Jim McGuinness: Why the battle for Ulster is fascinating
Donegal, Monaghan and Tyrone all harbour realistic hopes of claiming provincial glory
Donegal’s Paddy McGrath celebrates with Paddy McBrearty after scoring his team’s second goal against Antrim in Ballybofey. Photograph: John McIlwaine/Inpho
It may not have been the most exhilarating weekend in Ulster senior football championship history but you can be sure the games were sharply observed by all interested parties. The final scorelines in both games don’t lie: the contests went along expected lines and if anything, the results highlighted the similarities between Donegal and Monaghan.
Along with Tyrone, they are the frontrunners to win the Ulster title in July and I imagine all three counties share the ambition of featuring in at least the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
So while the Monaghan v Fermanagh and Donegal v Antrim games were heavily one-sided in the end, they contained revelations about the strengths and vulnerabilities of both the winning teams.
If you look at both squads, they have a core group of experienced players and a younger group who have been successfully integrated. They both have had a really good winter. You can see that they have it in the legs. And I would suggest that Tyrone are in the same place.
It looks to me as if all three counties have put in a big winter of hard honest training. What we saw in Monaghan’s second-half display is they employ a huge number of support runners. Their hand passing was slick and they were sharp in the tackle. They commit players forward when they break and they had attacking players looking to get ahead of the ball all the time.
These were the guys you wanted to get the ball to as often as possible
Conor McCarthy and Jack McCarron are exciting to watch while Conor McManus remains one of the marquee forwards in the game.
It’s funny how the game has changed in that regard. In the 1990s and early 2000s the most scrutinised forward was the centre forward – the Greg Blaney-Larry Tompkins-Martin McHugh-Trevor Giles-Pádraic Joyce type player. These were the guys you wanted to get the ball to as often as possible. They were the decision makers and playmakers.
Now, that emphasis has switched to the key inside forward. The number 14s used to be the end of the food chain. Now they are the focus of the attack.
The theory used to be that if you could shut the number 11 down, then you shut the supply line. Now you have support coming from all angles – corner backs, running midfielders, half forwards on the loop. Tyrone’s Brian McGuigan was a rarity in that he could do both – he could drop the shoulder and run or could hang back and spray passes like a classic number 11 who could dictate play. There is, of course, still room for players of that nature. But now, it seems that teams live and die by the quality of their inside lines.
Monaghan have an edge in that regard and also have this blend of youth and experience and clearly have the hunger. I liked that Malachy O’Rourke gave his squad an ultimatum over the winter and let them know he was happy to walk away. So that gave the players a simple choice: this is the level that we need to be at. Are we ready to commit to that?
You need that edge and focus within to compete and I think he made them sit up and take notice and make a decision. Even in their interviews after the game, you could see the players were genuinely not happy with their first half showing and there was a sense of a team on a mission and completely absorbed in where they are trying to go. That’s encouraging for them.
What struck me about McManus on Saturday evening was his unselfishness. If the space was there he looked to shoot but apart from that he moved the ball on really quickly. Michael Murphy has been doing that for years and marquee forwards have that quality.
It made me wonder did they look to start with a team that would generate intensity and then finish with experience
You look at Monaghan’s bench too: Dessie Mone and Owen Duffy and Dermot Malone coming in to score five points and both of the Hugheses to return later in the championship. They have depth. It made me wonder did they look to start with a team that would generate intensity and then finish with experience.
Also, they looked really well coached against an established defence. This is a trend in the game best exemplified by Dublin last year; that willingness to be patient and recycle the ball until the spaces open up. Teams that aren’t well coached give the ball away under pressure. Monaghan don’t do that.
Neither do Donegal. That’s just one of the similarities. The counties are on a similar kind of path. They have won and lost provincial championships and have a lot of old heads knocking about and they have this infusion of pace and youth again. And both systems require that.
Monaghan had 13 different scorers over the weekend. They have options. For me, however, there is a potential weakness in Monaghan’s defensive system.
When making the transition to defence, they look to pick up certain players but also fall into zonal positions around the D. We have seen that with Dublin a lot. But Monaghan are dropping two or three players into that area for more protection. The potential weakness with this tactic is that it leaves one versus-one opportunities inside.
Drew Wylie is one of the best full backs in the country but I feel his strength is his physicality and he may be susceptible to a dink diagonal ball played into his opponent with support runners off it.
Historically, this is a ferocious derby. But you would expect them to come through and then they are a step away from the final
And Monaghan leave that arc of space for teams to play with. So if teams can get runners through that blanket looking to get the return pass on the inside ball, there is the potential for goals.
