Opinion: Bench and lady luck were key

Opinion: Tactics Board

Mark McGowan

The 2020 Ulster Final was always going to be a major part of the narrative at Clones last weekend, and for long stages of the game, it felt like history was repeating itself as the underdogs took the game to their opponents and dictated the terms of engagement.

Neither manager made any changes to the starting teams which had swept Antrim and Armagh aside in the previous round, with Declan Bonner opting not to recall Odhran McFadden-Ferry to the starting 15 having served the one-match ban he received in the aftermath of Donegal’s league win over the Orchard county three weeks previous.

Ever-present and ever-impressive in the league prior, I’d expected a recall for the soldier from Gweedore but Declan Bonner opted to keep faith in the defence that had shut down Armagh’s feared attack, albeit with a little help from wayward shooting from the men in orange.

After his Man of the Match-winning championship debut in the quarter-final, Patrick Lynch was identified as Cavan’s main threat in attack so Brendan McCole was tasked with marking him, Stephen McMenamin picked up Gearoid McKiernan, and Eoghan Ban Gallagher went on James Smith who once again played mostly in the full-forward line despite wearing number nine on his back.

As he did in 2020, Jason McLoughlin was to shadow Ryan McHugh, but this time Mickey Graham placed Padraig Faulkner on Michael Murphy, Killian Brady on Paddy McBrearty, Luke Fortune on Jamie Brennan, Gerry Smith on Shane O’Donnell and Conor Brady on Michael Langan.

Despite having regular opportunity to do so, Cavan neglected to deliver first-time ball into the full-forward line versus Antrim, despite having a considerable advantage in size, but showed no such hesitation on Sunday, landing the ball in and around the square and ‘D’ from long-range on six occasions in the first half alone, not to mention several other kick-passes that found moving targets breaking away from goal.

Both Smith and Lynch were superb in the opening half, tormenting McCole and Gallagher who weren’t really doing that much wrong, but such was the quality of the movement and deliveries that Declan Bonner opted to swap McCole and Gallagher in an attempt to disrupt the rhythm and momentum that the Crosserlough duo had settled into.

This ploy worked to an extent, though Donegal had begun to look a little more comfortable all over the field in the second half.

The first belonged to Cavan though, even if the scoreboard didn’t reflect it. The aforementioned kicking game was complemented with strong, direct running from the likes of Thomas Galligan, transitioning the ball through the middle third into scoring positions.

When Donegal were in position, Conor Moynagh quite often dropped deep, playing a sweeper role in front of Killian Brady and Luke Fortune. This paid off on occasion as the additional numbers back allowed Cavan to strip Donegal of possession as they encroached upon crowded territory, but the downside of this is that it allowed Donegal to use Peadar Mogan in a free role and as the extra man he was always available as an escape route, meaning the vast majority of the turnovers Cavan forced were a long way from Shaun Patton’s goal.

There was a ferocity to Cavan’s tackling that had been absent in many games this season, but it worked against them a little as referee Conor Lane consistently showed that he was going to call fouls that are often let go by other referees. The penalty incident aside – and there are arguments for and against it – Lane was consistent in penalising the minor infringements, but unfortunately for the Breffni men, many of these were conceded in scoreable positions and it was dead-ball scoring that kept Donegal in touch in the early stages.

Perhaps the change that had the biggest influence on this game was one that was forced, rather than chosen. Innocuous though it seemed, Hugh McFadden was clearly dazed in the collision at the second-half throw-in, but Caolan McGonagle’s introduction gave Donegal a much better balance and he was able to provide them with the sort of powerful and piercing runs that Galligan had served up for Cavan in the first half.

Not being privy to the injuries and niggles of the individual players, neither manager can be criticised for not starting anybody not fully match fit, especially given the break-neck speed of the opening 35 minutes, but there is little doubt that Donegal are a much more effective attacking unit with McGonagle on the field.

His inclusion, and Donegal beginning to get the upper hand in the midfield area, enabled Michael Murphy to play a more advanced role in the second half, and he immediately caused problems inside as Donegal began to kick the ball with a recognised target man inside.

Murphy’s presence on the edge of the square when Jamie Brennan’s mishit shot dropped from the sky caused consternation in the Cavan defence, and lead to Raymond Galligan uncharacteristically mistiming a punch that Conor O’Donnell turned in with great improvisation. Fortunate? Yes, but without the big man from Glenswilly there then it’s food and drink for Galligan.

Where to play Murphy is one of those great debates that has raged in GAA circles from the earliest days of Jim McGuinness’ tenure, and there is little doubt that Donegal are a greater attacking threat with him as an orthodox full-forward. But I’ve never felt it quite that simple, as was shown a short while later with the Donegal captain on defensive duty once more.

Just outside his own 21 and with Thomas Galligan bearing down on him and Gearoid McKiernan on his shoulder, Galligan opted to lay the ball off and settle for a point when in all likelihood he’d have driven into contact before releasing the ball had he been faced with any other green and gold shirt.

Ultimately, it was Donegal’s bench and lady luck that got them over the line here. McGonagle was superb and O’Donnell’s first touch raised the green flag, whereas the Cavan substitutions failed to have the required impact in a game where the pendulum had begun to lean in Donegal’s direction.

It will be a bitter disappointment for management and players alike to have gotten so much right, to have played so well, but to have come out on the wrong side in a game that was there for the taking.

The Tailteann Cup beckons, but if that performance is anything to go by, bigger things lie ahead for Cavan.