on the field, it was merely dejection delayed.

The loss of both brothers from the Derry full-forward line was probably the tipping point that swung the tie irretrievably in Donegal's direction. Derry just did not have the necessary cutting edge without them.

Their manager John Brennan was wrong to hang the defeat on a key refereeing decision after half-time. Maurice Deegan was correct to give the penalty to Donegal. It is understandable that the manager on the receiving end will see things differently. It is baffling that a pundit in the TV studio is capable of looking at an incident, over and over in slow-motion replay, and still somehow miss what actually happened.

Michael Hegarty, hugely influential on the day, drove a long ball from midfield, aimed at Murphy on the edge of the square. Murphy had eyes only for the ball. As he turned to stretch for it, the Derry 'keeper Danny Devlin slid into him feet first, catching Murphy in the ankle and toppling him. It was a cast-iron penalty. Yet on The Sunday Game that night, Pat Spillane reckoned that Devlin had "stopped in his tracks" and that "Murphy's momentum carried him into Devlin".

It's one thing to have an opinion. It's another thing altogether to misread the actual evidence. It happens far too often among GAA pundits and commentators: even with the benefit of slow-motion replays from umpteen angles, they still fail to spot what actually happened.

Brennan was highly critical of Deegan. "Our goalkeeper comes out, their forward runs into him, and they get a penalty? I would love to get inside his brain. Try to ask him if there is something in Portlaoise that I don't understand in Derry." (There's a lot of things in Portlaoise that they don't understand in Portlaoise, never mind Derry.)

Brennan also felt they were denied a penalty in the 63rd minute. This one was more open to interpretation but again, Deegan got it spot-on. The ball broke in the Donegal square, Derry's Emmet McGuckin snatched it just ahead of Neil McGee. But McGee was already committed to the ball and simultaneously barrelled into McGuckin. Spillane called it "a frontal challenge". Again the replays showed otherwise: It was shoulder to shoulder -- a proper, legitimate championship hit. McGuckin was crunched because he was static at the moment of impact while McGee was in motion.

Deegan waved play on, Donegal came away with the ball and two seconds later played a hospital pass to one of their subs, David Walsh. The Derry midfielder Michael Friel duly lined up Walsh and nailed him with a body shot. Deegan booked Friel, probably for the velocity of the hit, but it seemed a fair enough challenge within the crash-bang-wallop culture of championship football.

Both these incidents proved there is plenty of physical contact within the sport, despite widespread misgivings about fussy refereeing. The charge is that it is taking the "physicality" out of the game. But what Croke Park is trying to do is take the petty, persistent fouling out of the game. Donegal in particular were guilty of this and if the referees are asked to ease off on yellow cards, teams will exploit this vacuum immediately.

Refereeing policy is by and large going in the right direction, despite ongoing frustrations about individual decisions. But the lack of a defined tackle -- that old chestnut -- means referees are being asked to read the nuances of every situation to determine when a tackle crosses the line and becomes a foul. It is a thin line and always will be.

Donegal were simply the better team on the day and, as always, it's great to see a county catch the buzz of big-time championship fever. This team, and its people, will be coming to Croke Park with the wind in their sails.


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