Monday 20 November 2017

Six days to save Donegal's season

McGuinness must fix faults fast if champions are to avoid ignominy of early All-Ireland exit

In the three years under McGuinness, Donegal never had to play back-to-back matches in three successive weeks
In the three years under McGuinness, Donegal never had to play back-to-back matches in three successive weeks
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The hand of history pressed too heavily on Donegal as they saw a coveted three-in-a-row of Ulster football titles disappear over the horizon on Sunday evening last and now it is weighing down on them again.

Down's victory over Tipperary last year is the only time that beaten provincial finalists have overcome a six-day turnaround.

The performance against Monaghan, easily their poorest in a 16-match championship sequence under Jim McGuinness, has raised immediate concerns about the defence of their All-Ireland title which continues against Laois in Carrick-on-Shannon on Saturday.

Not since Tyrone in 2006 have the All-Ireland champions crashed out in the qualifiers when, ironically, they lost to Laois. But Donegal haven't become a bad team overnight and have a number of issues to address.

Can anyone play the Mark McHugh role in his probable absence?

Playing a dedicated sweeper in Gaelic football isn't a matter of deploying your quickest player or your best tackler. It demands a player of vision and strong football acumen.

It's why Tony McEntee was a success playing the role when Joe Kernan deployed him as an auxiliary centre-back with Armagh a decade ago.

Mark McHugh often recalls a childhood fuelled on a diet of watching videos and travelling to endless games in the company of his father. Long before he could play it at the highest level he could read it at the highest level.

With a second night spent in hospital after suffering concussion in his collusion with Stephen Gollogly, McHugh has effectively been ruled out to play on Saturday evening.

But his role is still critical to the way Donegal have played and thrived and the security he brings was clearly missing in his absence on Sunday. So often he has been the architect of the most penetrative moves that have started from the back.

"Even though there was two other players playing the position, they didn't maybe have the same game intelligence as Mark has for it and as a result Kieran Hughes particularly benefited from it. He got a lot of quality ball on the diagonal which Mark would normally be there for," acknowledged McGuinness.

Interestingly, the best replacement for him may well be his younger brother Ryan, who has yet to start a championship match. It would be a leap of faith but he fits the mould well.

Misfiring attack

None of the six Donegal forwards or the three replacements that came in scored from general play against Monaghan on Sunday.

As much as Monaghan deserve credit for such a shut-out, a forward line that contains Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden should always expect to oblige at least once. But they didn't.

Much has been made of the economy of their play so far this season. From 36 opportunities they have converted 2-22 and at 66pc it was way above the average until last Sunday when the figures were seven points from 18 opportunities (10 wides and one dropped short into Rory Beggan's arms).

McFadden didn't register a wide against Tyrone or Down but put his name on four here from a variety of placed balls.

It was arguably Murphy's quietest game in three seasons even from a defensive point of view and Donegal will pin their hopes on him, above everyone else, catching fire again this weekend. He must become the first point of attack again.

Lack of depth in the squad

By half-time in Sunday's Ulster final Donegal had used up four of their five substitutes.

One was obviously enforced through Mark McHugh's removal but the other three were down to performance and a shift of strategy. Limiting their options to just one more substitution for half the game in the conditions was not something planned for and made life easier for Monaghan in the last quarter. David Walsh was McHugh's replacement but was subsequently replaced by Ryan McHugh himself and Martin O'Reilly, a late replacement for Walsh before throw-in, lasted just 23 minutes before being sacrificed for Neil Gallagher.

For the third successive championship game both Ryan Bradley and Leo McLoone were hauled off. Is it time to change the scenery for them, hold them in reserve and see what impact they can make?

Christy Toye's absence from the squad through injury (he had picked up a virus earlier in the year) has been really felt in the last two games.

You could argue that only two of the five substitutions, the introduction of Gallagher and McHugh, really worked. Donegal needed more impetus late in the game but didn't get it.

Six-day turnaround and the potential for three games in three weeks

In three championship seasons under Jim McGuinness, Donegal have never had to play back-to-back matches in successive weeks. The shortest gap they have experienced is two weeks between the 2011 Ulster final and the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Coincidentally, that was the last time they had to chase a game until last Sunday's Ulster final.

With a limited squad and key players lacking fitness, the last thing Donegal needed was an extra match sandwiched in the middle of the two-week gap that they had planned for. It's new territory for the champions and with Karl Lacey (pictured) really struggling for fitness, six days isn't going to do a lot for him.

McGuinness mapped out the schedule for the week in Sunday's aftermath. Train Tuesday and Thursday, travel Friday. It doesn't give them much time to reflect and bring some perspective to last Sunday and underlines the difficulty for provincial losers facing into the six-day turnaround. The dates are out of their control but you can't imagine they'll be taxed on the training field too much this week.

Playing the games on their terms again

Conceding four points in a seven-minute spell is something that has never happened to Donegal on McGuinness' watch, outside of a goal being scored against them.

Once it happened in the opening stages of the Ulster final, the game was already away from them and they found themselves quickly playing on Monaghan's terms. From the moment Darren Hughes attacked them through the middle channel where Lacey was struggling they were in bother. That dynamic never changed.

Significantly they had the better of the next 28 minutes of the first half, outscoring Monaghan by 0-2 to 0-1, but momentum shifted away from them again and they had to press too far forward in greater numbers for penetration, leaving them open to counter-attack.

This too was unfamiliar territory and the imperative of playing the game on their terms and tempo again will be stressed this week.

Irish Independent

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