Donegal got a grip of the game and refused to let go
Ciaran Sheehan’s point for Cork in the 28th minute of yesterday’s match edged Cork ahead by 0-7 to 0-6. It was a merited advantage and one that could have been embellished further but for a couple of spurned scoring chances. When facing this Donegal team, a great mystery has been how would they react if they went at least three points behind? Could they adapt their game plan to erase that deficit?
When on top during the first-half Cork could not build a sufficient lead. It proved costly as Donegal assumed control before the interval and refused to cede it. Between the 31st and 44th minutes, they outscored Cork by 0-6 to 0-1. That gave them the scoreboard cushion that they relish and if there is one team who can protect a winning position, it is Donegal.
They were marvelous to watch during the third quarter. Certain aspects of their play had been forecast, the controlling influences of Karl Lacey and Mark McHugh, the magnificent work ethic around the pitch and the breathtaking speed at which they raid forward. Others proved surprising such as the towering midfield play of Neil Gallagher. It all added up to a wonderful afternoon for Jim McGuinness’s team and they roll on relentlessly to a final date for Sam.
The improved attack of the Ulster champions
Central to the transformation of Donegal over the past 12 months has been the remarkable change in their attacking philosophy. We spoke here after the Kerry game about how that was key to their success in the quarter-final but it became even more pronounced yesterday. Twelve months ago they lost to Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final and were pilloried from post to pillar for their tactics. What proved Donegal’s undoing on that occasion was that they only fired six points and all of those came in the opening 44 minutes of the game.
Contrast that with yesterday against Cork when Karl Lacey’s neat point in the 27th minute ensured they had matched last year’s total. By the interval they had surpassed it by registering eight and they struck a corresponding number of points in the second-half. 16 points was a healthy total of scores and they also struck 13 wides.
There was a great sense of shared responsibility in that department by Donegal as nine different players got on the mark. The marquee forward pairing of Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy registered half of that total but recognised defenders Lacey, Frank McGlynn and Anthony Thompson all got on the scoresheet, Rory Kavanagh and Mark McHugh broke from deep while substitutes David Walsh and Martin McElhinney impacted. A glance at the scoreboard proved how far Donegal have travelled in 12 months.
Cork’s struggles to break down the opposition
Donegal’s game plan had been well advertised and and while Cork had some success against it during the first-half, they failed to do that consistently thereafter with manager Conor Counihan admitting afterwards their decision-making was suspect and an element of panic crept into their play. In the opening half when on top, their attacking movements looked too concentrated on the left wing down the Hogan Stand side of the pitch when there were spare men over on Cusack Stand side. The switching of the play was too slow as Donegal were able to funnel bodies back behind the ball.
Ciaran Sheehan and Paul Kerrigan smashed through Donegal’s cover at times yet Cork’s go-to guy yesterday up front was clearly Colm O’Neill. He struck 1-3 from play and was denied another goal when his shot crashed against the bar in the second-half. That was a setback for Cork yet while O’Neill was threatening, he was also under-serviced in the opening half. That proved problematic.
Cork’s Colm O’Neill hits the cross bar in the second half. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie
With Patrick Kelly playing a withdrawn role, seemingly in an attempt to use him as the launchpad for their play, Cork were robbed of some guile in the half-forward line. Their substitutes did not impact in the manner that Donegal’s did either. The ultimate two-point deficit was a testament to Cork’s resilience yet they made too many basic errors in possession in the second-half. Those wayward passes bore the look of a team who became frustrated by the task of continuously trying to break down a defensive wall.
How do Donegal control the hype?
There were 55,169 patrons present in Croke Park yesterday and it’s safe to estimate that 40-45,000 of them were cheering on the Ulster champions. The roar that greeted Donegal for the start of the match was deafening, the roar at the end of the game even more so. That will only grow louder over the next few weeks as the hype escalates all around a county where Gaelic Football enjoys religious status. On one hand it is fantastic as an area that has been scarred by economic hardship and emigration will have its spirits lifted greatly. The excitement and interest will be feverish as All-Ireland final talk consumes the county.
On the other hand, for the team it could be dangerous. They will need to detach themselves from that giddy air and train their focus on September 23rd. They have enjoyed a brilliant season but it will be a massive letdown if it is not crowned with silverware now. In Donegal’s favor is that their manager Jim McGuinness is so astute and methodical that he will have been aware of this from the moment the final whistle sounded yesterday.
Plans will be quickly put in place to protect the players as they aim to maintain their standards. One area they will need to address during the build-up is being more clinical when on top. They have beaten Tyrone, Kerry and Cork by two-point margins this summer yet in all three games failed to kill their opponents off and it has been closer than it should have been at the finish.
Where do Cork go from here?
Donegal go forward to September 23rd but what is Cork’s next move? There will be torment at this defeat over the coming months as their squad looked in excellent shape before yesterday. One consequence of the loss is that could spell the end of Conor Counihan’s reign in charge. He has been at the helm for five years but with work and family commitments, may opt to call time. The Aghada man has seen that second All-Ireland title elude him but ten trophies – one All-Ireland, three Munster, four National League’s and two McGrath Cups – is a wonderful haul and an excellent reflection of the great work he has done.
Regardless if Counihan does leave, and U21 boss John Cleary would seem the most obvious replacement in that case, there are challenges going forward. Senior players could now call time. Goalkeeper Alan Quirke turns 36 in October and it was revealing to watch him after yesterday’s match, jog around Croke Park and shake the hands of his teammates. Was that the actions of a man waving goodbye and thanking those who had soldiered with him?
The advent of Donegal has also ensured the landscape has shifted considerably. New traits will be needed in Cork next year with ball-playing footballers in deep positions essential. Eoin Cadogan was outstanding yesterday and Michael Shields also impressed alongside him. Those two will be the cornerstone of a future defensive effort yet shifting Shields to the half-back line could now be appropriate to benefit the team. The condition of Cork football is ultimately healthy and there are a few of decent prospects emerging like Clonakilty’s Tomas Clancy, Castlehaven’s Brian Hurley and Carbery Rangers John O’Rourke. They will remain in the elite tier of counties and while attaining that second All-Ireland crown is certainly possible, it will be difficult.