Wednesday 13 December 2017

Peter Canavan: Donegal need to show leadership from within

The Donegal team line up before last year's Ulster final against Monaghan.
The Donegal team line up before last year's Ulster final against Monaghan.

Peter Canavan

After the draw for the Ulster Championship was made, Martin McHugh said that if Donegal were going to win an All-Ireland this year, then it would be easier for them to do it through the back door.

I felt at the time he was brave in saying it, but absolutely correct.

Go back six weeks ago. Nobody was referring to or caring about Tyrone. Kildare weren't taken seriously either and they had time to prepare with no baggage and out of the limelight. Compare that to Donegal. Because of their own excellence up to the Ulster final, most pundits had grouped them in the top three teams in the country.

Now, everything has been scrutinised since the defeat to Monaghan.

The football they played towards the end of the National League was good, the football at the start of the Championship was excellent, but it meant them having to peak at different stages. They were up there for the Tyrone and Armagh games, but on the slide after that.

It's hard to replicate it week in, week out in the Ulster Championship and expect to be in peak condition for an All-Ireland semi-final, which they are going to have to be.

Donegal manager Rory Gallagher's players must drag themselves away from uncertainty for match against Galway
Donegal manager Rory Gallagher's players must drag themselves away from uncertainty for match against Galway

It's not the games that take it out of teams, it's the preparation - both mental and physical - coming up to games that takes it out of players and management.

Rory Gallagher was a very brave man coming into an unenviable position as Donegal manager, given their previous success. Some of the players had reached their personal peak in that the age profile they have they are not going to get much better.

I disagree with the theory that he was out-thought in the Ulster final by Malachy O'Rourke and the Monaghan management team.

Both teams read each other extremely well. A lot of the match-ups were expected, bar one which was putting Ryan McHugh on Darren Hughes. Nobody had seen that coming and it worked for Donegal because Hughes wasn't a factor while McHugh was very prominent in the second half.

On the day, their shot efficiency malfunctioned.

Against Armagh and Tyrone, their average shot-to-score percentage was 58 per cent. Against Monaghan it was 36 per cent.

Donegal attacker Paddy McBrearty has no room to manoeuvre as he is tackled by Monaghan's Dermot Malone (left) and Drew Wylie

And yet, if Paddy McBrearty had kicked that final effort over the bar, you would be looking at Donegal in a different light, having wrestled back a five-point margin in the last 20 minutes.

The move at the very end of the game had everything. It had pace, bravery when Michael Murphy went for a 40-60 ball that he had no errand going for and put his head in to flick it out. Neil Gallagher and Paddy McGrath worked it into position. It was a great example of Thinking Clearly Under Pressure!

The only thing went wrong was the kick, so I wouldn't be overly critical of Donegal.

But there are unknowns. And what we don't know is if Donegal have the hunger and drive to perform at the top level again, given the last few years of their journey.

In Tyrone when we had a big year, it was hard to maintain it through to the following season. There was the same commitment, but there wasn't the same deep-rooted hunger and drive.

I think that's where Donegal find themselves at the minute and it could go either way for them. Once a team is put out of a provincial championship, it's the leaders within that group that will determine the extent of the run in the back door.

If you lose a big game in the provincial championship, you can do two things.

The leaders in the group can feel sorry for themselves and they might also go out and have a few drinks and talk about what could have been. A softness can creep in and you are on the road to nowhere.

Managers can't help you in that situation - it has to come from players.

An example. In 2005, we lost an Ulster final replay to Armagh. We had reason to feel sorry for ourselves, but the players were very much hurt. We had to sit and watch thousands of Armagh supporters running onto the pitch celebrating winning an Ulster Championship. There will be a lot of doubt in the Donegal camp and it's a case now of seeing if they can refocus.

If they can do that, then even with their injuries they should be able to scrape past Galway. That's all they want to do, just get over the line and set themselves up for what would be a mouth-watering clash with Mayo.

I don't believe that Fermanagh will get caught up with the occasion of playing Dublin on Sunday. They have played in Croke Park before in Division 4 and 3 League finals. The surroundings will not be new to them. Pete McGrath will not change his system or set-up just because it is the Dubs he is playing. If you go back to the Monaghan game, for example, they were able to get back in numbers and able to frustrate Monaghan going forward, before hitting them on the counter-attack.

In terms of their attacking style, there are teams that have gone out to play against Dublin and it was pure damage limitation; they were accepting defeat, in particular Derry in the National League and Westmeath in the Leinster final, where they had 15 men behind the ball. Fermanagh will learn from that, and should not be disgraced here.

As for Tyrone, mention of Sligo in Croke Park can still cause shudders. Seán Cavanagh was a young man on our panel at that time and he will let the boys know that the time we played them in the 2002 quarter-final, we were ahead by eight or nine points after 20 minutes.

We were cruising, playing great football and all of a sudden the tide turned and once it turned, it was one-way traffic.

I just can't see Mickey Harte allowing complacency to take hold for this one. A lot of the younger players will relish the prospect of playing in Croke Park and it will suit this Tyrone team who will secure a place in the quarter-finals.

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