Saturday 19 January 2019

Donegal slaves to their own system

Donegal's Rory Kavanagh gets away from David Moran of Kerry during the All-Ireland football final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Donegal's Rory Kavanagh gets away from David Moran of Kerry during the All-Ireland football final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

It'll hardly be the most startling revelation ever delivered by this paper but based on some fairly basic stats, last Sunday's All-Ireland football final certainly won't be regarded as one of the most memorable in recent years.

For starters, it generated the lowest combined scores in a football final in 11 years. Between them, Kerry and Donegal contributed only 23 scores over the course of 72 minutes of action, an average of a score every three minutes.

Not surprisingly, the record for the lowest combined scores since the introduction of the All-Ireland qualifiers rests with Armagh and Tyrone from their historic all-Ulster encounter in 2003, and while not quiet as defensive minded as Donegal, both teams certainly understood the value of keeping things tight at the back.

Of those 23 scores, 14 came from play, and while Donegal may well point to the fact that all six of their second-half scores were delivered in this manner, a more in-depth look offers a quiet depressing view of the overall attacking nature of the game.


In the opening 35 minutes, not one Donegal forward managed a score from open play. The two they did kick came from midfielder Odhran Mac Niallais and centre-back Karl Lacey, with the former Footballer of Year's score, and Donegal's first from play, coming after almost half an hour of action.

In fact, over the course of the game Michael Murphy was the only starting Donegal forward who contributed a score from play, as Kerry's defensive set-up, which was effectively a two-man sweeper system across their half-back line, diligently and effectively picked up the runners that had caused such severe problems for Dublin three weeks earlier.

Things didn't fair much better from a Kerry perspective - 1-1 inside the first three minutes only angered the Donegal defensive vice-grip, and over the following 30-plus minutes Kerry managed only two further scores, one of which came from play, as they struggled to pick their way through the mass of bodies and resulted in them kicking 12 wides throughout the game.

A scoring blitz in the second half that delivered 1-5 in a ten-minute spell was a direct result of the undoubted turning point of the match, that now infamous short kick-out. In the 15 minutes proceeding this, Eamon Fitzmaurice's troops had outscored the Ulster champion's by two points to one, and prompted someone close to me to remark that the game was like following one of the soaps on TV, where, despite not watching it for six months ,you still ended up missing nothing.

I'm guessing Paul Durcan's intended target was Leo McLoone, who, positioned at the top of the 'D', had been the recipient of a number of the goalkeeper's last-second redirects of his planned kick, only this time the application went drastically wrong as the ball landed in Kieran Donaghy's lap and he non-chalantly stroked it home.

In fairness to Donegal, their response was as impressive as it was immediate and Neil McGee's point, their third in as many minutes, should have encouraged McGuinness' troops to adopt a more aggressive attacking mindset, as they honed in on the weakness that had been so evident, throughout the summer, in the spine of Kerry's defence.

But such is their unshakeable belief in the system, admittedly a system that secured a first All-Ireland in 20 years, that when the opportunity presented to push on, Donegal reverted to type and funnelled men behind the ball again, although Peter Crowley's inspirational block on 60 minutes provided a real lift for Kerry at a critical point in the game.

It is probably somewhat unfair to be critical of a system that resulted in All-Ireland success, and at times last Sunday was close to being successful once again, but the greatest indictment against the application of this system was clear to see, when, despite trailing by two points with four minutes left to play, Donegal players continued to drop behind their own '45 metre line, remaining loyal to their first priority of protecting their goal, and allowing Kerry keep ball out around the middle of the field.

In truth, the story of the final won't bother Eamonn Fitzmaurice, who has done a remarkable job guiding his team to All-Ireland success when supposedly, even according to some of their own illustrious past stars, the Kingdom were in a rebuilding process.

With a fit again Colm Cooper and the possibility of Tommy Walsh returning from Australia to add back into the mix, a future that looked bleak 12 months ago following their All-Ireland semi-final lost to Dublin now looks full of promise.

With the curtain now drawn on 2014, the planning for every other county to emulate Kerry's success will begin again in earnest, the hope I have is that the pain suffered and lessons learned by Dubs at the penultimate stage of the championship this time will foster a renewed hunger and desire for them to return to the main stage in 2015.

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