BY CHRIS MCNULTY
1. The centre half-back conundrum
WHEN Jim McGuinness first took management of the Donegal side for 2011, Leo McLoone was ear-marked for the centre-back spot. Injury in that first season put him out of action and Lacey went in, only looking back when injury stunted his playing time last year.
McLoone had performed well in the early passages of the League this year, but it is clear that the Glenties man plays his best football when on the attack. His point, for instance, on Sunday early in the second half came after a wonderful basketball-style dribble to set up the chance.
It had been a torrid afternoon before then on Mark Poland, who was wrecking havoc for Down. McLoone had his post changed for the second half and visibly got better. Frank McGlynn moved to centre-back in the second half and performed well.
McLoone’s place does not appear to be in jeopardy, but it would not be a surprise were he re-located into the half-forward line for the visit of Louth to Ballyshannon on Sunday-week.
Karl Lacey’s return to action this year has been an obvious boost to Donegal, but the Four Masters ace has returned to a sentry at corner-back, where he won All-Stars in 2006 and 2009.
What has been missing has been that dynamic, direct and devastating all-action number 6 role that Lacey filled with such distinction in 2012.
Just who fills the centre-back spot going forward remains something of an unknown.
Eamon McGee gave a superb display last May against Sean Cavanagh and Tyrone in Ballybofey and there are those pining for Lacey to be handed the number 6 shirt in which he reached the top of the tree two years ago. On Wednesday night, Ryan McHugh delivered a fine audition for the role as he starred at centre-back for the county Under-21s.
2. Time to see fringe benefits?
WITH just two games remaining in the National League, it is interesting to note that Donegal have started only sixteen players in the five games to date.
Eamon McGee – who sat out the opening two games because of suspension – started against Meath with Karl Lacey dropping to the bench. Lacey was back in the starting XV on Sunday, with Ryan McHugh making way.
Of the other ten players who have appeared as subs, Luke Keeney, Eamon Doherty and Stephen McLaughlin have made only a fleeting appearance each.
The emergence of Darach O’Connor and Odhrán MacNiallais and the return of Christy Toye from injury has bolstered the numbers and given McGuinness some food for thought, but when he’s having to dig in the reservoir it was perhaps noteworthy that the busy O’Connor and Patrick McBrearty were two of those summoned.
Paul Durcan was fortunate to escape a black card early in the game on Sunday. His replacement would have been Michael Boyle, who has been kicking his heels over the last few seasons. Giving some game time to Boyle over the final two games may be an exercise worth undertaking.
3. Conversion ratio must improve
IT was, as Jim McGuinness noted, ‘obviously disappointing’ that Donegal had managed to be off-colour in the final third to such an extent on Sunday.
Over the 70 minutes at Pairc Esler, Donegal had twenty attempts on goal that didn’t hit a target: Twelve were wide, five balls dropped into the hands of Shane Harrison and another three were blocked.
“Any day you kick that many wides and you get beaten by two points you have to be disappointed,” McGuinness said.
“That’s the bottom line on it. “You can’t take away from the fact that we had so many chances, from free kicks and from open play. We only needed for two of them to go over for us to get a draw so that’s disappointing. Our shooting boots definitely weren’t on.”
Colm McFadden has kicked 3-5 out of his 3-14 from play over the five League outings so far with the next most potent being Odhrán MacNiallais, who has hit 2-5 from play. Michael Murphy has fired 0-5 out of 0-20 from play, while Dermot Molloy and Patrick McBrearty have hit six points each from play.
As disappointing as Donegal’s performance had been on Sunday, the narrative still could have been written in their favour.
McGuinness said: “If we’d retained our composure, settled down and taken the scores when they were on it might have been a different result.”
4. Down to the wire
DOWN’S win on Sunday gives us a three-way tie at the top of Division 2 with Donegal, Down and Monaghan all on seven points.
With Armagh and Meath nicely poised behind them on five points, the abacus will get some attention over the course of the final fortnight. Donegal have a marginally better score difference than Monaghan and will surely see Sunday week’s meeting with Louth as a chance to extend that again.
“It’ll go down to the wire with the three teams who are on seven points at least,” Jim McGuinness said after Sunday’s defeat.
Before Sunday’s game many saw promotion as something of a formality for Donegal. While it’s still a fancied occurrence, the defeat on Sunday outlined again the thin margins that persist in League football.
Three into two doesn’t go and Donegal must now ensure they’re not the one to fall.
5. Down re-invent their wheel
TRADITIONALISTS, it had seemed, until the last, Down have now bucked their trend and set up on Sunday conforming to the Ulster stereotype. James McCartan’s side funnelled bodies back to swarm Donegal’s forwards and when going forward there were at least two occasions on Sunday when the waves of Mourne attackers outnumbered the Donegal rearguard.
In the 2013 Ulster semi-final, McCartan and company seemed to have got their tactics spot on against Donegal, but on that occasion it was a notable lack of accuracy that cost Down, on a day when the eerily precise Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy fired Donegal to victory.
Niall Moyna was stationed just in front of the press box on Sunday and was in constant contact with both McCartan and Jerome Johnston on the sideline. Moyna never had the walkie talkie away from him and it was a game that clearly meant a lot to the Mournes. In his fifth year at the helm, McCartan seems to have abandoned the swashbuckling man-on-man approach in favour of the now customary men-behind-the-ball plan.