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Declan Bonner: Handpass rule is curtailing chances, it's just a waste of time

Donegal 1-17 Down 0-10

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Spot-on: Leitrim goalkeeper Diarmuid McKiernan watches on as Mayo’s Jason Doherty scores the opening penalty in the shoot-out at Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Spot-on: Leitrim goalkeeper Diarmuid McKiernan watches on as Mayo’s Jason Doherty scores the opening penalty in the shoot-out at Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

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Spot-on: Leitrim goalkeeper Diarmuid McKiernan watches on as Mayo’s Jason Doherty scores the opening penalty in the shoot-out at Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Like his sideline peers, Declan Bonner's priority in a competition like the McKenna Cup is to road-test potential new talent, allow them to experience a relatively competitive environment.

But in Newry, for their second pre-season outing, it was an old hand who laid down the biggest marker for the months ahead in quite emphatic fashion.

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Down’s Shay Murnin leaving the pitch after picking up a head injury in the warm-up. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Down’s Shay Murnin leaving the pitch after picking up a head injury in the warm-up. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

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Martin McElhinney was a late inclusion to the named team but how he seized the opportunity.

On the sidelines for so much of last year through injury - all three of his appearances were against Tyrone, in three different competitions - his trajectory appeared to be nudging downwards against the swell of talent that is rising in the county again.

So this was an important performance for him on an otherwise forgettable afternoon as he clipped over four points, assisted for a couple more and generally added to the physical dominance that Donegal, through Hugh McFadden and Caolan McGonigle also, were able to apply to the middle third.

Down's new manager Paddy Tally is just a few weeks into the job but he'll be aware of the road he has to travel.

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Niall O'Donnell of Donegal in action against Brendan McArdle of Down. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Niall O'Donnell of Donegal in action against Brendan McArdle of Down. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

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The county's name is only going to carry them so far and there were few, if any, sparks here to suggest an early blaze under his stewardship.

True, they were missing such established players as Kevin McKernan, Caolan Mooney, Darren and Barry O'Hagan, and Donal O'Hare, while Brendan McArdle limped out with an injury after just 11 minutes.

But for every absent player they could lay out on the table, Donegal could see and even raise them.

Bonner estimated that around 15 players weren't available to him yesterday. Their strength in depth is clearly increasing.

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Paul Devlin of Down has a shot blocked by Caolan McGonigle of Donegal. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Paul Devlin of Down has a shot blocked by Caolan McGonigle of Donegal. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

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Bonner revealed that within two days of their 'Super 8s' defeat to Tyrone in early August, his thoughts had already turned to squad-building for 2019.

But the addition of Stephen Rochford as a coach could possibly be as good a piece of business as he will have done in the last five months.

"No disrespect to the people who were there, we looked at where we were in terms of winning Ulster and it was brilliant to win Ulster but we felt we came up a little bit short in the Super 8s and no more than looking at the playing personnel you look at every aspect of it," he said.

Bonner has been one of the sternest critics of the experimental rules, particularly the restriction of three consecutive handpasses and his team were caught out at least three times on that front.

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Conor Morrison of Donegal in action against Jerome Johnston of Down. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Conor Morrison of Donegal in action against Jerome Johnston of Down. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

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But it was Down who paid the biggest penalty when, in the 19th minute, Rory Mason teed up Conor McGrady for a goal which was disallowed because the sequence had exceeded the number allowed in the build-up, some in the press box even suggesting the move had stretched to five in succession.

Had it stood, Down would have led by 1-2 to 0-4 at that stage and while they closed the gap to a point through Ryan Johnston, it was their last score of the half and, as Donegal hit five points without reply, the game was soon out of reach for the home side.

They made little inroads in the second half, though full-forward Pat Havern had a shot off an upright from a good position, but the disallowed goal was a reference point for both managers afterwards.

"I'm so tired talking about them. How many times out there? The Down goal number one," Bonner said. "It's actually curtailing goal opportunities, about eight or nine different times in the match it curtailed good movement, good flowing moves. Is that improving the game of football? I think it's a waste of time and I've said it all along."

So sure is he that it will be abandoned he claims not to have even integrated it into his training. Watching their small-sided warm-up games beforehand, handpasses didn't seem to be restricted.

Tally had been more open to them a week earlier but the goal-that-wasn't had an influence. "It's very confusing. You can see it today, the frustration on both teams. On any other day that would have been considered a very good goal. That would have given Down a good lift. It slows up the game."

Certainly, it will be held in evidence against any case to progress this experiment to the league.

The other experiments didn't really impact. Down were penalised for one backward sideline while there wasn't a mark taken by either side and very little long ball was attempted.

The visitors got the only goal on 62 minutes when Oisin Gallen's speculative delivery, intended for another substitute, Lorcan Connor, was overcooked but McGonigle steamed through to bat past the out-rushing Down goalkeeper Johnny Parr.

For Donegal, a bad hamstring injury to Eoin McHugh was one of the few drawbacks to their trip to the other end of the province, and Bonner's initial prognosis wasn't positive.

"The biggest concern is Eoin McHugh. I haven't been in the dressing room yet but it looks like he's torn his hamstring. He will be out for the early league games if it's as bad as it looks," Bonner added.

Tally is pragmatic enough to know where the starting line is for him.

"I've been given the responsibility to rebuild the Down team and you're going to have some bad days when you do that," he said, pointing to another afternoon when 13 of his team hadn't played championship in 2018.

SCORERS - Donegal: M McElhinney 0-4; C McGonigle 1-1; N O'Donnell 0-3 (2fs); M Langan (2fs), J Brennan 0-2 each; P Mogan, H McFadden, C Thompson, M O'Reilly, O Gallen 0-1 each. Down: P Devlin 0-3 (3fs); C McGrady 0-2; E McCabe, J Johnston, R Johnston, P Havern, C Harney 0-1 each.

Donegal - MA McGinley; C Ward, B McCole, C Morrison; E McHugh, C McGonigle, P Mogan; H McFadden, M McElhinney; E Doherty, N O'Donnell, C Thompson; J Brennan, M Langan, M O'Reilly. Subs: J McGee for Thompson (41), P Brennan for McHugh (42, inj), L Connors for J Brennan (47), O Gallen for O'Reilly (57), P Dolan for Mogan (64).

Down - J Parr; S Annett, R Wells, R McAleenan; G Collins, B McArdle, R Johnston; A McClements, D McCarthy; R Mason, C Poland, C Francis; J Johnston, P Havern, C Harney. Subs: C McGrady for McArdle (11, inj), P Devlin for Mason (h-t), D McClements for Harney (h-t), C Quinn for Havern (49), E McCabe for A McClements (52).

Ref - B Cassidy (Derry).

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