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Michael Murphy: Derry freeze in the headlights as Donegal turn their rival’s strengths into weaknesses

I’ve never met anyone better at articulating a tactical plan than Jim McGuinness. It showed again in Celtic Park

After a couple of weekends of dour fixtures and challenging weather, the championship finally arrived at the weekend. Yes, there was a lot of defensive football and 15 men behind the ball, but there was also a lot of really good attacking play. It’s no coincidence that the weather was so good, meaning the pitches were in better condition and the ground firmer. That definitely had an effect.

In Celtic Park Donegal came with a plan – as every dog in the street knew they would – but it looked like the Derry players just weren’t expecting it or the level of its intensity. They looked stunned and unable to react until it was too late.

There has been a lot made about the kickouts but Derry got exactly what they wanted out of those. If you look at the kickouts for the goals they forced them to go long, which was the plan because they didn’t want Donegal getting possession from short restarts.

So, they’ve ticked the boxes and instead of possession being used to build out from the back the ball is raining down on their two big, marquee midfielders. Brendan Rogers is under the first but Caolan McGonigle broke it down and Dáire Ó Baoill ends up with the ball, courtesy of Ryan McHugh.


The last one went out long on top of Jason McGee. Goalkeeper Odhran Lynch was there challenging him but Brendan Rogers was also in the vicinity. Derry were getting what they wanted but couldn’t exploit the situation they had brought about.

It was another example of “hammering the hammer”. Donegal had looked at Derry’s midfield strengths and decided, we’re not going to try to manoeuvre around that platform; we are going to dismantle it so that it becomes their weakness.

The roaming ‘keeper is obviously risky but it has also been so effective for Derry all year. It has been one of their strengths and they have had a lot of joy and reward from it. For it to work though on kickouts it requires the involvement of everyone to do a job.

All of the players on the other side of the pitch need to come back and help out Lynch. They didn’t. Rogers, nearby, needed to appreciate that the man he was marking ended up contesting the ball with Lynch, while he and Conor Glass, in many people’s eyes the dominant midfield pairing in Ireland, should have been up there competing and not leaving it to their goalkeeper to take on Jason McGee.

Three goals is a high price to pay for an established tactic going wrong and one of the more experienced players should have told Lynch to get back into the net just to steady things after the first goal and if not, certainly the second.

You could see the energy Donegal were bringing to it. After 10 minutes when they were 0-3 to 0-1 down, they were playing very zonally and not man marking comprehensively apart from the obvious candidates, Shane McGuigan, Niall Loughlin and Lachlan Murray, on Derry’s inside line.

Everybody else was being marked zonally, including Rogers and Glass. The one person who did cause bother while not being marked was Ethan Doherty. It worked a treat on everyone else.

I could see and almost feel the Donegal players gaining in massive confidence and belief – thinking, “these pictures we’ve created and these scenarios we’ve trained for in the past seven months: well, here they are”.

It’s one of Jim McGuinness’s big strengths: he’s better than anyone I’ve ever known in the game at articulating a game plan clearly and passionately but also with data-based evidence.

Gradually it dawns on everyone firstly, this is going to work and, two, when you’re 15 minutes into this game in Celtic Park and you realise these things are happening just as you were told they would. It’s the definition of “buy-in”.

A key turnover for me was before the equaliser at 0-3 each. Niall O’Donnell got a boot to a stray pass in that early phase when Derry were shifting Donegal from side to side and getting some joy out of it, Ethan Doherty in particular. It happened on the press box side and the ball was transitioned up the field for a Dáire Ó Baoill point.

That was followed by Ryan McHugh with another strong carry and then came the first goal. It meant Donegal had taken Derry for a quick 1-2. That was an impressive recovery from 0-2 to 0-3 but the nature of the scores was reminiscent of the type that Derry have been getting in recent times.

They were out-Derrying Derry.

Ó Baoill had scored a similar goal against a stranded Fermanagh ‘keeper from farther out but it just trickled into the net on a winter’s day. Doing it in the heat of championship with Odhran Lynch scampering back is another day’s work! You have to get the ball up and over the goalkeeper and bring it back down again so it has to be hit with conviction definitely but also forward spin.

As a young lad he had a hugely promising soccer background and would have been an underage international so technically he is very strong.

He, Ryan McHugh and Niall O’Donnell were under all those breaking balls. Ryan especially has that innate ability to be in the right place at the right time under kickouts.

Ryan released Ó Baoill and if you watch it back from that angle behind the goals the guys meant to be marking the two of them are still on the far 45.

It looked as if Derry were too used to having the ball broken back towards them and making hay from it. But this was a day that it was not alone not happening for them; it was happening to them.

It was a brilliant collective performance by Donegal, who are now homing in on an Ulster semi-final, but there were also big individual contributions.

Full back Brendan McCole, who hadn’t played since the early rounds of the league, has been around about eight years. The first couple of those were difficult for him, competing to get the jersey and fill the shoes of Neil McGee but now he is trusted. He has great feet, he’s quick and has done an excellent job on Derry danger man Shane McGuigan in each of the past two years.

Jason McGee found himself up against the midfield powerhouse of Rogers and Glass. He set the tone by winning the two throw-ins, which is a kind of micro-arena at the start of the match. ‘I’m not going to try and manage you today; I’m going to rule you’.

For someone who missed so much of the year to put in a display like that was phenomenal.

Ryan McHugh has such close control and is really strong for a small fella as well as quick and intelligent. Put all that together and it’s like building a super footballer. His incisive runs in the first half and the game sense in the second, together with the quality of his kick passing, meant that Conor McCluskey had to be sent to mark him.

Derry were after a third Ulster title. They were making no bones about wanting it but now you ask where does it leave them? They have four or five weeks to reflect on what happened and a manager who has proven experience of relaunching successful All-Ireland challenges in mid-season.

I think these players also have the ability to examine their own performances and come back improved.

As I did say last week, the level of scrutiny that All-Ireland contenders are subjected to is in a different stratosphere to what they’re used to. Everyone wants an extra hit and an extra slap at you.

The weekend may well turn out to be a valuable lesson. At least that’s what they’re hoping.