Donegal have problems
THIS weekend, the relegation tussle between Donegal and Armagh in Ballybofey will all be about who shows up for duty.
Armagh are in a fabulous position here. The carry-on in Laois turned out to be the best thing that could happened to them in this league campaign; while they lost the game, they gained a siege mentality that will propel him all the way to the Championship. In letting the GAA off a massive ‘partitionist abuse’ hook, they brokered a deal that brought Ciaran McKeever back in from the cold.
So the Orchard head to Ballybofey mob-handed, with half a dozen Crossmaglen men operating with cast-iron confidence. It’s a scary mix.
Overall, Armagh get a pretty raw deal from some quarters. It’s not every county that have had to play on without their main men, and Armagh have survived two cut-throat seasons in the top flight like this.
Another point that hasn’t been raised in their defence is the absence of Stevie McDonnell. Naturally I’m open to correction, but it appears that Stevie might have slipped into retirement. He has been their main scoring threat for the past ten years, so it has been a major loss.
If he has gone gently into the night, they will need Jamie Clarke to go to another level. Nobody doubts his class and skill, but the way Tyrone’s defensive system, allied with Conor Gormley’s man-marking, left Clarke scoreless in their backdoor game last summer. That little stat is something to ponder before the rivals across the Blackwater reach the Athletic Grounds on 10th June.
Back to the roll-call, and it doesn’t look good for Donegal. Michael Murphy will not be there, and Colm McFadden is having his injury problems. There is not a player in the country who holds as much importance to his team as Murphy has with Donegal. You can tie down certain players if they are full-forwards or half-forwards, but because of Murphy’s roving play, you need a multi-skilled midfielder-cum-defender, of which there aren’t any up to the task. He is simply unmarkable.
With him not there, Donegal visibly shrink, as witnessed against Dublin.
As we get closer to Championship, their game plan will become all about defence, especially if they have their two score-getters injured. Murphy can chip in with 45s, frees and open play, but without him there is a major problem in who will hit the right-footed frees? Brick Molloy, McFadden and Patrick McBrearty are all left-footed.
When Donegal gained so much success last year with their version of the blanket defence, a popular opinion of the time was that they were going to tweak it and come out of defence more. But Donegal do not have another plan; you either play that system, or you don’t.
Every team that Jim McGuinness has coached has played this way. He took the Glenties to the same extremes to much success.
I feel Armagh have too much momentum going into this game to lose and they will condemn Donegal to relegation. They have plenty of serious quality coming through, but the squad is still a small one. During the league, you seldom have the squad you will have later in the Championship due to injuries, Sigerson Cup and u-21s. Then they also got rid of Kevin Cassidy, slashing points off their leadership index.
The intricacies of their system has also proved to be their downfall, and let me explain. Because it is so innovative and different from the traditional Gaelic football that lads grew up playing, it requires a serious level of fitness, and just as importantly, concentration. That doesn’t really happen in the league, so their tactics have inadvertedly led them to this point.
Because of the heights Donegal attained last year, they have been experiencing a bit of a hangover. On the other side, there has been very little talk of Armagh. I would be very wary of Armagh this summer.
While Donegal might be in danger of losing top-flight status, they will not be too worried if that does happen before the Championship. Their opponents on the opening day though – Cavan – are now staring division four in the face. It’s not a pleasant place to be, they need only ask their neighbours Fermanagh, and the thought of trips to Ruislip and Freshford is enough to make some Breffni blue-bloods violently ill.
The rebuilding job that Val Andrews began last year, is still only in construction. Now, their main men are only 22 and 23, lads who are only finding their feet in adult football. After a couple of disappointing defeats they raised their game for wins over Sligo and Tipp, before, surprisingly, slipping up at home to Offaly in a game they really should have won. That run of results is typical of young men, but it is a learning curve for them.
For the last few years, Cavan supporters would have felt that the players were at fault. Now that they were put to one side, they are keen to get them back in again. It’s a manager’s nightmare. Andrews has started a job that needs time, but there is a lot of pain and austerity in the meantime.
The last management that has brought Cavan anywhere was the Eamon Coleman and Martin McElkennon ticket. In the meantime, they were guilty of Celtic Tiger foolery of the highest order. And then they appointed Tommy Carr, who has achieved very little as a manager, yet his face seems to fit RTÉ, where he goes on Primetime and tells Miriam O’Callaghan how his ‘expertise’ deserves payment from GAA funds.
They are a basket case, but the worst thing is that they have nobody to blame but themselves.