If you are a Donegal or Meath supporter, then yesterday was a blue Monday, regardless of the beautiful weather.
Supporters are left feeling terribly helpless whenever they see their team take a heavy beating on a hot summer’s day or evening. Both Kildare-Meath and Donegal-Tyrone are big rivalries, too, with a lot of history and shared experience and that creates within the occasion an almost desperate sense to prove themselves to one another – as teams, as supporters, as counties.
I feel that was particularly true in Clones on Sunday. Tyrone and Donegal have been engaged in a fairly primal battle for supremacy for the past six years and I would think they both felt this was a game that could not be lost.
That pressure weighed more heavily on Donegal because of how the Ulster final finished last year. It was a bleak day for all Donegal supporters. It was remarked afterwards that the young players struggled. And that was true. But so did a lot of the more senior players. The guys who are integral to the team struggled out there as well. That needs to be pointed out.
For me, the bigger picture in terms of what happened hasn’t changed from last year. In terms of any analysis I might do on the game, you could just provide a link to last year’s column here after the Ulster final. The scoreline was different but the approach was just the same.
Did Tyrone bring anything new on Sunday? I would say hand on heart: no. Had they bodies back? Yes. Did they have intensity in defence? Yes. Was their structure and processes of the highest order? Yes.
Now, they had more energy and freedom and committed to their transition to attack really well. Once they got the turnover they looked to run the pitch width -wide and looked for that dink ball in. They also looked to switch the play with the diagonal ball and what they brought to the table was precisely what you would expect. But we knew all that about Tyrone.
I suppose a bigger question is where Donegal are right now. I went to bed on Sunday night with the game on my mind and was thinking about it first thing on Monday morning. It felt like being back in the Noughties when Tyrone just owned the pitch and Clones was eerily quiet long before the end of the game.
I am conscious of how this may be interpreted: as the former Donegal manager criticising the current Donegal manager. It’s not about that. I am a Donegal supporter now. And I know we are better than that.
And I saw all the good work that Rory did with the team over the winter. I feel like Donegal fell into a trap on Sunday and the game became a nightmare for them. I don’t feel that this means Tyrone are necessarily out of sight for Donegal now for a few years. In fact, I believe Donegal could beat Tyrone later this summer – if they go back to the principles that they were working on during the league.
Maybe I am not living in reality. Maybe I am wedded to 2011-14 when I watch Donegal. Maybe I am asking myself: why are they not doing this or that without knowing the actuality of what is going on at training or the players available etc? And maybe I need to move on in my thinking. I accept all of that may be true.
But I genuinely find that difficult to do because a lot of the things Donegal are trying to do are based on the principles present during the time Rory and I stood on the sideline. That is not me being critical; it is me trying to figure out, from the outside, what Donegal are doing. And it hits you hard when you are seven down at half-time and then it is ten points and you have that old feeling of queasiness and dread. But if Donegal can erase this defeat and focus on the principles of the league, I feel they can get back on track.
What gave Donegal hope for this summer was that the management team introduced a lot of young legs in the team. The Donegal system requires energy and intensity and throughout the national league, the word being tossed about quite a lot was ‘pace’.
Of course, what you lost were guys with big stature and power. And they were replaced with young guys who are light and full of pace. Some of the problems from last summer were addressed in the league. There was pace in the attack and players were getting ahead of the ball again and attacking. So it seemed like the Donegal game plan was evolving into what is required if you want to play that brand of football at the elite level.
But Sunday’s game was a carbon copy of last year’s Ulster final except the Donegal energy and intensity wasn’t there. Both Tyrone and Donegal play an extreme brand of football. There are trade-offs. With 14 men back, you leave yourself very hard to beat and there will be a lot of turnovers. But if you are not getting those turnovers, you have a problem.
If you look at Kildare-Meath, there was a similar dynamic at play. Meath were notionally playing a sweeper. He was trying to get back when the ball was travelling towards the Kildare inside line. That is not a sweeper. That is a guy trying to get back to help in the secondary phase of defence.
