24 May 2022

An alternative view: When you do the talking on the pitch

Donegal put in their best performance of 2022 to date in their Ulster SFC quarter-final against Armagh on Sunday, so here's how it happened

An alternative view: When you do the talking on the pitch

Donegal's Caolan Ward waits on a high ball to drop against Armagh last Sunday

For a certain generation of Donegal supporters, there was a time when summer tended to consist of that overpriced barbeque you rashly bought without really thinking and used just the once, that fence you meant to paint but didn’t, and losing to Armagh in the championship.

Kieran McGeeney’s side picked up a couple of notable early-season wins in the Allianz League, defeating Dublin away when it wasn’t really a thing and scrapping their way past Tyrone, whereas Donegal, we were told, were patchy at best.

When Patrick McBrearty settled a pretty eventful Division 1 clash in Letterkenny last month to give Declan Bonner’s team a 1-14 to 1-13 win there was plenty to digest in the aftermath, although the bare facts remained that both Armagh and Donegal finished in the top half of the table on seven points.

Perception, we’re told, is an interpretation, which in this case told us Armagh - through no fault of their own off the pitch - had a successful campaign while Donegal did not.

Whatever about the notions, Donegal did produce some wobbly moments throughout spring, which tended to overshadow the encouraging ones. Some went as far as thinking the gods were aligning in Armagh’s favour, particularly after their successful appeal process that you’d need a Barrister-at-Law degree at King's Inns to comprehend.

At the pre-match press conference five days’ beforehand, as the rain battered the window at the Donegal Training Centre in Convoy, Bonner didn’t really want to get into any particular depth when asked about the appeal process. Staying away from the specifics and putting his eggs in the general basket, he just said it was a bit of a shambles.

You got the impression Bonner was more interested in keeping his eye on the ball and thought if that was passed onto his players then Donegal would have every chance of progressing, should they play something near their best.

Despite their early-noughties stranglehold on Donegal, Armagh hadn’t won at MacCumhaill Park since 1987, which was around about the time Scott and Charlene got married on Neighbours.

Another stat that worked against the Orchard County was that since McGeeney took over in 2015, they had won only three fixtures in the provincial championship. To put that into perspective, Jim McGuinness had more in 2011 and again in 2012, Rory Gallagher got three in 2015 and Bonner followed suit with four in 2018.

Perhaps not the most important fact but humorous nonetheless was the one that stated former DUP leader Arlene Foster has been to more Ulster finals in the last decade than Armagh.

Three years, since Meath in the Super Eights in 2019, had passed since there was a ‘proper’ championship match in Ballybofey, and how well it looked with the streets alive with supporters from both teams and the sun high overhead. Yes, there was that narrow success over Tyrone in the muck in that peculiar covid competition of 2020 on Halloween weekend, but Sunday felt like the real deal.

The talk beforehand was that Donegal were pushing things to suit themselves, making the pitch narrower to somehow stunt Armagh. In fact, the measurements had been decreased before covid as per Health & Safety instruction due to the close proximity of the surrounding wall.

Christy Murray, the Raphoe native, piper and proud proprietor of a personalised Wikipedia page, drummed up the atmosphere as only he can, with his “Up Done-eee-gal” beforehand. And as the teams marched behind the Cloughaneely Pipe Band by the Town End of the ground, the sea of green and gold and orange and white was reminiscent of that of the Canal End back in 1992. Armagh followed the band for a bit; Donegal followed the band a bit longer.

“This game will be won and lost on Armagh's kickouts,” tweeted Cahair O’Kane of The Irish News beforehand. “The focus will be on how many of them Donegal win, and what return comes off it. They're gonna go hard after Ethan Rafferty with a big wall of four across the middle. That's why I think Donegal will win it.”

Elon Musk bought Twitter this week for a cool $44 billion (yes, you read that correctly, billion) and with such an accurate prediction you’d wonder did he wager a few quid on Donegal.

One person who wasn’t on the money in the first half was Armagh outfielder-cum-goalkeeper Rafferty, who felt he had no option but to go long. Donegal won eight out of those first 13 kick-outs.

Eoghan Ban Gallagher - not long after his Killybegs clubman, the late John Murrin for whom there was a minute’s silence beforehand - had shown the way with a piercing run from 55 metres to score the opening point. While Donegal gobbled up the majority of Rafferty’s kick-outs from the tee, Armagh stood off Shaun Patton’s and the goalkeeper did as he pleased.