Cavan will be a tough assignment for Monaghan. Historically, this is a ferocious derby. But you would expect them to come through and then they are a step away from the final. So it is a graduated task for them.
For Donegal, the task is different. You look at the first 30 minutes of their game and they led Antrim by a point in what was a laborious opening half hour. I liked how Antrim moved the ball and played the diagonal ball into their full forward line; they caused a few problems.
Then came Jamie Brennan’s really excellent goal and Donegal went on to absolutely boss the match in the second half. Now they face Tyrone. It is a big and sudden jump. Donegal, whatever way you look at it, need to beat Tyrone and probably Monaghan to win Ulster. It’s no easy path.
But Donegal have the potential to do it. They had five players cutting their teeth in championship football. At times they looked very confident and relaxed. And at times too they looked very inexperienced, which you would expect.
Michael Murphy, Ryan McHugh and Frank McGlynn remain hugely important to the squad. For me, it is critical that Patrick McBrearty joins that group this summer. Michael Murphy didn’t play a single minute in the forward line on Sunday. That’s a key difference between Donegal and Monaghan.
The three Monaghan guys are predatory front-line forwards. Donegal need Patrick firing on all cylinders if Michael is in the middle. And if teams go out and assign a player to do a dog of a job on Michael, then who will should shoot the lights out? Patrick McBrearty is the obvious candidate.
I felt all the support was coming from behind the ball which meant we reached a tipping point
The challenge for Patrick at the age of 23 is to try and move from being one of Donegal’s most dangerous players to one of its leaders.
Last year I was critical of Donegal after the Ulster final because I felt all the support was coming from behind the ball which meant we reached a tipping point around the 45 when the opposition defence was set up. And we were unable to penetrate consequently.
The difference this year is that Donegal are also getting ahead of the ball. In the 2011 championship we scored 10.5 points on average. But in 2012 we scored 17 points on average. And for me, getting ahead of the ball was the key to that.
I believe Donegal will be a different animal this year because they are attacking differently. Maybe over the last couple of seasons Rory wanted to cut the cord on what had gone before and put his fingerprint on the team and I get that.
But Donegal teams have always been good with the ball in hand and it is critical to our game. If you have two of three guys running ahead of the ball, they have to be dealt with. So that alone creates space. Whereas with the other system, critically, all the danger is in front of the defence and it makes their task easier.
Now, Donegal are playing a really terrific expansive brand of football. Ciaran Thompson brought his national league form into the championship and Jamie Brennan had a big day.
I am not convinced the McHughs or Marty Reilly can punch holes through power
The new approach will make Donegal much harder to beat. But I would argue that they can’t predicate their game on that entirely. Like Monaghan, Donegal are vulnerable if teams set up defensively because what they don’t have any more are the battering rams of old – Leo McLoone and Ryan Bradley and Anthony Thompson and Rory Kavanagh – who could just punch a hole in packed defences.
I am not convinced the McHughs or Marty Reilly can punch holes through power. If they get space, they will knife through opposition defences with their speed. But if that space isn’t there, then you need to be able to kick as well. So I would hold that card up the sleeve of rotating Michael into full forward occasionally as an option. If Donegal can work that also, they are really well placed to have a good summer.
So these few weeks are about Malachy O’Rourke, Rory Gallagher and Mickey Harte and how they perceive the games. Monaghan will give you opportunities to score goals. Donegal showed they can get the bodies back and frustrate teams. Ironically, if that exact system is inflicted on Donegal, they could struggle. There will be opportunities against that defensive system to exploit space on the inside line but players must have the capacity to play with their heads up and find the pass in behind the pressure.
I am not forgetting the other teams in Ulster here. For all that has been said, when Tyrone were winning All-Irelands, Derry could put it up to them. Armagh have a tradition and so have Down and Cavan. This is not a fore gone conclusion but if it runs to the anticipated script and these games happen, then it will make for good viewing.
Donegal have more going forward than either Tyrone or Monaghan. Those two teams possibly hold an advantage in kick-outs. But it is all fine lines. There is not a lot between the teams and they all have the capacity to win it. All three leave chinks of light for others to work on.
The fascinating question is which team is going to win and why? Is there another dynamic there that we are not seeing? That’s why I took a lot from both games at the weekend. Because you are looking for small, obscure opportunities that other teams may give you. They are always there, sometimes hidden in plain sight. The big question now is who can best exploit these opportunities.