Donegal a shadow of their former selves – but don’t write them off
A lot of people were interested to see how Donegal had wintered after a Division 2 campaign and in particular to observe what, if anything, had changed in their style of play from their All-Ireland-winning days.
It was amazing to see the changes that had come over the once super-confident team that manager Jim McGuinness led to such brilliant success.
Now it was Monaghan – who of course beat Donegal in last year’s Ulster final – who were dominating the play for long periods.
They were usually first to the ball and were far more incisive in their tackling – they often literally took the ball out of the hands of Donegal players.
The great Donegal players of recent years like Karl Lacey, the McGees, Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy were still brilliant, but this time that brilliance was often matched – and trumped – by eager Monaghan opponents.
McFadden looked a little tired at times and missed chances that were second nature to him a couple of years ago.
Conor McManus highlighted the deterioration of the once deadly Donegal full-back line, winning nearly every long ball that went in to the full-forwards – and ‘long' was the key word because Monaghan had obviously decided not to exclusively try to outwit those Donegal backs at close range, usually a fruitless exercise anyway, but instead thread the ball through to their forwards from far out the field.
Darren Hughes, Paudie McKenna, Dick Clerkin and Paul Finlay had the courage and self-belief to take long-range points, which also undermined the Donegal defence.
The black card certainly had an influence on the way this game was played, as opposed to a similar contest between these two teams a year or two ago.
The best example of that produced Monaghan's goal: a long passing movement involving several Monaghan players spread over about 60 metres ended with Kieran Hughes firing in an exceptional score.
It is doubtful whether in the past the Donegal players (or players from any county) would have allowed such a lovely passing movement to continue unchecked.
Fears about the black card doing away with physicality were dispelled too yesterday – I am sure many players from each side will be able to vouch for that when they try to get out of their bed this morning.
Monaghan look well set up to advance further than last year.
However, it would also be foolish to forget about Donegal now, because I got the feeling that when the killer streak is needed to win a championship game, we will see a different Donegal.
Croker mini games a credit to GAA ethos
One of the interesting developments in Croke Park for some years now has been the mini games at half-time in the big games, which provide a wonderful opportunity for young children – boys and girls – to wear their county colours and strut their stuff at headquarters.
Watching the game on Saturday in freezing conditions between Cavan club Ballymachugh – one of the smallest in the county – and Western Gaels from Roscommon brought home how simple it is to provide a really worthwhile gesture for young children and enable them to have a visit to Croke Park that they will never forget.
It is small but significant gestures like these that have kept the huge GAA operation in touch with the common people on whom the Association has always depended for its success.
Versatility of players the most powerful weapon in Dublin's arsenal
While talk of a football dynasty being laid down by the Dublin footballers over the next decade is nonsense, there is no doubt most counties will believe they have no chance of beating the reigning All-Ireland champions in the foreseeable future.
In particular, Dublin's Leinster rivals must be looking at the upcoming championship with grim prospects.
Dublin simply were in a different class yesterday and one wonders how Derry managed to actually beat them in Celtic Park in the league this year. Surely the Croke Park factor cannot explain Dublin's brilliance?
If there is one thing that separates this Dublin team from the chasing pack it is the versatility of so many of their players. This is a powerful weapon for any team to have in their armoury, particularly when so many of this Dublin team are very skilful players.
We got a perfect example of this versatility when Johnny Cooper was assigned to mark Derry's Mark Lynch, the key man on his team, as we saw in their semi-final defeat of Mayo earlier this month.
Yesterday Cooper completely outplayed Lynch and that was the most crucial centrepiece of the match. Without Lynch being in top form Derry's attack was leaderless.
Jim Gavin has options all over the field, and the choices he has available to him from a player like Paul Flynn means that any gap can easily be filled.
It looks now as if Eoghan O'Gara will gain a regular place on the Dublin team as a member of the full-forward line because his linking up with Bernard Brogan seems to be particularly effective.
Yet Dublin still have a lot of football to play before they secure another All-Ireland. There are managers who will be capable of plotting a more difficult course for the rest of the summer than the Dubs have had in this league.
Individual Dublin players will be earmarked for special attention, some counties will be capable of upping the physical stakes too and injuries can seriously upset the plans of any county team.
But maybe all this is nothing more than clutching at straws!