Donegal’s superiority may not be as pronounced as we think. They are on the right track alright but so are Cavan, writes Michael Hannon.
First, the obvious: Donegal are favourites to beat Cavan on Sunday. In fact the team who plied their trade in Division 2 over the Spring are overwhelming favourites with the bookies to beat the team who played in Division 1.
This will be Donegal’s eighth final appearance in nine years while Cavan are making their first trip to Clones on the big day in 18. When you look at it from that perspective you can understand why the bookies have priced Cavan at 3/1.
The old cliché of how sometimes you have to lose a few finals before you actually win one is often times true. On top of that, what is preying most heavily on the mind of the bookies and obviously the punters too is Donegal’s victory over Tyrone in their semi-final.
It’s a funny thing, but when you go back and watch a game, with the commentary off, a few days after it has happened and the hype and hysteria has all died down, then you can sometimes re-assess it in a very different light.
Take the Roscommon-Mayo game this year. Mayo were much the better team when those two sides met.
Upon re-watching it, I came to the conclusion it was actually a freak result, such had been James Horan’s sides superiority. A few individual errors proved costly as can happen in any game but the rush to write off Mayo in the national papers was completely at odds with what my eyes were seeing.
On the following Wednesday in the Irish Times, four days after the game, Darragh Ó Sé’s column echoed my sentiments and remains the only piece of measured commentating I’ve so far seen on that particular game.
Now, think back to the reporting on the Donegal-Tyrone match. It would seem that Mickey Harte’s men were appallingly awful and that Donegal made them so with their utter brilliance. Upon second viewing this week for the purpose of researching this column, I found the opposite to be the case.
Don’t get me wrong, Donegal were better, but not by some astronomical distance. In summation some of Donegal’s tactics worked a little bit better than some of Tyrone’s.
On top of that Tyrone had a poor eight minutes at the end of the first half when their own kick-out malfunctioned. If the two teams meet again later on in the year I think I might be backing Tyrone provided they arrive with a game plan that has been tweaked ever so slightly.
Here are the facts. Donegal won all bar one of their own kick-outs and they almost broke even on the Tyrone kick-out. That means from contests for primary possession they enjoyed close to 75pc of possession and yet entering injury time there was only three points between the sides.
What caught Tyrone on the hop was Donegal’s use of Hugh McFadden as a sweeper. Cathal McShane loves attacking crossfield ball rather than ball out in front. The sweeper made sure to cut out the crossfield pass and force McShane to make his runs out towards the ball, and across the body of the defender, something he’s just not that comfortable at doing.
McShane still played okay though; it was just that Tyrone never looked like getting the goal they needed from runners coming off his shoulder. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
Can Cavan win?
What I’m trying to do here is make the argument for Cavan winning. The easiest thing to do would be to say Donegal will win and why, but from a Cavan perspective, it’s more interesting to tease out how the upset could play out.
Tyrone were caught a little bit by surprise with Donegal’s use of a sweeper. But they shouldn’t have been.
The Division 2 final between Donegal and Meath saw the Royal county race into a 1-6 to 0-1 lead thanks in large part to the exploits of Mickey Newman in the Royals' full-forward line.
What was Donegal's response? They whipped off full-back Brendan Cole, replacing him with Neil McGee.
They then rotated between Paddy McGrath and Stephen McMenamin to sweep in front of Newman.
So, we can say with a measure of confidence that if a full-forward is causing trouble, the Declan Bonner/Stephen Rochford management team will double up on him.
Thereafter, Newman, who had been winning ball out in front and favours that type of run, only ever won ball that was floated crossfield to the back post. Notice the choice of sweeper.
For McShane it was McFadden, a midfielder who is good in the air and would be able to attack high ball sent in crossfield. For Newman, it was guys who are good on the ground and looking to sweep in front for all the low ball that was being sent in.
Both Tyrone and Meath stuck with the same full-forward line throughout their games. Cavan don’t do that.
Mickey Graham allows the forward line to rotate constantly. Gearoid McKiernan (pictured), despite being a big man, plays like a small man in that he tends to move towards the ball, which is also the way Dara McVeety tends to play when in there.
