Posted by Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna looks at the warning signs for Donegal's Ulster final defeat to gallant Monaghan, and whether they can still retain Sam

2012 Donegal

Don’t try and tell us you saw that coming. The simple fact is we won’t believe you but while Donegal now comb through the wreckage of their Ulster final defeat, it’s not so much the cause that will bother them, the real question is whether they can put it all back together again in order to make a run through the end-of-summer gauntlet. Any more of the same and they won’t.

Before throw-in yesterday, I took out a pen and paper and got ready to document a couple of facets of the champion’s game that makes them next to unbeatable. Firstly there was a column for their turnovers as they tend to own the ball with pride and patience, probing for the right moment to feed their forwards.

Secondly, there was a small column down the bottom of the page for their wides. Such was their poise and shot selection, they’d barely kicked a wide all Ulster and I expected it to be nearly blank for the day. What was written in both those sections by full-time though was proof that Monaghan had reversed roles to the extent that I wish I’d kept track of the victor’s stats in those departments.

But you can still take the early exchanges as the template for what happened thereafter. Having won the throw-up, Monaghan probed, knocking 90 seconds off the clock, with eight passes that used the width of the field. With the opposition defence dragged wide, Darren Hughes made space down the centre and finished. The second score was equally important with Rory Beggan hammering a long-range free over. His distance from deadballs meant Donegal suddenly couldn’t foul within 50.

What happened at the other end of the field was more important though because while Monaghan's defence laid the foundations and put up the walls, their attacking simply threw on the roof.

So often like a basketball team, Jimmy McGuinness’ side tend to control the clock and make their way down the field on each possession, always getting off the shot. Yesterday, they coughed up the ball 21 times before achieving that. As a marker, the night before Tyrone turned it over 16 times while a woeful Kildare went to 26.

The pressure put on by the entire Monaghan team was such that by half-time it felt like it would be Down 2012 all over again. Thirty-five minutes of incredible intensity followed by 35 minutes of paying for the work rate. That never happened and Monaghan actually scored 0-3 from turnover ball in the first half, but that went to 0-5 in the second period. In short they got even more intense and even better. 

And then there were the Donegal wides, some caused by shots under pressure, others caused by the dents their confidence took in a bruising sector of the field, many caused by Malachy O’Rourke’s brilliant tactics which saw the opposition's sharp shooters marshalled but their blunt shooters left to take on efforts beyond their capabilities.

Colm McFadden rarely found room and when he did, he struggled. Paddy McBrearty was awful. Michael Murphy was anonymous. And the rest never stood up. But for all they got and did wrong, there’s still not enough to suggest they’ll now disappear.

They are the tangibles by which to measure the game but it’s the intangibles that Donegal will have to ponder most. Last year, as All Ireland winners, Dublin were unimpressive in the league and despite reaching the last four of the championship, there was a sense that they started behind the rest and spent the season chasing and trying to catch up.

Eventually, against Mayo, they ran out of road. It’s entirely possible the same is happening Donegal. Just look at the difference in intensity between the two sides in the Ulster final, a crucial factor in a slugfest. Monaghan swarmed quicker, hit heavier, ran harder. For all McGuinness's plans and planning, you can’t legislate for the flatness that can occur when you go from challengers to the challenged.

Injuries have slowed Donegal too and cannot be underestimated when you consider they don’t have even five subs that can slot into their system without affecting it negatively. Last year Karl Lacey said they wouldn’t have gone all the way had they not got lucky with their treatment table but this year he’s part of a problem there.

He didn’t look fit yesterday, Neil Gallagher didn’t start and Mark McHugh got floored early, changing the entire dynamic of the game as Eamon McGee didn’t have a sweeper and Kieran Hughes may have subsequently won himself an All Star as well as an Ulster medal.

That was indicative of Donegal’s lack of depth as well as his huge talent. One player goes and suddenly a simple diagonal ball used over a decade ago by Armagh could shred the most fearsome defensive system in the land.

Getting those players fit and keeping them fit is the first and most important box they’ll have to tick to complete a recovery. But so is recovering that fearsome hunger and drive that meant they were first to every breaking ball and caused the likes of Tomás Ó Sé to talk of the horror of running at their defensive system.

Granted, this defeat and now a winnable game against Laois may help fix that and it may be the shock they need to wake up and realise you have to earn the right to win. Plus, it’s better to come out and get caught cold when there’s still the safety net of the qualifiers, rather than the sheer drop from the All Ireland series. 

Besides, it’s too early to doubt Jimmy McGuinness as only when Donegal are gone for the year should they be written off. Of course they were desperate for an Ulster three-in-a-row and it’s not to take away from Monaghan’s brilliant effort, but word last night was emanating about the gruelling work Jimmy McGuinness had his side doing during the week.

That would explain much and suggest that in staring down the bigger picture, they lost sight of the smaller picture. Worryingly for the rest, it would suggest too that they’ve yet to hit their stride, but plan to down the home straight.

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