Colm Keys: 'Murphy and McHugh exerting more influence than ever on in-form Donegal'
Murphy and McHugh exerting greater influence than ever
When Shane McEntee accelerated past Donegal's Jason McGee, some 58 minutes into Sunday's All-Ireland quarter-final phase one game in Ballybofey, and flashed over an equalising point for Meath that might well have been a goal, it was as if an electrical current had jolted the travelling support with a surge of belief and anticipation that something was on.
The outsiders in the group briefly saw a sliver of light.
But within seconds Meath had fallen into one of the tried-and-trusted traps that Donegal can lay in these situations. And the place went dark on them.
Shaun Patton, so adept at hugging the wings from his kick-outs, launched long and in the direction of his team's 'port in a storm'. Hitting the general vicinity of Michael Murphy in these situations is akin to a hooker throwing to the front of the lineout.
Before the ball had even touched Murphy's glancing hand, Ryan McHugh had begun his run, darting ahead of the aerial contest.
Murphy, inevitably, got the touch and McHugh was in the clear, offloading to Jamie Brennan who sliced over a third point.
Meath momentum died in those moments, perished on the rocks of that 'little and large' axis of control and influence like so many other teams before them this year and before.
But Murphy and McHugh weren't finished. From Meath's next kick-out, McHugh won the break, transferred to Murphy and with a switch of direction Oisín Gallen was popping over a point to double the lead.
That lead was extended again when Murphy claimed a further Meath kick-out in the 61st minute, crashing off an opponent and a colleague as he landed, to create terms for a converted Patrick McBrearty free.
By squeezing the life out of Meath's kick-out in that spell they had taken the game completely under their wing.
The tap-down from Murphy and McHugh is something Meath, like every other opposing team, would have planned for in advance but it was on top of them before they knew it and virtually impossible to defend against. Five years on from their taking down of Dublin when it was such an integral part of their weaponry, its effect is still felt.
The influence of Murphy and McHugh, two players with vastly different physical dimensions, manifested in so many different ways, just as it has done all season.
Murphy claimed two of his own kick-outs, tapped down two more to McHugh, and won two off Meath in the second half alone. He's been helped by the continued progression of Patton as goalkeeper and his ability to find runners off his kick-outs with Donegal winning 18 of their 20, many delivered with precision to the flanks.
Given the impact he had from full-forward in the Division 2 league final last March, Meath might have expected him to position himself there throughout Sunday's Ballybofey encounter to test their aerial defences but instead he pulled the strings from the middle third in tandem with McHugh, who has reset more to a deeper position this season. Try defining their positions though and you'll continually trip yourself up.
McHugh pushed forward to score two points, one in the first half a trademark shoulder drop and run through the heart of a defence similar to a score he produced at a vital time against Tyrone in last year's final Super 8s game at the same venue.
So much for his projection to run less with the ball as a consequence of the blows to the head that he took twice last year and forced him into taking lengthy breaks each time.
He was there to meet his core duties as a defender too, diving to intercept a pass from Brian McMahon to James Conlon before getting a block on Darragh Campion to prevent a certain score when the game was still in the melting pot.
Murphy too moved easily into preventative mode with a number of crucial interceptions when he sat back late on.
But only after he had landed two points from play at the other end when the result was in the balance.
For all the strands that Donegal appear to have added to their game under Declan Bonner and now Stephen Rochford as coach, it is this duo who continue to exert the biggest influence, onfield generals who decide the temperature and direction of their play.
On Sunday, the stakes rise again with Kerry on the card in Croke Park. When they met in the All-Ireland final five years ago, Kerry were able to snare both by deploying Paul Murphy on McHugh and Aidan O'Mahony on Murphy and those arrangements were key components in their only All-Ireland win this decade.
This time their roles are different with both players in the cockpit now rather than the more advanced roles they had them. Donegal's game-plan is more on their terms.
It feels like an advanced test of the credentials of both teams to see who is more advanced in the pursuit of Dublin.