Saturday 24 February 2018

Eugene McGee - Michael Murphy's law could rule the summer

Talismanic forward has presence and rare quality to decide destination of championship

Stefan Campbell, Armagh, in action against Michael Murphy, Donegal
Stefan Campbell, Armagh, in action against Michael Murphy, Donegal
Eugene McGee

Eugene McGee

With over 20 minutes gone in the Donegal v Armagh game, we were entitled to fear the worst about how the game would unfold. By then, Donegal had managed just one score, a free from Michael Murphy.

Armagh did little better, with just three points from the Kernan brothers and Stefan Forker.

Was the match going to end up as many had predicted with a scoreline of 0-10 to 0-9 or similar, with packed defences dominating throughout?

Well, we were all pleasantly surprised because after the, by now, regular 'hold me back till I hit him' antics the players decided to concentrate on football and gave us a very entertaining game of football.

Sure, it was hard and tough, but nothing to do permanent damage to the image of either county and even though the final scoreline of 1-12 to 1-11 was lower than the average in recent months, the fact we got a grand finale with the verdict in doubt right to the end meant the huge audience got full value for their money.

Donegal won because they were that bit better at handling the massed defence type of game and, in Michael Murphy, they had the most valuable attacker on view.

He did not set the world on fire like he has done so often in the past, but his presence alone meant that, whenever the ball went into his area, Armagh defenders were entitled to feel edgy.

Only a few forwards in Ireland, including Colm Cooper, have that ability and it will be interesting to observe how Dublin cope with the Glenswilly man in the semi-final.

Armagh, as they have done all summer, improved this time too.

They got a great psychological boost early on when, despite nearly the whole Donegal team playing in front of him in their own half of the field, Tony Kernan said 'to hell with the begrudgers' and lofted the ball over the bar in the seventh minute from just over 45 metres.

The contest became more expansive as it wore on, although with the massed defence method now inbuilt in the DNA of both these sides, they always tended to protect their own half of the field with extra bodies before venturing forth to attempt scoring efforts at the other end.

When, as happened in the 10th minute, we saw Murphy sending a long ball from outfield into Karl Lacey, about 15 metres from the Armagh goal, you can appreciate the mobility of the Donegal players and their facility at turning defence to attack with ease.

Armagh played much the same as Donegal except that they had a more expansive approach to attacking, much of it initiated from wing half-back Aaron Kernan and his brother Tony from wing-forward.

Inevitably, however, defences did dominate and even those brave souls who ventured a shot from reasonable distance fared poorly, as was shown by the statistic of 20 wides between the two teams after 50 minutes of play as opposed to 17 scores, of which over half came from frees.

The difference between two very evenly-matched teams was Murphy because he surveyed the scene better than any other player and ensured that Donegal made more right decisions than Armagh in his section of the field.

Donegal will test awesome Dubs in way they've yet to experience

Please God give us a real game of football when Dublin take on Donegal on August 31 – otherwise we run the risk of not having seen a genuine championship contest involving the Dubs in the whole of 2014.

Despite the valiant but unconvincing attempts by Jim Gavin and some of his players to tell us that Dublin got a very hard game against Monaghan, the world and his mother and father knows that Dublin's second string could have beaten Monaghan by a wide margin based on what we saw on Saturday night.

This is the 14th year of All-Ireland quarter-finals and the team that has got the highest individual score in those 56 games since 2001 is the present Dublin side with Saturday's tally of 2-22.

Incidentally, the second highest may be of interest to Jim Gavin also – it was Mayo in 2012 when they scored 3-18 against Down. Mayo also beat Dublin in the semi-final the same year.

Saturday's game, like all Dublin's in the championship this summer, was little more than a training session and I suspect that even rabid Dublin followers will be secretly hoping that there is not another massacre on August 31, if only to measure how good Dublin really are before facing Mayo or Kerry in the final.

Already there have been some signs of panic among the GAA population at the prospect of Dublin not only winning this year's All-Ireland but possibly for several successive years. Did somebody mention a five-in-a-row?

Of course this sort of rash speculation is nonsense. Yes, Dublin have a great selection of quality players right now and their greatest asset is the strength of this panel rather than the actual first 15.

But there are several things that can go wrong to upset long-term forecasts in every sport; after all, that is the great attraction of sport the world over.

Some Dublin players will be retiring in the next couple of years, others may decide that there are other things in life they wish to do while still young enough, and of course serious injuries can upset even the best-laid plans – so hold the wild forecasts for the moment please.

Donegal will definitely test Dublin in a way they have not encountered at this level to date.

Even though there are clear signs of wear and tear among four or five Donegal stars, they will be hard to beat.

They need a shot in the arm to rejuvenate them now – could the return of Mark McHugh from New York be a possibility?

We must wait and see, while Dublin must grin and bear it as their image of invincibility continues to grow.

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