Friday 23 March 2018

Scintillating McDonnell piles misery on Donegal


Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

THROW-IN at Letterkenny yesterday was postponed for 10 minutes to accommodate the big crowd but the gag doing the rounds at half-time was that the restart was being similarly delayed -- to allow the horrified locals to escape!

Armagh were already 1-9 to 0-2 clear and when wing-back Finnian Moriarty was allowed slalom the length of the field and goal just nine minutes after the resumption there was, indeed, an unseemly rush for the O'Donnell Park exits by many Donegal supporters.

What was essentially a mouthwatering Division 2 semi-final, played out in glorious sunshine, proved a desperate anti-climax for neutrals and far too bitter a pill for many locals to swallow. Donegal needed a win to progress while all Armagh needed was a draw, but the Orchard men attacked with everything they had.


Led by the irrepressible Steven McDonnell (1-4), Aaron Kernan at centre-forward and a brilliant half-back line, they had a big orange bow wrapped around their promotion back to Division 1 football by the 40th minute.

"They blew us away," Donegal manager John-Joe Doherty admitted.

Even as Doherty was being interviewed afterwards, Armagh's unused subs were out on the pitch being put through their paces and the influence of fitness expert Mike McGurn in their backroom team was writ large on their pacey game.

Victory pits them against arch-rivals Down now in a fascinating all-Ulster league final. It also, intriguingly, pits their manager Paddy O'Rourke against his native county, even though he was quick to play down that aspect afterwards.

"There's nothing difficult about it, it's a great game for both ourselves and Down, worth 20 training sessions ahead of the championship," said the former Mourne hero.

"We didn't expect it to be that easy," O'Rourke admitted. He was best pleased by the broad spread of scores that saw 12 of his players, including four defenders and four of their five substitutes, get on the scoreboard.

"It would have been perceived that we were too dependent on Steven (McDonnell) for scores, but today we proved we've a lot of scorers and I'm very happy with that," he stressed.

The gaps in the Donegal defence were exposed immediately when 'keeper Paul Durcan had to make a vital interception after three minutes, yet there was only a point between the sides after 21 minutes.

But Durcan should probably have done better when Tony Kernan sent in a long ball to the square after 24 minutes and McDonnell got up to beat him. Within four minutes McDonnell's tally was 1-2, despite being marked by All Star Karl Lacey.

But Donegal's problems were all around the pitch, evidenced by all three of Armagh's brilliant half-back line scoring, with Ciaran McKeever and Paul Duffy excelling.

Armagh's James Lavery and Kieran Toner totally dominated midfield where Donegal certainly missed the injured Brendan Boyle.

Two substitutes spoke volumes.

Injury-hampered Ronan Clarke made his first appearance of the year for Armagh and promptly scored a free to huge applause while Donegal were so desperate for hands to their pumps that they had to spring Rory Kavanagh at half-time.

Kavanagh only returned from travelling abroad at Easter and was sent off in his first club game back on Saturday night. He was busy and well up to the pace and forced Paul Hearty to make a great save after 55 minutes, but not even he could spark a resurrection.

After the midweek high of Donegal's first Ulster U-21 title in 15 years, this was a drastic, sudden drop in altitude.

Doherty noticeably addressed his team in a lengthy huddle on the pitch afterwards and himself indicated that their league position had probably flattered their form.

"On that display we're better off staying where we are," he concluded dryly of their lost opportunity to immediately redress the relegation they suffered last season.

Someone impishly suggested that it might even suit Donegal better to have avoided a league final with Down considering they are due to meet in the Ulster championship but Doherty wasn't falling for that excuse.

"I never thought about Down in the league final really because I knew today was going to be a tough test," he insisted. "It certainly wasn't planned! Avoiding Down was no reason for such a poor display."

Scorers -- Armagh: S McDonnell 1-4 (0-1f), F Moriarty 1-0, C Vernon, B Mallon 0-2 each, A Mallon, P Duffy, C McKeever, M Mackin, J Feeney, R Henderson, A Kernan, R Clarke (0-1f) 0-1 each. Donegal: A Hanlon (0-1f), M Murphy (0-2f) 0-2 each, K Kavanagh, S Griffen (0-1f) 0-1 each.

ARMAGH -- P Hearty; A Mallon, B Donaghy, B Shannon; P Duffy, C McKeever, F Moriarty; J Lavery, K Toner; G Swift, A Kernan, C Vernon; B Mallon, S McDonnell, T Kernan. Subs: M Mackin for Lavery (46), J Feeney for Swift (51), R Henderson for T Kernan (56), R Clarke for A Kernan (62), C Watters for B Mallon (65).

DONEGAL-- P Durcan; N McGee, K Lacey, F McGlynn; M Maguire, B Dunnion, A Thompson; N Gallagher, E Kelly; C Dunne, C McFadden, K Cassidy; R Wherrity, M Murphy, A Hanlon. Subs: D Walsh for Kelly (29), R Kavanagh for McFadden (h-t), F McNulty for Wherrity (h-t), S Griffen for Murphy (47).

Ref -- J McQuillan.

Irish Independent

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