Cork paid for their lack of composure


THE MIDDLE THIRD:Disciplined Donegal capitalised when Cork started to panic and abandon tactics which were earlier working for them

AFTER LAST Sunday, you can’t go anywhere or speak to anyone without Donegal coming up in conversation. But before I get on to talking about them, I think you have to give credit to Cork as well because they made it a great game for the first half.

They did more than anybody has managed all year to disrupt Donegal and to find a way of playing around them. Their big regret will be not keeping at it. Johnny Giles is always saying that you should play the same way in the last 10 minutes as you did in the first 10, regardless of the circumstances and he’s right. It was when Cork started to panic and moved away from what was working for them that they lost the game.

You’d have to be delighted for Donegal. The support they bring to these games is unbelievable, good-natured people who have waited a long time to get to this stage again and are getting full value out of it now.

When I was playing, I always had a soft spot for the Donegal players. I remember the year the stories came out about half of them staying on in Dublin after a drawn All-Ireland quarter-final and going on the beer because the replay wasn’t for another fortnight. I’d say if you’d done an honest survey of the rest of the inter-county players in the country back then, we’d have all happily done the same. The difference would have been we’d have denied it to the last.

Donegal were always the team you wanted to play if you needed two points out of a league game. They were a soft touch that you could always rely on to kick a tight game away. There would come a point in most matches where a skilful forward would go on a run and beat his man and go for goal instead of laying it off to a better-placed forward.

They always had good players like that but too often they would take the wrong option and go for the big score instead of finding a team-mate who could tag on a point. Put it this way – I don’t ever remember a Donegal corner-back taking a shot in my time, never mind scoring a point.

We’re in different times now alright. Donegal play for each other now in a way they never did back then and it’s hard to see them being beaten in the final, no matter who they meet.

It was a pleasure to be at such an engrossing game. In the end, Donegal were just too difficult for Cork to play against.

I felt a bit sorry for Donncha O’Connor on Sunday. When you’re playing against Donegal, you have a chance in midfield because they tend to go toe-to-toe with their opposite number. But if you’re playing full-forward, you’re going to have a frustrating day no matter what.

Just about every ball O’Connor got in the first half, he was in trouble whether he turned right or turned left or looked up or looked down. Donegal close off that space so well that unless there is somebody coming at pace to take it off him, he’s going to be shut down in the click of a finger.

Cork were very clever for the first half hour on Sunday. They didn’t feed too many balls into O’Connor because they knew they’d only be hanging him out to dry by isolating him. I said here last week the first thing you need to do if you’re trying to come up with any game plan is work out what it is the opposition don’t want to be doing. In Donegal’s case, they don’t want their defenders having to go one-on-one in front of their own posts but that’s exactly what Cork did in that first half.

They got Colm O’Neill and Ciarán Sheehan in good positions and the two boys scored excellent points. They did it through quick transfer of possession and good running off the ball.

It’s not as though Donegal are invincible – if you get them doing things they’re not comfortable with they can be got at. Paddy Kelly took on Mark McHugh early in the first half and burned him for pace before kicking a good point. Donegal are not as good at defending one-on-one as they are collectively. It just stands to reason.

But then in the second half, Cork stopped. Experience should have come into play for Cork in that second half but instead they played like they had never been in a tight situation before.

Paul Kerrigan should have learned from his experience in the 2009 All-Ireland final when he started taking loose shots when things were going against Cork. But again on Sunday, he was shelling shots over his shoulder early in the second half.

Several Cork players were the same, doing silly things they would normally avoid. I’ve been watching Graham Canty play for Cork for well over a decade and I played against him more times than I can count. I don’t think I ever saw him kick a ball with his left leg before. I definitely never saw him kick for a point off his left leg with four defenders closing in on him and somebody of Sheehan’s talent standing in space five yards away. Yet he picked an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park as the first time in his life to do it and the result was a skied ball that went 25 yards wide of the posts and, worse than that, it was short of the line and it allowed Donegal to counter-attack.

