On Saturday last, Donegal brushed off the pain of their recent Ulster Final defeat to Tyrone, beating Cork in the fourth round of the qualifiers. Despite the game being played in front of a mediocre crowd in Croke Park, the victory sets up what is sure to be a sell-out quarter-final against Leinster Champions, Dublin.
Since 2011, Donegal and Dublin seems to be the most intriguing fixture in the Championship; attack against defense, open football against running football, and it certainly hasn’t disappointed in the past. 2014 was probably one of the biggest upsets in recent championship history. The bookies had stopped taking bets on the game, Spillane, Brolly and the lot ruled out the possibility of a Donegal victory, but who had the last laugh?
Jim McGuinness’ men had different ideas and came out with an almost comfortable win in the end. In his book, Until Victory Always, McGuinness highlighted the hours he spent analysing Dublin’s game plan and how all preparation leading up to the game was based around that plan to succeed where so many have failed before, in beating the Dubs.
His successor Rory Gallagher had been part of the set up previously. Since taking over as manager in 2015, he has repeated many of McGuinness’ styles. Is it possible that he also set his sights only on Dublin, knowing or feeling they would get passed Cork without exerting themselves to the limit?
Some of Donegal’s play suggests that this could be true.
One of the main aspects of Donegal’s game plan is having men running off the shoulder from the back at pace. In this reagrd, Ryan McHugh has been the Tír Chonnaill mens most effective player and most effective runner.
In the first half of the Ulster final, he controlled the flow of the game, got on the ball, got forward and scored some wonderful points.
In the first half of the Cork game, he was a completely different kind of player. He wasn’t getting forward in the way he usually does nor was he getting on the ball as much. In the first 30 minutes of the first half he only got on the ball twice while attacking.
While it can be argued that he just didn’t have his best game, it almost looked like he was conserving his energy. In contrast Frank McGlynn got onto the ball in attacking positions six times in the first 30 minutes, doing the majority of the running along with Rory Kavanagh and Anthony Thompson.
In the second half, they continued with this game plan and by the 60th minute, when McGlynn was the last of the three main runners substituted, he had gotten on the ball six more times in attacking positions.
This is when McHugh started making runs forward and doing his usual thing, getting on the ball four times and getting two scores in the last 10 minutes.
These defensive runners are key to Donegal’s counter-attacking game. McHugh was quiet against Cork while McGlynn was quiet against Tyrone. Are both of them waiting to unleash double-trouble on the Dubs?
Donegal allowed Cork to cut through their defence on many occasions. This really stood out, taking into account how crowded their defence usually is. Instead of getting men around the man with the ball, putting pressure on them and forcing a mistake, they seemed to let the Rebels play through them. In the first half on Saturday, they conceded 12 scores, including a goal, something Donegal don’t do.
Another thing they didn’t do was push up on Cork’s kick outs. They allowed Cork to play it out from the back unchallenged 15 times. And, they turned over the ball just four times in the first half.
This changed in the second half when Donegal took control of the game. Around the 50th minute the defence shut up shop and started to win back possession and the game became much tighter.
Although they continued to let Cork go short with the kick outs, it was for a different reason. They now got men behind the ball and made it extremely difficult for the Munster side to break them down.
In the last 20 minutes, when they felt the game was theirs, the defensive set-up changed. It took Cork the same length of time to register a score, with Donegal turning over the ball five times in the last 20 minutes alone.
With Dublin in their sights, and just a week to recover, it is possible that Donegal went into this game with one eye on their toughest challenge yet. If true, it was either an extremely smart move or a really arrogant move from Rory Gallagher.
However, it is safe to say that Donegal will not play in the same manner when the face Jim Gavin’s side next Saturday. If they replicate their Cork performance against Dublin, then they will be in for a long afternoon.