Driven Donegal reach new heights

 

ALL-IRELAND SFC SEMI-FINAL:Donegal 0-16 Cork 1-11: TWENTY YEARS ago Donegal reached their first All-Ireland final by coming through a semi-final with Mayo that was so poor, social workers nearly had to be called to Croke Park.

This was a fantastic match, only slightly undermined by Cork’s ailing challenge after half-time and featuring a first half as absorbing and exciting as anything seen this season. The speed of the play and quality of the scores turned the contest into something resembling a basketball match with each possession carrying a distinct threat.

One of the most striking things about Jim McGuinness’s collective is that like in video games, they draw energy from winning and every victory is a step-up on the previous one. If it is Dublin they have to beat in next month’s final and should they achieve their goal, Donegal will have defeated the four counties, who between them have won the last nine All-Irelands. Yesterday was Cork’s turn, the game’s most consistent county over the past three years judged by both league and championship.

The pre-match consensus said the Munster champions had the athleticism, the stamina and the forwards to counter their Ulster counterparts’ known strengths.

Instead they became the latest side unable to resist the tide of innovation and self-confidence that has swept McGuinness’s team from the distress of humiliating defeats, including three years ago a 14-pointer at the hands of yesterday’s opponents, to the threshold of historical achievement, with largely the same players.

By half-time after a helter-skelter first half, Cork were on the precipice. They set out to counter Donegal and entrusted the task of tracking Mark McHugh to forwards, starting with Fintan Goold and continuing with Paddy Kelly. Apart from in the seventh-minute when Kelly robbed McHugh and embellished the larceny with a point, Donegal’s game ticked over.

McGuinness set up more ambitiously than usual with a high full-forward line and twin targets in Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy, who was gamely marked by Eoin Cadogan but still had a significant influence because of his ability to initiate and link attacks.

Donegal went long more often than usual but Cork coped as no great damage came of the tactic. But Munster champions were having to work hard. They built patiently and broke tackles, managing a few penetrative runs.

But Donegal’s defence effectively shepherded the attacks out wide and made central shooting chances difficult to create. Foreshadowing what was to come, their shot selection became erratic and inaccuracies followed.

Their most effective attacks came in immediate responses to conceded scores, fast movement that caught the opposition slightly on the hop. Four times they answered Donegal within a minute, a couple of the scores, from Colm O’Neill and Ciarán Sheehan superbly put together.

But Donegal just seemed to get their scores more easily. Neil Gallagher had a massive match at centrefield, catching a succession of high ball from one of the highest rated units around and although Aidan Walsh was one of Cork’s best players, for once he was second best in the air.

That helped put Cork on the back foot and the speed with which Donegal built their breaks, support runners galloping off the carrier’s shoulder, stretched the favourites. Cork began to concede turnovers – even captain Graham Canty proved susceptible.

Emblematically the half ended with Donncha O’Connor being hounded out of possession in attack and the ball whipped all the way to the other end for the indefatigable Karl Lacey, who received a presentation afterwards to mark his 100th appearance for the county, to thunder on to it in familiar fashion and set up McHugh for the lead point, 0-8 to 0-7 at the break.

Cork had done an awful lot of pressing and penetrating to be behind. Their counter-tactics had only bought them parity. How comfortably would an unfamiliar game plan cope when Donegal began to go up the gears?

Not well at all, as it turned out.

The first four attacks after the break were squandered by Cork.

Canty, got on the end of the first and was wide. Next Kerrigan shot speculatively and wastefully for another and then Sheehan put the ball out. Finally Neil McGee got in a block on Colm O’Neill and that turnover concluded at the Hill end with McFadden pointing.

Cork began to trade at a loss, managing two scores against Donegal’s four in the first 15 minutes of the half. Arguably the pivotal moment came in the 46th minute when O’Neill did very well to win a lofted ball behind the full-back line and unleashed a shot that cannoned off the crossbar.

The lead stretched inexorably and began to drain Cork of their conviction. Laboured, lateral movements broke down and the hollow-eyed torture of trying to keep up with turbo-charged counter-attacks also took its toll.

But for an increasingly frivolous attitude on the winners’ part – their clinical shooting becoming wayward and they left the back door open for O’Neill to slide in an injury-time goal – the margin would have been more imposing.

But two points gets you into a final as definitively as 10.

DONEGAL:1. P Durcan; 5. E McGee, 4. F McGlynn (0-1), 3. N McGee; 2. P McGrath, 7. A Thompson (0-1), 6. K Lacey (0-2); 8. N Gallagher, 9. R Kavanagh (0-1); 10. R Bradley, 11. L McLoone, 12. M McHugh (0-1); 15. C McFadden (0-5, two frees, one 45), 14. M Murphy (0-3, three frees), 13. P McBrearty. Subs: 19. David Walsh (0-1) for Bradley (30 mins), 17. M McElhinney (0-1) for Kavanagh (59 mins), 25. Declan Walsh for McGlynn (68 mins), 20. C Toye for McFadden (72 mins), 22. D McLaughlin for McBrearty (72 mins). Yellow card: McFadden (36 mins).

CORK:1. A Quirke; 7. N O’Leary, 4. E Cadogan, 3. M Shields; 5. P Kissane, 6. G Canty, 10. F Goold; 8. A O’Connor, 9. A Walsh (0-1); 21. C Sheehan (0-3), 11. P Kelly (0-1), 12. P Kerrigan (0-2); 19. D Goulding (0-1, free), 14. D O’Connor, 13. C O’Neill (1-3). Subs: 20. P O’Neill for Goold (half-time), 23. D O’Sullivan for A O’Connor (48 mins), 15. N Murphy for D O’Connor (56 mins). Yellow cards: Walsh (41 mins), Canty (62 mins).

Referee:D Coldrick (Meath).

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