Conor Madden loves the crossfield ball with the majority of his scores this year coming from crossfield passes, as does Martin Reilly, who has played inside recently.
And it’s that constant rotation of a combination of those four that could cause difficulty for any Donegal defensive strategy. All you need is for a mismatch to happen, like McFadden sweeping on McVeety, or McGrath sweeping on Martin Reilly, and the likelihood of a goal chance being created increases.
Tyrone, for all their supposedly poor play, managed to take five shots for goal against Donegal the last day, of which only one yielded a score, flying just over the crossbar.
Yes, you couldn’t really say that any of them were clear-cut because Donegal had so many men back. However, if the three chances they created in the first half, all of which could’ve been fisted over the bar, had been, then we would’ve had a very different contest in the second half.
So that’s going to be key from Cavan’s perspective - game management. If Donegal opt to crowd things out with a blanket at the back then Cavan have to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
A goal will obviously be crucial but a couple of fisted points when angles are tight, and options are scarce, could be just as critical. Michael Murphy hit a point and also missed a 45 off the turnovers that came from those missed goal chances of Tyrone’s in that first half, so forcing chances that aren’t on will end up a poor outcome for Cavan.
The kick-out strategy adopted by both sides will be interesting. Tyrone tried a man-to-man press but Donegal’s half-back line pulled in, leaving space either side for midfielders and half-forwards to move into.
This allowed Shaun Patton to go long and yet also be very secure with so many of his restarts hitting men running into the spaces. Cavan could adopt a zonal press and have players hold their positions.
Against Monaghan, Cavan dropped off, preferring Beggan to go short rather than allow him bypass so many of the team with a booming kick-out.
They might look to replicate this approach as it will slow down ball being sent into Jamie Brennan and Paddy McBrearty. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if we see them mix it up at different stages of the game.
Between McGee, Langan, Murphy and Thompson, Donegal have lots of men capable of doing damage on kick-outs. And most of those players are in their forward line.
Therefore, the more interesting thing might be how will Cavan approach their own kick-out. They won’t want medium length kick-outs being attacked by this quartet and easy scores being tapped over by Donegal as a result.
This was a pattern that emerged in those eight poor minutes of football Tyrone produced that essentially lost them the game. Fermanagh, it was noticeable, went long with nearly every single one of their own kick-outs against Donegal in their quarter final, dragging their half-forward line back behind midfield and having nine players between the goalkeeper and wherever the ball landed, with about six of those players fighting for breaks. It was chaotic, but it did mean that if they didn’t win the ball they were set up defensively, and if they did, Donegal had shifted their half-back line out of place.
From Fermanagh’s point of view, they didn’t have a ball-winner ahead of the ball to release it to any time they did win a break, unlike Cavan who will have McVeety (pictured) in such a scenario, but as I watched the game I totally understood why Rory Gallagher had chosen to adopt this tactic.
Donegal did not score off the Fermanagh kick-out. They did, though, score off the Tyrone one and Cavan if they are to win, they will need to make sure they don’t score off Raymond Galligan's restarts.
If Donegal drop off and allow Cavan to go short with a spare man, then cutting out the solo and moving the ball quickly up the field will be key to generating a better scoring option up front.
And all of this is before we mention the key match-ups. Who will pick up who? Who will mark Jamie Brennan? Michael Langan? Paddy McBrearty? Michael Murphy? Ryan McHugh? Get one of those decisions wrong, like James Horan did when he assigned Keith Higgins and not Brendan Harrison to man-mark Cathal Cregg, and it can change a game in an instant, regardless if you manage to get everything else right on the day.
And all of this assumes that everything else is equal. Which it can’t be. One team has to be hungrier. One team has to be possessed. One team has to have manic levels of intensity in the tackle, for breaking ball, in tracking runners and in supporting the play. That team has to be Cavan with their first appearance in 18 years in an Ulster final.
I just can’t get away from the nagging feeling that Cavan are going to take another big scalp before the year is out. Donegal are favourites but I don’t think they’re as good yet as people have made them out to be.
Undoubtedly they’re on the right path, but so are Cavan.
I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if this one ended in a draw.
Follow Michael Hannon on Twitter here.