Saturday 24 August 2019

Dick Clerkin: 'Ulster's high kings show Dubs they can challenge drive-for-five ambitions'

Kings of Ulster: Jamie Brennan fires past Cavan goalkeeper Raymond Galligan for the Donegal goal. . Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Kings of Ulster: Jamie Brennan fires past Cavan goalkeeper Raymond Galligan for the Donegal goal. . Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

Clones on Ulster football final day remains one of the country's unique sporting events. The idea that it could be dissolved into a revised Championship doesn't bear thinking about.

Fermanagh Street on the showpiece Sunday is a veritable assault on the senses. Once you scale Church Hill and enter the St Tiernach's amphitheatre a sea of colour and tribal passion awaits.

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Cavan’s Conor Moynagh challenges Michael Langan. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cavan’s Conor Moynagh challenges Michael Langan. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Competing in a remarkable eighth decider in nine years, Donegal's green and yellow has become synonymous with recent occasions. Yesterday, the swarms of Breffni Blue marked the sixth side to face them down during that time. Disappointingly for those Cavan fans, that they'd become the fifth side Donegal have beaten in Ulster finals this decade was all but decided by half-time.

After Saturday night's disappointment, few Monaghan people would have ventured near Clones yesterday.

A lifelong attendee of Ulster showpieces, not even the thought of our fiercest local rivals hoisting the Anglo-Celt was enough to deter me from the hype and intrigue that yesterday's encounter promised.

A broken promise, it would turn out, as stage-fright seemed to take over a timid Cavan side, who never came to grips with Donegal's physicality and direct running.

Donegal players celebrate with the Anglo-Celt Cup. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Donegal players celebrate with the Anglo-Celt Cup. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

In truth, there is little point in analysing yesterday's contest beyond half-time, such was the challenge match nature of the second act. Future statistics will show a credible five-point defeat for Cavan, yet 2-4 of their head-scratching 2-16 came in the last 10 minutes, when dejected Cavan supporters were already streaming toward the exits.

Cavan's progress to the final was centred on their ability to distribute long early ball into their full-forward line, with willing runners coming off the shoulder at will.

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From the outset Donegal ruthlessly shut down this avenue, with Neil McGee, and Paddy McGrath miserly in defence. Ryan McHugh gave an exhibition as a sweeping half-back, collecting broken play and launching attacks at every opportunity. Together with Eoghan Bán Gallagher he forms a wing-back partnership that is as good as there is about at present.

With Cavan unable to deploy their preferred game plan, they were dependant on running through the middle to create opportunities.

When they tried, a disciplined wall of green and yellow greeted them with a salivating intensity and physicality that the Cavan players wouldn't have experienced to date in this year's Championship.

After riding the crest of a wave for the past 12 months, Mickey Graham got taught a harsh lesson yesterday in the cold realities of top-level inter-county football. This morning he will surely be cursing his decision to adopt an overly defensive approach in the opening stages that conceded far too much possession to his more experienced opponents.

Opting not to physically engage in the middle third, Cavan allowed Donegal to enter scoring territory too easily, where the fleet-footed Jamie Brennan and Paddy McBrearty thrived. Finishing with a goal and eight points from play between them, Cavan frequently relied on last-ditch defending to prevent an even greater tally.

On the other side of the pitch, Donegal's ability to quickly close down space saw the scales quickly tip in favour of the reigning Ulster champions, from which they would never rebalance.

In the middle third, Donegal's Hugh McFadden, Jason McGee and Michael Murphy roamed at will, notching up points when they weren't dominating kick-outs from either direction. Gearoid McKiernan was the only Cavan player to come out of the middle third with his stripes intact, as those around him seemed to wilt under the occasion.

Contrast Cavan's stand-off approach to that of Cork's on Saturday night, or even Meath to a lesser extent yesterday. Both Cork and Meath recognised they had to compete and gain some level of parity around the middle third if they stood any chance of an upset.

Cork played with an intensity few Kerry players would have experienced in recent years. Ultimately going down to a more clinical Kerry side, at least this time they died with their boots on, having succumbed in stilettos on too many previous encounters.

Meath equally stayed in the game longer than anyone expected, by facing up to Dublin in the middle third. Had they a Paddy McBrearty and Jamie Brennan in their side, they could have been an awful lot closer to Dublin than their eventual 16-point hammering suggests.

On the back of this performance, Declan Bonner's Donegal men can rightly stake a claim to being Dublin's greatest challengers.

Their final quarter concessions to Cavan can be forgiven, as when it mattered in the first half, they shut out their opponents with a ruthless effectiveness that would stifle most teams. Ulster's team of the decade can now look south as arguably the greatest threat to the 'Team of the Century' in waiting.

Before the final whistle yesterday, many of their own fans didn't even wait around to see Michael Murphy lift his fifth Anglo-Celt. They too are anticipating bigger days ahead.

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