Sunday 24 February 2019

McBrearty blow dilutes Donegal attack too much for Dubs battle

Donegal forward Paddy McBrearty
Donegal forward Paddy McBrearty

This was going to be a column about how Donegal and Kerry revealed themselves last weekend to be Dublin's biggest rivals for this year's All-Ireland but the news that Paddy McBrearty has torn his cruciate changes one of those evaluations somewhat.

It's an awful blow for Donegal.

And you can see by the outpouring of sympathy nationally for McBrearty that he's a loss to the football championship in general.

Along with Dublin's Ciarán Kilkenny and Kerry's Paul Geaney, they have probably been the top three outstanding footballers in the country this year and without him, Donegal don't look nearly as complete a team.

Which is a shame for them, because under manager Declan Bonner, they have evolved rapidly this season.

You can't but be impressed with a team that holds their defensive shape as well as Donegal do but at the same time manage to get and keep so many men forward.

And there aren't better footballers in their positions in the country than McBrearty, Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh.

They're irreplaceable.

McHugh, for me, is an extraordinary footballer.

His goal on Sunday was superb and he's incredibly prolific for a man who plays his football predominantly in the half-back line.

It's not just his pace that makes him a threat, it's his timing.

You can man-mark a forward but it's complicated to sacrifice one of your own players to track a wing-back like McHugh.

Many teams designate a specific man to mark a player like that when they cross the half way line or encroach into the '65' but once he builds up a head of steam, it's almost impossible to prevent him getting forward without fouling.

It's the same with Eoghan Bán Gallagher, who has been a revelation this year.

The days of corner-backs touching the ball two or three times in a game are gone.

Everyone, including defenders, need to be able to play in a fully functioning modern inter-county team and Gallagher is a brilliant example of that.

As is Paul Brennan, the man who played centre-back last Sunday in their provincial final victory over Fermanagh.

Centre-backs don't do a whole pile of marking any more against most teams, so their usefulness can be measured partly in attacking terms.

Between them, Donegal's starting defence scored 2-4 on Sunday.


That game between Dublin and Donegal in Croke Park next month had the makings of a cracker but without McBrearty, it just dilutes Donegals attack too much.

As for Kerry, the signs are now overwhelmingly positive.

And nowhere is the change more pronounced than in their half-forward line.

For the past four or five years, Kerry have had a functional, industrious combination of players across there but it's clear now that éamonn Fitzmaurice simply has prioritised pace and scores from that line.

The interplay and movement of Geaney, James O'Donoghue and David Clifford on the inside line is a joy to watch and with so much speed coming to support from behind, it's hardly a surprise they've scored 3-50 in just two Munster championship games.

There is a clear policy of renewed pace in the Kingdom's defence, too.

Cork got in for a couple of early goals last Saturday night in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, but I can't recall a single forward getting out and winning a ball in front of their marker.

The new or newish guys; Jason Foley, Gavin White and Brian Ó Beaglaoich, they're all lightning quick and importantly too, they're all interchangeable.

It's not about having a big, physical full-back and two tight corner men any more.

It's all about getting the match-ups right and with the players he has brought in, manager Fitzmaurice now has a variety of different styles of defenders.

From here, it looks as though Fitzmaurice has decided he has the best forward line in the country again and is planning on going man-to-man at every team they play, including Dublin.

What a prospect that is.

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