Friday 23 March 2018

Mastery of Michael Murphy keeps Donegal on direct route

Donegal 2-11 Armagh 0-8 Ulster SFC quarter-final

Patrick McBrearty, Donegal, in action against James Morgan, Armagh
Patrick McBrearty, Donegal, in action against James Morgan, Armagh
Donegal's Martin McElhinney in action against Finnian Moriarty of Armagh
Armagh's Jamie Clarke in action against Karl Lacey of Donegal
Hugh McFadden, Donegal, in action against Caolan Rafferty, Armagh
Patrick McBrearty, Donegal, in action against Ciaran McKeever, Armagh

The clock had almost run down, some of the crowd were streaming out the exits and most of the players had their ears tilted for the final whistle when Michael Murphy set off on one last lung-bursting run.

Murphy's size can sometimes create an illusion about the speed he travels at but here, as he accelerated between two orange shirts, all that was missing was a jet stream tailing behind him.

He checked and offloaded to Karl Lacey, his fellow phenomenon in this indefatigable Donegal team, who in turn placed Odhran MacNiallais for the game's final score.

On a warm day, with the game long won and their next match against Derry just 13 days away, Murphy and Lacey might have had conservation in mind.

But it's a measure of both men that they had the will and the energy to make one last sortie like it.

Murphy has long been described as the most influential player to any team in the game. The evidence here embellished that assertion.

He was lord and master throughout, operating almost like a quarterback as he planted himself in front of Lacey's middle channel to give protection and direction in equal quantities.

After the 'shackling' by Justin McMahon in Ballybofey four weeks earlier Armagh gave him freedom to exert influence and he accepted gratefully.

On top of all that there was his long-range free-taking. In such calm conditions, anything between 45 and 60 metres was on his radar and he obliged with four big conversions from that range. All told, he covered a distance in the order of about 230 metres with his five kicks.

But to portray it simply as 'the Murphy show' would be misleading because this was a collective effort of intelligence, understanding and patience.

So much for the Athletic Grounds being the most likely site of an ambush on the steeper side of the Ulster draw for the champions. So much for their hunger for Ulster being sated by the scale of the climb or the weight of past achievements.

They are moving headlong now towards a fourth provincial title in five years. They continue to turn every pre-conceived idea about them on its head.

Donegal mixed their tactics up throughout but early on they fired it in long and high on top of Patrick McBrearty or sometimes Neil Gallagher and it had Armagh on the back foot. McBrearty was perfectly isolated in a one-on-one with James Morgan when he fielded Gallagher's delivery from midfield, drew a save out of Matthew McNiece but followed up to goal from the rebound.

In a match of this nature a three-point lead translates into quite a lead.

But Donegal weren't content to sit back on that. They pushed on and won four of the first five kick-outs, helping them to build a 1-3 to 0-0 advantage by the 12th minute.

Armagh were still stuck in Division 3 mode at that stage, Kieran McGeeney's concerns over a spring spent in one of the lower divisions well founded.

Armagh were sloppy in their execution of just about everything and were made pay dearly by swift counter-attack. Some of the ball turned over didn't even require pressure from a Donegal hand.

To James Morgan's credit, he clawed some ground back on McBrearty with his captain Ciaran McKeever also stepping in at times to quell the danger. But they lived dangerously.

It was as close to perfection as Donegal have enjoyed in a half of football since Jim McGuinness set them on this remarkable run four years ago.

The sheer 'shock and awe' of their second half against Dublin last August will obviously rank higher but for control this had everything. At no stage was there a sense than they were under any pressure.

For Armagh, it was wholly disappointing and is a real cause for reflection now. They improved in the second half and might have caused greater ripples had Jamie Clarke fared better with his shot after a scintillating 50-metre run. With Stefan Campbell hitting the side-netting from the rebound a real opportunity was missed just two minutes into the second half.

