AT THE CLOSE of the 2012 season we have the most worthy of All-Ireland senior football champions.
Sunday’s victory over Mayo represented the culmination of a superb campaign for Jim McGuinness and his Donegal players. Consider the stature of team they have defeated this season – Tyrone, Kerry and Cork – and this is a remarkable All-Ireland win.
I really enjoyed the match. Anyone who complains about the standard of football would need to assess if their expectation levels are realistic. There was huge pressure on both teams considering the title droughts they had both endured. The atmosphere was electric and I loved watching two honest teams collide for 70 minutes.
The game ultimately boiled down to those two early Donegal goals. On All-Ireland final day, getting defensive match-ups right is critically important. Mayo failed to do that in the first quarter and it costs them greatly.
I could not believe Kevin Keane was lining up on Michael Murphy. Ger Cafferkey is a fine, tall full-back and placing him on Murphy made perfect sense when it came to dealing with aerial deliveries. That would have let Keane mark Colm McFadden, who is not as dominant in the air, and Keane proved in the second-half that he was adept at handling McFadden.
Those were the match-ups that Mayo needed to identify from the start. Donegal demonstrated against Cork that stationing Murphy close to goal was a potential option. Mayo should have been aware of that. Instead they were hurt early on by a fabulous goal from Murphy and then the second one, which stemmed from a poor handling mistake by Keane, damaged them further.
Cillian O’Connor was certainly fouled before the second Donegal goal but it is a moot point at this stage. Maurice Deegan made an error at that juncture yet in general I felt he officiated sensibly.
Michael Murphy smashes home Donegal’s first goal. Pic: INPHO/Donall Farmer
To Mayo’s credit that they fought back and ensured a proper contest unfolded. Unlike Mayo teams of the past, they did stood up when falling behind and refused to hide. Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle and Aidan O’Shea lead the way. Look at the scoring statistics and they outscored Donegal by 0-13 to 0-10 after conceding that second goal. But the raising of those two green flags had settled the issue.
The match reinforced my view that Mayo are lacking quality forwards. Clearly Andy Moran was a massive loss. But without him they still managed to create the chances. They kicked a few poor wides after half-time and also had to expend a huge amount of energy to work their way back into the game. The gap on the scoreboard was too great to bridge.
Mayo are a remarkably honest team, full of endeavour. They are young as well and have plenty scope for development. Their defence and midfield will compete with anyone. It’s just a matter of finding that marquee forward.
Consider the profound effect that the loss of Michael Murphy or Colm McFadden would have had on Donegal. Those two player were the difference. You can have refined defensive systems and a great work ethic but big Gaelic Football matches are settled by who has the special talent in attack.
When I was involved with Down, my role was to work hard out field and it would be the class of someone like Mickey Linden that helped win matches. I remember discussing this point with Robbie Kelleher a few years ago when examining why his Dublin team achieved so much. He described them as a side that contained twelve workhorses and three superstars. That combination won out.
Look at Sunday’s game and ask was there anybody better on the park than Michael Murphy? He has always worked hard for his team but on Sunday Donegal placed their most talented forward in his best position. Murphy’s goal represented the remarkable class that he possesses.
Donegal are a very fine team but I believe yesterday there was signs that there are chinks in their system. That is the intriguing thing going forward. The pressure Mayo exerted told and by the finish Donegal were slightly leaden-footed.
They have never been put under the pressure of having to chase a game. Over the winter months other counties will look at what Mayo did and it will hearten them as they put together strategies to take down the champions in 2013.
I don’t think anyone has ever doubted the ability of Donegal footballers. From the outside looking in, they appeared a team of party boys who were messing around. Since McGuinness took over, they have developed a team of great honesty sprinkled with supremely talented players.
Can they do it again? Now that they have the medal in their pockets to put in the monumental effort that is required for preparation like 6am training sessions? Those are the questions that will be teased out. But for now let them savour their success. They certainly deserve that.
Conor Deegan celebrated his own All-Ireland triumph over the weekend. TheScore.ie’s Gaelic Football analyst was a member of the team from Dublin golf club Castle who won the Irish Senior Cup at Kinsale on Saturday afternoon. The former Down great, a plus five handicapper, was able to toast his first All-Ireland success at golf to go with the three he claimed during his football career with the Mourne county.