Saturday 17 March 2018

McFadden sparks Donegal's rebirth


Jim McGuinness and Justin McNulty exchange words
Jim McGuinness and Justin McNulty exchange words

Dermot Crowe

THE All-Ireland champions survive to fight another day and if they go on to successfully defend their title they will look back on this evening in years to come. It wasn't a vintage match, so it won't be remembered for the football. More the sense of occasion, the high stakes, and the long struggle they endured before liberating themselves from Laois' grip with four cracking points in the final minutes.

They brought a large and passionate following that filled the majority of the 11,125 attendance and in the hours before the match the warm sunshine made way for wind and rain, some mitigation for the poor quality. There were some sublime moments from Ross Munnelly, his colleague Donie Kingston, and Paddy McBrearty.

Colm McFadden kicked six points, including two from play, and the last of those was an audacious and cheeky finish when he looked caged by a pack of Laois defenders three minutes from the end. Laois had missed a chance to move within a point of Donegal in the previous sequence so this score brought relief.

It opened the floodgates, relatively speaking, with McBreaty, Neil McGee and Leo McLoone popping up with more scores to see Donegal finish in style and head off to the quarter-finals in good spirits. After a six-day turnaround they'll be more than pleased.

With nine minutes to go the excellent Munnelly, a consistently wonderful footballer through good times and bad, kicked his fourth point and reduced the Donegal lead to two. Usually a two-point lead to Donegal is as good as six to any other team. But they looked uneasy and jittery and made hard work of completing the job. The longer Laois stuck in there, and they had been five down at different stages in the second half, the longer their hopes of an upset stayed intact.

Donegal arrived determined that this would mark their championship rebirth. But it took some time to materialise and for a good stretch of the first half they made mistakes, over-hit their passes, took the wrong choices. They were not the Donegal we have come to know. In the second half they took the ball forward but repeatedly lost it in the final play. On some of those counters Laois picked off scores to stay in touch.

In 2006 Laois turned over the reigning All-Ireland champions, Tyrone, on a wet night in Portlaoise but they were always coming from the rear last night and looked like they needed a goal to win. They had only one chance in the first half, when Mark Timmons found room, but his shot lacked direction and conviction.

Munnelly was one of three 2006 survivors playing, the others, Billy Sheehan, who played as a sweeper last night, and Padraig McMahon. Munnelly was their lone scorer in the first half, at the end of which they trailed 0-5 to 0-1. It wasn't until the 12th minute that McFadden broke the deadlock with the game's first score, a free which he earned himself. Munnelly scored for Laois after 17 minutes but they spent most of their time back defending.

In the final 12 minutes of the half Donegal made the possession count and added points from David Walsh, which looked like it might have gone wide, a thunderbolt score from Michael Murphy, another free from McFadden and a beautiful finish by a lively McBrearty.

They had to line-out without Karl Lacey and Mark McHugh, both injured, but McHugh's younger brother Ryan was given a start and Neil Gallagher, who started in the middle of the field, where Donegal struggled without him six days earlier until introduced. Declan Walsh came on in Lacey's place.

On the sideline things boiled over late in the first half when the two managers, Jim McGuinness and Justin McNulty, had a heated exchange. McNulty appeared to be instructing his rival to return to his own patch and some officials had to separate them and restore calm. Donegal's dander was up. They went off at half-time to a roaring ovation from their faithful band of followers.

Twice Donegal opened up a five-point lead on the restart but they could not widen that lead enough to break Laois. Delightful scores by Munnelly, Kingston and sub David Conway had Laois back to within a goal with 15 minutes left and Munnelly's fourth score, a free, left only two between them.

However, Donegal had that final kick and right at the death Laois lost Conor Meredith to a straight red card.

Scorers – Donegal: C McFadden 0-6 (4f), P McBrearty 0-3, M Murphy 0-2 (1f), David Walsh, N McGee, L McLoone 0-1 each. Laois: R Munnelly 0-4 (2f), D Kingston 0-2, C Meredith, D Conway 0-1 each.

Donegal: P Durcan; E McGee, N McGee, A Thompson; Declan Walsh, F McGlynn, P McGrath; R Kavanagh, N Gallagher; R Bradley, M Murphy, David Walsh; R McHugh, C McFadden, P McBrearty. Subs: K Lacey for McGrath (54), M McElhinney for Bradley (66), L McCloone for David Walsh (68), D McLaughlin for Declan Walsh (70).

Laois: E Culliton; P Begley, M Timmons, P O'Leary; D Strong, K Lillis, P McMahon; P Clancy, J O'Loughlin; R Munnelly, B Sheehan, C Begley; C Meredith, D Kingston, E O'Carroll. Subs: C Boyle for Clancy (25), S Attride for O'Carroll (31), D Booth for P Begley (43), D Conway for O'Leary (52), C Kelly for Sheehan (68).

Referee: Marty Duffy (Sligo).

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