Sport

Danny Hughes: Ruthless Donegal exposed Down's weak mentality

Michael Murphy's perfectly legal hit on Niall McParland (grounded) summed up the difference between the sides in last Sunday's Ulster semi-final

THE Ulster SFC semi-final defeat to Donegal was a bitter pill to swallow for a Down side I thought may have had a chance before the game.

I think my fellow columnist John McEntee is right about my predictions being wide of the mark. The indignation of suffering another half of football, like the first half, led to a lot of Down supporters leaving at half-time. I don’t remember this ever happening before.

Then again, I do remember a particularly wet day in 2003 when, in the Ulster final replay, Tyrone handed us an almighty hiding.

It’s different when you are a player and you are aware that your own team simply isn’t at the races.

It’s very difficult as one individual within a team environment to arrest so many negatives occurring when the opposition are in the ascendency.

Yet, to be fair, Down had Connaire Harrison and Donal O’Hare on Sunday who at least made a stab at things.

Make no mistake about it, this game was over after 26 minutes.

It is not acceptable at this level and it has happened to this current Down team too often.

Think back to last year’s Ulster final and Tyrone had done enough to render the result in the second half a mere formality.

Even Longford made a game of it against the brilliant Dubs at the same stage in their Leinster semi-final.

The ironic cheers when Down goalkeeper Marc Reid finally was able to re-start a Down kick-out and find a Down player in possession after 28 long minutes was as embarrassing as it was comical.

To go into a modern day Championship match as unprepared from a kick-out strategy perspective as Down appeared to be is really quite shocking.

The team was unable to secure or even keep possession and gave the ball away constantly, leading to wave after wave of Donegal attacks.

Donegal could have easily hit another four or five goals, only for uncharacteristic complacency to set in on their behalf.

Down didn’t look capable of tracking Donegal’s runners and whether this was due to a lack of fitness, concentration or sheer willingness, Frank McGlynn, Ryan McHugh and Michael Murphy absolutely dominated their opponents.

One particular attack summed up the first half for me. After 20 minutes, two Down players eventually broke out into the Donegal half of the field and, after giving the ball away between them, simply stopped, while McGlynn overtook both from 10 yards behind to support the next attack. That scenario has nothing to do with skill or ability.

Without the ability to go to places deep inside, places of hard work and places where a survival instinct kicks in, all footballers are pretty normal.

That is what currently separates this Donegal team from this Down one and the result at the weekend arguably proved this.

Donegal have been inspired by Jim McGuinness’s legacy. When he took over in 2011, the party boy culture was rooted out and a winning culture created instead.

To this day, this is epitomised by Michael Murphy in terms of how he plays and how he leads this Donegal team.

McGuinness saw these traits and has to be lauded for his foresight. He chose Murphy as captain, an honour he still holds.

When Neil McGee got rightly sent off, Murphy and co redoubled their efforts.

When Shay Miller presented a pass to Niall McParland, the kind of which sends you to A&E, Murphy absolutely pummelled McParland, who is Down’s captain.

It was a fair challenge, but it was a message from Murphy to his team-mates and indeed to Down’s players as well. Donegal meant business.

Declan Bonner’s men exposed a weak mentality and, like all good teams, rammed home their supremacy. Down simply don’t have a Michael Murphy in their ranks. Neither do Fermanagh, but they are a very organised team who play to a certain system.

Rory Gallagher has also instilled belief. Down don’t appear to have organisation or belief. The fundamental question I ask myself from a Down perspective is this: Does the county have the players to win an All-Ireland?

Currently the answer is no as this Dublin team would have to be beaten and I can’t see this happening anytime soon.

Are there enough good players in Down to win an Ulster title? I believe there is.

This may sound naïve, but winning an Ulster title for a Down team has to be the natural stepping stone in developing a player capable of going toe-to-toe with the current Dublin players.

At inter-county level, because you are working with a more elite-minded player, the right coach and manager can quickly turn around a county’s fortunes, as Gallagher, McGuinness and indeed Paddy Tally have demonstrated in recent years with their respective teams.

For now, though, Down will have to overcome Cavan in Enniskillen to salvage anything from a dismal season thus far.

Cavan will smell blood and this should be an interesting tie given how close their game was earlier in the year in the Allianz National League.

THE Qualifier draw has been relatively kind to Ulster’s teams and, with a two-week break, this should allow teams to really steel themselves for the weekly matches which lie ahead.

Armagh and Tyrone both enjoyed good wins, the latter emerging from a seat-of-the-pants encounter with Meath which ended in controversy from a refereeing perspective.

The Royals were incensed over key decisions that didn’t go their way and, while I could sympathise with their anger, I think that Tyrone were the better team overall.

I listened to Peter Canavan on Sky and thought his response to questions around ex-players’ opinions on Tyrone’s management were very measured and fair.

Surely, as the greatest ever Tyrone player and one of the best footballers ever, his involvement in re-building Tyrone football would be welcomed in a senior capacity. I know the media is an attractive gig which he seems to enjoy, but garnering his footballing knowledge would be something high on my priority list.

Sean Cavanagh has been criticised heavily for his comments but, to be honest, he owes Mickey Harte nothing. Cavanagh has helped Harte win All-Irelands too.

I think it’s refreshing and indeed normal to hear contrasting opinions at a time when so much pre- and post-match comment is scripted.

Colm Cavanagh is a player in his own right as he is an individual. He plays and justifies his own role and, as Mickey is a pragmatic football man, he will be unaffected by family ties when picking his team.

Leadership is defined by honesty in standing up and stating your opinion, whether it’s right or wrong.

That’s what made Cavanagh a leader, whether or not that’s lost on Mickey’s assistant Gavin Devlin.

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