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Martin McElhinney powers Donegal to victory over inexperienced Down

Donegal's Martin McElhinney gets away from Down's Rory Mason. McElhinney bagged four points in Donegal's 10-point McKenna Cup victory Picture by Cliff Donaldson
From Brendan Crossan at Pairc Esler

Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup Section A: Down 0-10 Donegal 1-17

DONEGAL took another confident step towards a Dr McKenna Cup semi-final berth with a comfortable win over hosts Down in Newry yesterday afternoon.

Played in from of 2,220 diehard GAA supporters, both management teams learned a couple of things: Donegal’s second string is significantly stronger than Down’s and the three handpass rule adds absolutely no value to Gaelic football at inter-county level.

While Down were missing numerous key players – including Caolan Mooney, Connaire Harrison, Kevin McKernan, Darren O’Hagan and Donal O’Hare – Donegal were without quite a few of their own star players.

The difference was Donegal were still able to field a raft of top-class operators.

One of them was man-of-the-match and midfield powerhouse Martin McElhinney, who notched four points from play – two in each half – and claimed several assists.

Down’s midfield couldn’t handle the St Michael’s man and once he found his stride there was nobody in the Down defence capable of stopping him.

The home side’s chances of keeping the likes of McElhinney at bay weren’t helped when Brendan McArdle – one of the few experienced players Mourne boss Paddy Tally could call upon yesterday – had to go off after just 10 minutes due to injury.

Without McArdle, Gerard Collins and Ryan Johnston were the only Down defenders with any notable senior experience, while Conor Poland – a player capable of establishing himself as a regular in 2019 – had to drop back from centre-forward to centre half-back to cover for McArdle.

Donegal led 0-9 to 0-3 at the break and probably should have had more scores on the board but for several efforts landing short, from targetman Michael Langan and a couple from Niall O’Donnell.

Although Ryan McAleenan stuck to his task well, fleet-footed corner-forward Jamie Brennan was always dangerous, and the Bundoran man opened his account as early as the fifth minute and added another a few minutes before
the interval.

The Mournemen could only muster three points in a difficult opening half.

Saval attacker Ciaran Harney confidently struck over Donegal’s bar in the second minute and his club-mate Pat Havern profited from a terrible kick-out from Donegal ’keeper Mark Anthony McGinley soon afterwards.

Down’s third point, coming in the 21st minute, was one of the best scores of the day. Rory Mason cushioned a lovely kick pass down the left flank before the ball was off-loaded to Kilcoo’s Ryan Johnston to split Donegal’s posts.

The home side went scoreless for the next 19 minutes as Donegal hit six unanswered points to ram home their superiority.

Donegal boss Declan Bonner may have been more scathing of the new three handpass rule than Paddy Tally – but it was Down who were cursing the wisdom of the Standing Committee for Playing Rules in the first half.

In the 19th minute, Harney fired into Donegal’s net for a goal that would have put Down 1-2 to 0-4 ahead but referee Barry Cassidy rightly ruled out the three-pointer due to too many consecutive handpasses.

The irony was that the new handpass rule punished excellent attacking play.

In terms of observing the new rules, Cassidy was meticulous – but even referees must be wondering the value of some of them.

The handpass rule (unlikely to survive beyond the McKenna Cup) means that the match official has to ‘ball watch’ quite a bit and won’t see cynical infringements occurring off the ball.

It also significantly reduces the number of goal chances in games, making defenders’ lives much easier, and forces players to take the wrong option in possession.

As a consequence, there was a lot of sloppy, disjointed play, with many of the kickpasses going across the field and removing any attacking impetus.

In theory, the three handpass rule was dubious. In practice, it is just silly.

Apart from the imposing Havern, Down didn’t have a lot of height in their attack and were always going to rely on impudence to get a goal. But it’s harder to open up defences with a limit on handpasses.

Indeed, the only major of yesterday’s Section A game came from a defensive lapse.

Donegal substitute Oisin Gallen appeared to over-hit his kickpass but with Down goalkeeper Johnny Parr stranded, Buncrana wing-forward Caolan McGonigle continued his run before fisting into the empty net in the 63rd minute to put the visitors 1-15 to 0-7 ahead.

New boys Harney and Mason showed decent moments for Down but were replaced at the restart by Paul Devlin and Declan McClements.

Kilcoo’s Devlin was sure-footed with three frees in the second half, while Conor McGrady – an early replacement for the injured McArdle – was lively and bagged two points in a bid to put respectability on the scoreboard. Havern also saw a drive come off the Donegal post.

The painful truth for Down’s inexperienced recruits was that Donegal won by playing at half pace, and without the likes of Ryan McHugh, Michael Murphy, Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher and Odhran Mac Niallais.

They were physically stronger around the middle, had infinitely more experience than their hosts, and they counter-attacked efficiently at times with Hugh McFadden, Peadar Mogan and Caolan Ward catching the eye.

The only downside for Donegal boss Declan Bonner was watching the returning Eoin McHugh crash to the ground in the 43rd minute clutching his hamstring.

“That was a huge blow because Eoin had just come back and has done a huge amount of work to get into good shape and it looks like a pretty serious hamstring injury,” said the manager.

Donegal host Cavan in their final Section A game on Wednesday night, while Down round off their campaign against Queen’s.

Down: J Parr; S Annett, R Wells, R McAleenan; G Collins, B McArdle, R Johnston (0-1); A McClements, D McCarthy; R Mason, C Poland, C Francis; J Johnston (0-1), P Havern (0-1), C Harney (0-1) 

Subs: C McGrady (0-2) for B McArdle (12 inj), P Devlin (0-3 frees) for R Mason (h-t), D McClements for C Harney (h-t), C Quinn for P Havern (50), E McCabe (0-1) for A McClements (54)

Donegal: MA McGinley; C Ward, B McCole, C Morrison; E McHugh, E Doherty, P Mogan (0-1); H McFadden (0-1), M McElhinney (0-4); C Thompson (0-1), N O’Donnell (0-3, 0-2 frees), C McGonigle (1-1, 0-1 45); M O’Reilly (0-1), M Langan (0-2 frees), J Brennan (0-2) 

Subs: J McGee for C Thompson (41), P Brennan for E McHugh (43 inj), L Connor for J Brennan (48), O Gallen (0-1) for M O’Reilly (58), P Dolan for P Mogan (64)

Yellow cards: P Brennan (55), C Morrison (68)

Referee: B Cassidy (Derry)

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