Rebels look to adapt early
The longbow proved devastatingly effective for the English during the Hundred Years War. Most notably at Agincourt, this tactic gave them the upper hand over France for much of the conflict. Eventually the French solved it, basically by routing England’s archers before they could get ready.
Gaelic Football’s equivalent is Cork’s route-one game, bombarding opponents aerially with high balls. Conor Counihan however was in no mood to be routed so he changed Cork’s point of attack from the off. In order to counter Donegal’s 45-45 game the Rebels looked to build patiently from the back and get a man open near the Donegal 45 to press forward. For the most part they failed when taking such a direct approach but the Rebels managed to gain an advantage when moving the ball into the final third. As a result Cork had far more open looks on goal in the first half than those previously vanquished by Donegal and kept the game tight on the scoreboard at the break.
Donegal prove effective on the counter
Despite Cork’s returns in the first half, the Donegal defence didn’t take long to establish dominance. When possession was turned over, Jim McGuinness’ charges broke quickly into Cork territory. Counter-attacks proved vital to Donegal’s attack in the opening 35 minutes as their direct build-up play wasn’t yielding the same kind of rewards.
The organisation of the Ulster champions moving up-field was a joy to behold and unsurprising to anyone who has watched them this season. With space on their side the men from the Hills were able to get their half-backs in position to score. The introduction of David Walsh for Ryan Bradley also helped swing momentum in their favour as the half neared a close. In addition to picking up a score with nearly his first touch, Walsh was more suited to transitioning Donegal’s game from defence into attack.
Up front it was a quiet half for Donegal’s forwards from play but they were successful in picking up frees in favourable position. Michael Murphy set the tone by picking up an easy one 18 metres out from goal early. The Glenswilly man had a so-so afternoon from play, with Eoin Cadogan more than holding his own in the battle, but yielded two frees that resulted in scores and set up Colm McFadden for a score from play as well. In total Donegal won three frees in scoring range in the first half and all three were converted.
Donegal create space and scores
Cork’s defence hadn’t conceded a goal all year heading in to this game and much of that was down to their success at cutting off options inside for opponents. Donegal however sought to exploit this on Sunday by dragging defenders away from the ball-carrier and giving clear space to shoot. A move inside by Murphy on 24 minutes forced Graham Canty to follow him and Rory Kavanagh had room to finish. Karl Lacey scored under similar circumstances three minutes later.
After the break Donegal’s build-up playing going forward looked to keep Cork guessing. McFadden got open to score on 40 minutes and Lacey finished off a solid passing move to break Cork’s high defensive line to score on 43 minutes. Dead balls once again proved a valuable tool in padding the advantage as Donegal nailed their first three after the break, including a 50 metre free from Murphy and a 45 from McFadden. With multiple threats in attack, Cork couldn’t close down every avenue for the Ulster champions.
Cork switch to high ball
With the deficit building, Cork went back to basics in a bid to break Donegal. Colm O’Neill won the first significant high ball sent his way on 46 and forced his way inside only for his effort to hit the post. From there on Cork would clearly come out second best in this battle until injury time. Donegal loaded up at the back on high balls and completely negated the threat. Cork tried to adjust by switching to a two-man approach with Nicholas Murphy supporting O’Neill (see pic below) but Donegal always had cover to remove the danger.
One high ball on 69 minutes saw three Donegal players go up with one red jersey for the ball, with a fourth man in green and gold there to take the breaking ball. Across the field Donegal managed to gain numerical supremacy in breaking ball situations, with 2-on-1s, 3-on-2s and 4-on-2s ensuring they kept possession and got back into attack. The Rebels would eventually find the net thanks to a high ball but winning one battle wasn’t enough the sway the tide in this war. The best high-ball defence in the country had held firm against the best high-ball attack in the game.
This was a thoroughly impressive display by Donegal and they will rightly arrive in Croke Park on 23 September as favourites to claim their second ever All-Ireland. The machine wasn’t always perfect up front but the awareness of Donegal’s attackers was impressive. Frees were won or 45s were forced when players got isolated and the commitment was to getting a score rather than seeking individual glory. Nowhere was this better presented than when Anthony Thompson hit a ball first time over the bar on 63 minutes after play broke down in front of the Cork goal.
The Rebels were innovative from the start but in the end they simply could not solve Donegal. Like Tyrone and Kerry, they managed to give Donegal a late scare, which [Shameless plug alert] I’ll expand on in my book on the season [/Shameless plug alert] but over 70 minutes they couldn’t overcome McGuinnes’ system.
Defensively Cork kept Donegal to one of their lowest shooting percentages of the season, with just 52 percent of chances converted. Donegal however topped Cork in terms of chances created and in success at the back. With 16 scores from 31 shots, the Ulster champions were always going to be hard to top. Cork could only manage 12 scores on 25 chances, as Donegal once again kept an opponent from converting more than half their chances. The Ulster champions built their game from defence but their attack has become one of the most dynamic on the island.
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Programming note: The next column will be a review of the Minor Semi-Final between Meath and Mayo which will be up on Tuesday. That will be followed by a preview of Dublin and Mayo on Thursday. Big thanks to Fiachra Ó Murchu for sorting me out with tickets for Sunday. For the full schedule check out our Facebook page.