Clarke played a deeper role in the second half and Armagh profited from that while substitutes Kevin Dyas and Ciaron O'Hanlon also made a difference, O'Hanlon drawing a great save from Paul Durcan late on.

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney referenced parity of attacks afterwards, 25 each by his count, but Donegal were just far more clinical.

Referee David Coldrick awarded just nine frees by our count to Armagh, a reflection of Donegal's discipline in the tackle and the amount of possession they retained, though the home side may choose to look at it differently. If they do it will provide scant consolation.

Maybe Armagh might have taken a different approach to Murphy. Charlie Vernon didn't press up on him unless he crossed into Armagh territory. The damage Ryan McHugh inflicted in the first half also took time too for them to get to grips with.

With a six-point lead so early Donegal were able to keep dictating the terms. McHugh punched holes repeatedly on the counter-attack, his brother Mark dropped back into his old sweeping role to good effect while Lacey was supreme. The McGee brothers hardly needed to engage, such was the success of the screen in front of them.

They got to the break 1-9 to 0-2 ahead, Murphy's trio of long-range frees for fouls on Christy Toye and Ryan McHugh (twice) daggers into Armagh hearts.


Marty O'Reilly's 44th-minute goal gave certainty to the outcome. Once again Murphy's contribution to that was significant, his run and pass to Frank McGlynn creating the opening though the ball seemed to spill from McGlynn's grasp to an unmarked O'Reilly who rounded McNiece.

Armagh got some momentum when they ran at pace at Donegal after that but too often they sat back and allowed Donegal play 'keep ball' and run down the clock.

One sequence of possession around the 54th minute must have lasted close to two minutes before Neil Gallagher was fouled for Murphy to convert. Why no pressure from Armagh in that instance when they needed the ball?

Donegal manager Rory Gallagher admitted the conditions suited their early long-ball tactic.

"We felt the last day we didn't have enough variety to our game. Today, with the weather conditions, we thought we might get a bit of joy. We have good ball winners there which obviously helps as well."

McGeeney bemoaned the basic errors that characterised their performance.

"We just didn't do what we were supposed to do. You expect a team to score seven or eight points against you in a half but you have to score as well," he said.

"We kept giving the ball away on the '50' without any pressure. Just sloppy fist-passing into crowds, no support runs and then our defensive structure - we let Donegal's rotation system pull us out. We played better with it in the second half but by that stage the damage was done."

Scorers - Donegal: M Murphy 0-5 (5fs), P McBrearty 1-1, M O'Reilly 1-0, O MacNiallais 0-2, N Gallagher, M McElhinney, N Gallagher 0-1 each. Armagh: T Kernan 0-3 (1f), J Morgan, C McKeever, E Rafferty (f), A Findon, C Rafferty all 0-1 each.

Donegal - P Durcan 8; P McGrath 7, N McGee 7, E McGee 7; F McGlynn 7, K Lacey 8, R McHugh 8; N Gallagher 8, O MacNiallais 8; C Toye 7, M McElhinney 7, M McHugh 7; P McBrearty 8, M Murphy 9, M O'Reilly 6. Subs: A Thompson 6 for E McGee (h-t), H McFadden 6 for McBrearty (52), D Walsh 5 for Toye (57), G McFadden for McElhinney (68), E Doherty for O'Reilly (70).

Armagh - M McNiece 6; F Moriarty 5, C Vernon 6, J Morgan 6; A Mallon 7, C McKeever 7, C Rafferty 6; A Findon 7, E Rafferty 5; T Kernan 7, M McKenna 5, A Forker 5; J Clarke 6, A Murnin 5, S Campbell 6. Subs: M Murray 6 for McKenna (30), K Dyas 7 for Moriarty (31), C O'Hanlon 7 for E Rafferty (52),B Donaghy 6 for Forker (57), E McVerry for Murnin (68), S Harold for Findon (BC, 70).

Ref - D Coldrick (Armagh)

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