You really have to ask why Cork changed tack so dramatically.

Yes, Donegal are hard to play against, we know that. But Cork had found a way to play against them. They had been disciplined, they had been clever in possession and in Sheehan and O’Neill, they had found the men to finish moves off. But this game was lost between the 30th minute and the 42nd because Cork decided to move away from playing as a team and started playing as individuals.

Aidan Walsh was a case in point. He is a brilliant young footballer who has the talent to be a dominant player for the next few years in midfield but I think he sometimes forgets that his primary job as a midfielder is to win possession and move the ball on.

Scoring points from distance looks great and everything but when your radar is off and you start kicking bad wides like he did near the end of the first half, that’s the time to refocus and concentrate on your job. At one point he kicked for a score with Daniel Goulding wide open beside him. The chance was wasted just when the rot was starting to set in for Cork.

Years ago in a Kerry v Dublin game, we got a line ball that Maurice Fitzgerald was trotting over to take. Paul Curran was hanging about trying to put him off so I went over to let him know that he could move along, thanks very much. But a few Kerry people in the crowd thought I was coming over to take the ball off Maurice and that I was going to kick the line ball myself so they roared at me to go away and worry about my own job.

If I had been Aidan Walsh on Sunday, I’d have been far more worried about the amount of clean ball Neil Gallagher was winning in the air. I know he was Alan O’Connor’s man for the first half before Walsh went over on him but, even so, you can’t stand there watching an opposing midfielder do that sort of damage from kick-outs and not take some responsibility for it.

Nicholas Murphy would never have allowed him that many clean catches, regardless of whose man he was.

Everybody on the Donegal team knows what his job is. They play as a team and are in constant contact with their sideline, taking instructions and acting on them. People talk about the white heat of championship and the cauldron that is Croke Park and all that stuff making it hard to get messages out on the field. But that’s only true if fellas’ minds are racing and they’re not open to taking instruction.

Donegal are very composed and totally calm out on the pitch and it’s what allows them to change formation and tactics with the flick of a switch. I was sitting in the stand on Sunday realising that although I only retired three years ago, the game has changed.

Donegal have set the bar now in terms of physical conditioning throughout their squad. Karl Lacey isn’t a big man but he knocked Pearse O’Neill on his backside at one point. Frank McGlynn isn’t a big man, Rory Kavanagh was always a fine footballer but a bit slight with it. But now they are made of phenomenal stuff and they empty the tank in every game.

They have big hearts and cool heads and it will take a very clever, very focused team to stop them in the final.

We’ll find out on Sunday who’ll meet them there. Everybody is full of chat about how much Jim McGuinness has brought Donegal on, so much so that the job James Horan has done with Mayo has been a bit overshadowed.

Trying to beat Dublin without Andy Moran is going to be a huge task but the one thing we can be sure of now is Mayo won’t lie down on Sunday. A bit like Donegal, they were punchbags for years. They’re not that anymore.

Mayo have a hard edge now and they’re tactically very switched on. They are probably the team who are best positioned to attack Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs because they have height, strength and mobility in midfield. And if Dublin play into their hands by not picking Michael Darragh Macauley in midfield, they will have a huge chance on Sunday.

It’s hard to understand why Pat Gilroy has been picking Macauley at half-forward and putting Denis Bastick and Eamonn Fennel at midfield. Macauley is their best midfielder and I think when he’s picked at half-forward there’s a bit of confusion over his role.

Any time Dublin have looked good this year, it’s been because Macauley has taken over the game. Their problem is they haven’t looked as good at any stage as they did in some of their games last year. They haven’t hit top gear and haven’t often looked like defending All-Ireland champions.

They’ve gotten away with it because they haven’t come up against a top-notch team yet. Mayo will test them like nobody has tested them yet.

Dublin are being questioned by everyone now and if they’re champions at all they should have the answer. I’ve had every prediction wrong all year so maybe there’s no point in me picking a side but I’ll go for Dublin all the same.

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