HomeFootballKevin Madden: Donegal’s complete belief edged out cautious Armagh

Kevin Madden: Donegal’s complete belief edged out cautious Armagh


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WHEN Rory Grugan stripped Paddy McBrearty of the ball in the penultimate play of the game I thought ‘This is it.’

The man who so cruelly missed the chance to win last year’s Ulster Final has just taken the ball off the Donegal captain.

The scene was set and Armagh were on their way to finally capture the Anglo-Celt under Geezer. This was the day all the heartbreak would be banished and the hard work rewarded.

As Tiernan Kelly stepped up to kick the mark, he just didn’t catch it cleanly, and extra time was certainly going to be more of the same. A grave reminder that sport just doesn’t do sentiment.

Four up with 20 to go, and again two points up with just six minutes remaining Armagh just couldn’t find a way to kill the tempo and win this game in normal time like they should have.

Of course there will be a narrative that Sunday was a tactical masterclass from Jim McGuinness and Kieran McGeeney got his tactics all wrong. It must be said this was not the case.

This was a game of small margins where both managers got some things wrong and a lot of things right.

But no matter about tactics or gameplans the biggest thing that McGuinness brings to Donegal is that absolute clarity and belief that sticking to the plan will see them through. Donegal were absolute dogs in that final quarter who 100% believed that sticking to their gameplan would be enough to see them through to extra time at least.

My criticism of Armagh would be how they sat back and continued to invite Donegal on instead of killing the game when they had them on the ropes. Had the shoe been on the other foot, I don’t think Donegal would have made the same mistake.

I felt going into the game Armagh needed to pick their moments to press the Patton kickout but that never happened. But considering Armagh had almost zero joy (lost 24 of 25) where did the attacking platform to be in a position to win the game originate from?

Donegal only had four wides on Sunday (including extra-time), compared to 15 the last day against Tyrone. This was a super clinical performance.

But against Tyrone in the 70-odd minutes they had only lost possession seven times inside the attacking ‘50′. At full-time on Sunday after extra-time that total was 19. A huge upturn in shot-to-score efficiency was the trade off for a massive downturn in possession lost. Of course Armagh’s tackling and defensive structure deserve credit but they don’t tell the full story.

Donegal's players at the end of the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Armagh and Donegal at St Tiernach's  Park, Clones on 05-12-2024.Pic Philip Walsh
Donegal’s players at the end of the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Armagh and Donegal at St Tiernach’s Park, Clones on 05-12-2024.Pic Philip Walsh

So what did Donegal do differently in attack to explain the seismic shift in stats? Clearly in a move to increase their scoring efficiency the approach in attack was very different from what we have been accustomed to in the inter-County game of late. Width, depth, angled runs, backdoor cuts it was certainly not.

They played very narrow in attack most of the time, often stacking the ‘D’ area with players. Take their first point for example. They had 11 men all positioned either in or on the periphery of the ‘D’. A screen to occupy as many men as possible.

As Niall O’Donnell carried the ball towards the left side of the attack, the man closest to goal but behind the screen, Oisin Gallen, came sprinting out on the wide loop to receive the ball and and kick a point. A classic decoy move perfected on the training ground.

But to merely praise the successes of this approach would be ignoring the problems it created. Donegal at times were practically on top of each other highlighted by a turnover in the 9th minute when Dara O Baoill and Peadar Mogan almost collided into each other.

To give the ball away 19 times inside the attacking ‘45′ was a grave malfunction in attack that gave serious oxygen to the Armagh counter-attacking game and goes a long way to explaining why the game was so open in the first half.

People will rightly point to the space it created on the Donegal flanks and the excellent scoring efficiency but equally the amount of ball coughed up as a result of this approach could and arguably should have been fatal, had Armagh been just a little more ruthless.

Donegal’s manager Jim McGuinness and captain Patrick McBrearty celebrate after the penalty shoot out win over Armagh in Sunday's Ulster final.
©INPHO/James Crombie
Donegal’s manager Jim McGuinness and captain Patrick McBrearty celebrate after the penalty shoot out win over Armagh in Sunday’s Ulster final.
©INPHO/James Crombie
(©INPHO/James Crombie ©INPHO/James Crombie/©INPHO/James Crombie)

Armagh barely pressed a Patton kickout all day, while Donegal put Blaine Hughes (who I thought was excellent) under pressure nearly every time, without much reward. But persistence pays and after Peadar Mogan won a converted free, they pressed up again for the next kickout.

Only this time they won it and were on the attack again and another Jason McGee point brought it back to a one point game entering the final moments. This was a major play. Donegal were turning the screw, facilitated by Armagh hanging on rather than pushing on.

What struck me most about that final quarter of normal time was those two unbelievable points with the outside of the boot from Niall O’Donnell and the incredible lift in intensity from his team going down the final straight.

But yet the chances were still there for Armagh. Jarlath Og and Stefan Campbell will probably be kicking themselves for not having a go at the mark but what peeves me more about these situations is the acceptance of the mark taker and the players around him, that the ball must be kicked backwards.

In both instances there were realistic possibilities for a kick to be played into a better position closer to goal.

The resilience and never-say-die attitude of Donegal during normal time, extra time and even their focus during the penalty shoot-out was the mark of a team who had decided they weren’t leaving Clones without the cup and that was that. The winner kicked by Odhran Doherty had conviction written all over it.

I was gutted to see Armagh lose yet again in a manner which in my opinion should never be used to decide a Gaelic Football match. But equally I felt a serious admiration for how Jim has instilled an unwavering belief in his troops that anything is possible.

An opponent that never knows when they are beaten is a dangerous one.

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