But after 12 minutes it was the visitors who led, 0-4 to 0-3 - a decent return playing against a strong, rather unconventional wind. Michael Murphy, he who should be on the edge of the opposition square we’re told, made an important interception from a Ben Crealey pass, on the edge of the Donegal square.

At one stage, Michael Langan, already booked, went to take a quick sideline ball only to not get the ball, as one of the Armagh mentors alongside Kieran Donaghy, decided not to bother giving it back. You couldn’t but think of some of the accusations in the weeks leading up to the game that accused Donegal of instigating the melee in Letterkenny, by using ‘unimportant’ players to get some of Armagh’s important ones suspended.

McGeeney was doing something I never understand - clutching the match programme with the centre-pages opened, while Bonner got a bit of a bump from Tiernan Kelly with no harm done bar a misplaced ear-piece, from which kitman Barry ‘Fenny’ McBride got a bit of overtime to sort.

Donegal passed up a lot of scoring chances but Murphy didn’t catch the fever and burst to put his side a point up on 25 minutes and it was a lead they would not relinquish.

The half ended with Aidan Forker kicking Armagh’s first wide and Ciaran Thompson scoring the best score of the first 35 minutes to give Donegal a 0-9 to 0-6 lead, which, you had to suspect at the time, may not have been enough considering the wind and missed chances.

Jason McGee’s performance, more so than the fact he looks about six foot 16 inches (not Wikipedia referenced, honestly), was head and shoulders the most impressive on the field, with plenty of willing cameos.

“Armagh will go long in the second half,” could be heard here and there in the main stand male lavatories at the break, which, unlike on the field, those in Armagh jerseys had no issue pushing up for. It didn’t take long, within 4.71 seconds the ball was sent hurtling towards the square and Rian O’Neill got the last touch to send it into Patton’s net, untidily, but thankfully from a Donegal perspective, they don’t all count as referee Maurice Deegan called foul.

Patton then saved well with his feet from substitute Aidan Nugent when O’Neill’s free cannoned down off the upright and Donegal, for the first time, looked in some discomfort. Brendan McCole, though, was performing admirably on O’Neill.

However, a bit like, dare it be said, in the McGuinness era, Donegal, having kept the opposition out, then struck a huge psychological blow. Firstly, Shane O’Donnell pointed following a typically energetic Peadar Mogan run and then, on 46 minutes,
Patrick McBrearty slapped Donegal into a lead of 1-10 to 0-6 with the only goal of the game.

Again Patton was let pick a man and a brilliant move that consisted of Caolan Ward, Hugh McFadden, Shane O’Donnell, Ward, Ryan McHugh, Mogan, Murphy, McFadden, Gallagher, O’Donnell, McGee, McBrearty and Ward again, saw McBrearty put on the finishing touch.

If Armagh’s tactic was not to push onto Patton in fear of being bypassed overhead, which also enabled them to set up for a patient Donegal build-up, then it had floundered. Donaghy could be heard shouting ‘Let them have it’ as Patton
ran out with the tee.

Up front, from being a blueprint of economy in the first half, Armagh hit one point - an excellent one from Stefan Campbell - from 10 shots at the posts. Donegal, from their first two, garnered a goal and a point and from then on, it was essentially an arm’s-length exercise, with championship debutant Shane O’Donnell, Murphy and Langan showing well and Conor O’Donnell rounding it off. The only front Armagh came back on was the wide count.

McHugh, from another short Patton one, showed immense presence of mind to claim the ball whilst ensuring he didn't tip-toe onto the 20-metre line, rather like you’d see an astute winger in rugby keeping the ball in play without his boot hitting the sideline’s chalk.

The Kilcar clubman then blocked a stinger at goal from Campbell with lower back and was named man of the match, on a day when it could’ve been one of a half-dozen.

“Wonder will Armagh appeal the result?” came the most predictable, although funny in the circumstances, statement of the day as the crowds filtered out.

Bonner told BBC he felt the appeals process was “in tatters” with the look of a man who really had heard enough about it. Michelle Shields, the Armagh PRO, told anyone who was waiting for reaction from their camp that it would not be forthcoming.
Donegal hammered Armagh 1-21 to 0-12 in the Ulster semi-final in 2020 and ended up losing to Cavan in the final.

Now, with the Breffni County awaiting in the semi-final on Sunday week, there’s no talk of revenge. The objective, no matter who the opposition, is to get back to the Ulster final. A bit like in the lead-up to Armagh, Donegal will prefer to do their talking on the field.

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