Think of Mark McHugh with Donegal in 2011 and 2012. His job was to set up in front of the opposition marksman and anticipate. The game was in front of him. The Meath player couldn’t do that because he was waiting to see where the ball was going. Even though the concept is similar, the actuality is miles apart.
So if you go back to Donegal, the trade-off of having so many men back has to be intensity. You have to push out, make sure the opposition works for each possession and once they take the ball in, you challenge to dispossess. That is what Kildare were doing. As soon Meath came in, half backs and midfielders fell back and there were 10 players designated to defend the D. And then they had four players up as outlet players. It meant they retained an offensive structure.
Those four guys had to be marked. But all of this is only possible if you are intensive and aggressive defensively. Kildare turned the ball far more often than Donegal – with fewer players back. And not only that, once they forced the turnover, they could kick it. Donegal only had Patrick McBrearty up front as an outlet.
So what were the key levels of performance on Sunday? The levels defensively were that Meath could not get back quickly enough. They lacked defensive shape. Donegal had incredible defensive shape but no intensity. Like, Donegal were actually incredibly well set up to defend. That should be acknowledged. They had two or three guys man-marking and the others covering space and then a line along the 45. But that should have been the start position. That should have been their platform to hassle and hound Tyrone.
Instead, Tyrone took a leaf from Dublin’s book and just played the ball between the 20 metres of unmanned space in front of the Donegal defensive 45. They used that area to suck Donegal out and then inject pace at the right time to create raids inside the Donegal cover. I think this is significant. I feel there is a tactic missing from Gaelic football right now that could solve a lot of problems for teams playing against Tyrone, Kerry and Dublin.
That area of the field has been identified as the neutral zone for teams facing a defensive structure. For instance, Tyrone’s decision-makers could survey their options at their leisure knowing that Donegal’s defence was laid out in front of them. They move the ball in complete control and composure and what that say to the opposition is: we are controlling the terms here. If you want the ball, come out and get it. And when you make the move, we will find the space and hurt you.
Now, what if Donegal said: we will defend with 10 players. But see the other four? We will play them on the defensive 65. That way, teams can set a trap or close the net, rather, so once the opposition hits that offensive 45 they must either go through or deal with the pressure coming from behind. I think that can be used against Dublin and Tyrone to force them psychologically out of their comfort zone.
Donegal used to have a game plan based on defensive intensity. I feel Rory’s system is not predicated on that. My feeling is that his thinking is: we don’t need to be that intense; by having more numbers back, we will always be close to the opposition. And they were. But the problem was that they didn’t lay a hand on them.
At the other end of the field, Donegal continued to run the ball and always supporting it from behind, resulting in the attack stagnating along the Tyrone 45. So again, by reverting to that Ulster final 2016 game plan, none of their good league work was able to come to fruition.
I just feel this approach is too extreme and therefore doesn’t work. And it became our only option on Sunday. That is the big dilemma here. Why build a way to attack all through league and then on the biggest day, when the pressure is most intense, did we revert to that style? I don’t know the answer to this, any more than any other Donegal supporter.
But I do believe Donegal can fix this. They are young. The reason I say that is that the signs were there in the national league. The positive aspects to their play going forward are still within the group. They are still viable options for the team. But if they are going to bring that many bodies back, they need to defend like a pack of wolves.
It was demoralising to see Tyrone players just dropping the shoulder and saunter into the heart of our defence. And I feel that pressing out and squeezing from behind could change that. Take away that luxury of Tyrone making their decisions in their own time. You can see how comfortable they were on Sunday at keeping it, keeping it, waiting and a wee fist past and then a sharp incision and a shot at goal.
Those young Donegal lads understood that they couldn’t get the ball off Tyrone. And that is hard. So it was a demoralising defeat. It was a tough one to take and there is a psychological thing there also. Donegal have to come together now and acknowledge that everyone is going to write them off.
Before the game it was a toss of a coin as to who would win. They need to remember that. They also need to identify their strengths and go with those and get to the bottom of why they were so inhibited last year in the Ulster final and why that was replicated in Sunday’s match.
For me, this is critical. Get to the bottom of that and they can start to move forward again.