The league is over – and, remember, it was only ever the league – with the clock now ticking down to our showdown with neighbours Galway at Pearse Stadium in four weeks time. Time for some final thoughts on last Sunday’s match but then it really is time to move on.It was, I have to admit, disappointing to have to trudge out of Croke Park having been beaten once again. Croker is a fabulous arena but there’s a world of difference taking your leave of it when you’ve won compared to when you’ve lost. We have plenty of experience of the latter – with one more to add to the pile after Sunday – and it goes without saying that we need more of the other too.
But, as the lady said, I digress. Back to Sunday and what’s to be learned from it. The first point to note, I suppose, is that Sunday’s final represented the fifth weekend in a row when the lads were in competitive action. That’s a schedule more akin to the Premiership than the GAA world and it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to the early stages of the championship, where several weeks can go by without a game. This means that the preparation for and recovery from the set of matches the team have just had is a world away from the much more infrequent but far more intensive encounters that occur in the championship.
We did well to get through those five matches in the way that we did and, in retrospect, it was good that we didn’t have the option of chucking the likes of David Brady into the action at some stage. It’s far better to have him fully fit and raring to go on 20th May. Likewise Trevor Mortimor. The other injuries, in particular Kevin O’Neill’s, should have cleared up by then as well so that we should be far closer to a fully-fit squad by then. With the U21 campaign also now finished, Aidan Campbell will be able to concentrate fully on finding his feet in the seniors but, set against this, Barry Moran appears to have become our latest long-term absentee.
The fact that we had no new injuries to report after Sunday was no thanks to the stinking, godawful bog of a playing surface at Croker the last day. The pitch was truly in shocking condition – it was several shades of the most sickly-looking green and it almost looked as if moss was spreading over it – and it was truly a wonder that nobody got seriously hurt, unlike Roscommon’s Seamus O’Neill who slipped and damaged his ankle ligaments there in the match under lights against Cavan the previous night. It’s more than a little ironic, I think, that so much effort has been put into keeping punters off the pitch but so little into making the pitch itself less of a health hazard for the players.
Once the rain began to fall shortly before the throw-in, it was always going to affect the quality of the football. This is largely what happened. I still find it odd, however, that we were the ones who kept dropping the ball and losing our feet: it’s not as if Donegal gets any more rain than Mayo and so that they should have felt more at home in the adverse conditions. Whatever the reason, it certainly was the case that Donegal’s ability to adapt to the conditions and to take full advantage of our patent failure to do so was a major factor in their victory. It that sense, it truly was only a league encounter: we shouldn’t have to worry about Pearse Stadium being like an icing rink next month.
The other major factor in Donegal’s triumph was, I believe, their hunger for success. Their record in finals is far worse than ours – this was the first one they’d ever won since 1992 – and they really, truly wanted to win this one, as Brian McIver has since revealed. It showed: they started and finished the match far stronger than we did. Basically, it looked like they wanted to win it more than we did.
They were helped on their way by a number of negative aspects in our performance on the day. Once again, we didn’t get motoring until we had given the opposition a nice headstart and, even when we did, we kept losing possession that the likes of David Heaney and James Nallen worked so hard to secure. We were too loose at the back where Peadar Gardiner, in particular, got taken to the proverbial cleaners early on by wee Brian Roper.
Going forward, we didn’t seem to have any fluidity and it looked as if the players had never even trained, never mind played, together before. They never really worked for each other, moved for each other or made space for each other. This meant, for example, that all the excellent ball that Andy Moran won – and he won a heck of a lot of it – was wasted because there was nobody around him providing him with options. Contrast that to Donegal, where their movement off the ball was excellent and opened the way for many of their scores.
But it wasn’t all negative. We did far, far better than expected at midfield and while I don’t expect to see a Heaney/Nallen midfield axis in Pearse Stadium, the ageing combination worked perfectly on Sunday as we more than broke even in the sector. The problem, as I’ve already mentioned, was what we did with that primary possession. I doubt very much that Nallen will make his way back into the starting fifteen for Pearse Stadium but he’s definitely a good man to have on the bench for the final 15 or 20 minutes. However, Heaney has almost certainly played himself back into the starting lineup, probably at midfield, though possibly, as one commentator on an earlier post of mine has suggested, at wing-back.
Another heartening aspect was that we created three clear goal chances over the course of the game. We blew them all, mind, but it still showed that we had the potential to open the opposition up at the back. Had Mort fed Brady for the first, had Brady done the reverse or steadied himself a bit better for the second and had Andy realised just how much time and space he had for the third, we’d surely have won the game. And that was despite playing poorly and in the face of Donegal’s keen thirst for victory. It needs to be recalled that we were still in it right to the end and that Donegal’s three-point winning margin flattered them. In reality, there was little more than a kick of a ball in it.
And so now it’s onto the real action. I think we’re approaching the championship this year in far better fettle than we did twelve months ago – after Galway clocked us in the league semi-final last year, I thought we could expect no better than a last eight finish; after Carrick I thought so even more – and we’re doing it under the tutelage of one of the finest brains in the Gaelic world. Sure, we look far from the finished article and, I know, Galway could skin us next month but, even then, we’d still be in with a shout. In other words, we could be in for another long, compelling Summer.