This Donegal team have no real choice but to focus on attack

League suggests Ulster Championship will be even more of a tombola spin than usual

Donegal have been the poster boys for flattering to deceive, but topped their group in the league without talisman Michael Murphy. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Donegal have been the poster boys for flattering to deceive, but topped their group in the league without talisman Michael Murphy. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Nothing became Division One North of the football league like the ending of it. Stop the clock at various stages of injury-time and you could have sent any two of the four counties through to the semi-finals.

There were black cards, points at the death, equalisers in the 77th and 79th minutes. The only conclusion to draw was that the Ulster Championship will be even more of a tombola spin than usual.

For Donegal to have emerged from the pistol smoke as group-toppers felt ridiculous at times. Against Monaghan, they were nine points down in the first half and six in the second. Against Armagh, they had half a dozen points to make up after the break and four to peg back on the hour mark. They dug themselves some spectacularly deep holes and still found the gumption to claw their way out.

Most significantly, they managed to do it both times without Michael Murphy. The 31-year-old totem went off with a hamstring problem after just four minutes in the Monaghan game and though they have wobbled in his absence, they have found a way to survive. In the development of Declan Bonner’s young side, that has to go down as an unexpected bonus.

“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that we have seen two of the craziest league games Donegal have ever played when Michael hasn’t been around,” says Brendan Devenney. “The first half against Monaghan was unlike anything I’ve seen from Donegal in years, just getting the total runaround. And the Armagh game was another one - they got completely bossed at times.

“And that really highlights how much organisation and clear thinking Michael brings to games and how much they rely on him for it. We looked very disjointed. It’s amazing to think of the influence he can have, just bringing that element of control. That was missing without him. For all that, Donegal finished top without Michael. They looked like they have a few issues at the back but they still finished top.”

We’ll get to the issues at the back in a bit. But first, the reason Donegal finished top is the abundance of attacking talent Bonner can call on. Patrick McBrearty has been ablaze, Niall O’Donnell has grown into his role, Ciarán Thompson is money in the bank from long range and the coltish form of Oisín Gallen catches the eye every time he takes the pitch. Throw in the maturing of Michael Langan in centrefield and they have so many scoring threats.

As a result, Bonner has had no real option but to design a gameplan that aims to not just include them all but make as much hay out of them as possible. In a different Donegal era, some of those players would have been repurposed as worker-bees between the 45s. Not this one. Like all modern teams, they do their share of soaking up and counter-attacking. It’s just not their signature move any more.

Instead, they focus on moving the ball quickly into the forward line, feeding McBrearty and O’Donnell with the likes of Gallen, Thompson and Langan running off them. They have attacking wing-backs in Ryan McHugh and Peadar Mogan, with Eoin Bán Gallagher getting in the mix when he can as well. It’s all very positive stuff.

Soaking up and counter-attacking is no longer this Donegal team’s signature move. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Soaking up and counter-attacking is no longer this Donegal team’s signature move. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

It also leaves them highly susceptible at the back. Conor McCarthy’s first-half hat-trick for Monaghan was about as unDonegal a defensive meltdown as anyone could remember. Neil McGee suddenly looked every inch a player who made his debut in the 2005 McKenna Cup.

For Devenney, the problem isn’t that McGee is hanging on longer than he should. The problem is that nobody has come along to usher him into a much-deserved retirement.

Speed

“What a player Neil McGee has been,” Devenney says. “He is without question Donegal’s best ever full-back. The reason he is still there is because he knows he’s needed. You can’t be critical of Neil McGee for not being as fast as he was. That’s just life. He’s 35 years old. The fact that he’s willing to still commit, given the commitment levels that are needed, says everything about him. I just applaud McGee for everything he gives.

“Donegal’s problem is that he and Paddy McGrath were both in the full-back line in 2012 and they’d been on the go a few years before that as well. The fact that Donegal have to keep going back to that well tells you everything.

“It has been a long-standing problem in Donegal. The blanket defence has stopped defenders having to take responsibility for playing man-to-man and it has stopped defenders being defenders. Our club football in Donegal is the same, it’s completely defensive - so we’re not bringing through man markers. We’re not developing players who are going out with the attitude of, ‘Give me a man to mark, give me a job to shut one player down and I will do it.’

“The job of shutting down Paddy McBrearty in the club championship isn’t given to one player, it’s given to a blanket defence. The job of playing at centre-half back and taking Niall O’Donnell out of the game is spread evenly instead of given to one player. As a result, these players aren’t there at county level. It’s a real problem.”

They have, it should be said, been nobbled by some key defensive injuries through the pandemic. Ciaran Gillespie looked a real find who could have played either full-back or centre-back when he came through. But he has suffered two cruciate injuries and hasn’t played for Donegal since 2019. He’s back training with the group since the resumption but they’re going along very carefully with him and it seems unlikely that he will feature this year. Young Conor Morrisson is another promising defender, currently sidelined with a long-term knee problem.

“A lot of our better defenders are nearly better known for going forward. Stephen McMenamin is the only one who has come in in the last few years and stepped up to the plate as a real stopper. But a county like Donegal should have three or four McMenamins in the mix. The fact that it’s just him leads directly onto the issue in the full-back line.

“So they have no real choice but to focus on attack. That’s where Donegal’s strength lies. It’s definitely not in defence. If you look at Conor McCarthy’s goals against Monaghan, he has three defenders around him twice but two of them are half-forwards who are back in their full-back line.

“Now, they still have to tackle - I’m not letting them off their duty. But they don’t have the defender’s instinct of where to show a forward, how to move him away from goal naturally, all that stuff.”

As for where it takes them, the next few weeks will tell the tale. Under Bonner, they have had stretches of each season where they looked like genuine contenders, only to limp out of the championship before the grown-ups settled down to do business. They lost on the final day of the Super 8s in 2018 and 2019, they buckled to Cavan in last year’s Ulster final. They are the poster boys for flattering to deceive.

Murphy turns 32 in August. If they keep melting when the heat comes on, they’ll have wasted his best years. Bonner is putting together a team capable of some thrilling stuff. The question is whether or not they can outscore their deficiencies at the other end.

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