By Frank Craig
Brendan Devenney admits it’s still hard to fathom how or why Donegal were so lethargic in defeat against Mayo in Castlebar last Saturday.
Declan Bonner’s men were outworked and out muscled in most areas and their lack of intensity was extremely evident even without the benefit of the actual numbers or statistics after.
Unsurprisingly when crunched, the numbers made for grim reading with Mayo trumping Donegal in both turnovers won (29/21) and tackles made (48/24). Mayo also came out on top in terms of shots from play (28/22).
Former Tir Chonaill attacker Devenney feels Mayo’s sheer physicality rattled Donegal. The Ulster champions’ energy and directness was one of their real weapons on their way to retaining their Ulster crown.
However, James Horan identified that and looked to smother Donegal’s attacking enthusiasm at source.
Devenney explains: “I remember three seasons ago going down to Castlebar under Rory Gallagher. In the first-half we played some brilliant football.
“They let us play it and we played them off the pitch. But in the second-half Mayo went for us physically – they tore into us. I remember thinking, ‘oh, my god, the power difference’.
“In the back of your mind, heading down the road, you’re thinking could they do that to us again? That day they went for us all over the pitch. This time, they played a tactic where they sat and invited us to carry the ball in.
“There was a 10 or 12 minute period in the second-half where they came out with their old style and it left gaps that we were suddenly able to exploit.
“But they realised what was happening and they immediately reverted back to their first-half formation. They should have been out of sight at the midpoint.
“Still, you have to wonder where this Mayo performance came out of. Up until the weekend they’d been abysmal in championship.
“There is no doubt they have quality. Maybe the packed house, backs against the wall thing played into their hands at just the right time. Things had been said and written and they had so much motivation.
“That said, as bad and all as we were – and we were terrible; we still could have won the game. Mayo, even after Saturday, they still have the same old issues. They are powerful, they’re strong. They can win ball but they can’t covert the chances that it will take to even trouble Dublin.”
He added: “Saying conditions influenced the match is sometimes a cop out but last weekend did suit them.
“But again, how do you explain our horrible first touch? Ball was going into the forward line and we were dropping or spilling it. They were grabbing it and sticking it.
“As a side we rely on a lot of things. Against Kerry, Ryan McHugh and Michael Murphy were unplayable. Ryan couldn’t get into it on Saturday and Murphy was being dogged all over the field.
“A bit similar to early on in the league, without our main men playing, we looked average. Jamie Brennan’s early season form hasn’t carried.
“Paddy McGrath went off, Jason McGee got injured, Neil McGee was injured. We were so short at the back. And that is a real issue.”
Devenney says Donegal will continue to come up short outside of Ulster in championship if they don’t blend some sort of defensive structure with what had, until last weekend at least, been a much vaunted attack.
“Back when we were a solid team, an All-Ireland contender, it was built on defence. As much as we like to be romantic now and say you can build an All-Ireland challenge on your forward line, you can’t.”
In terms of picking up the pieces and moving onto next season, Devenney can see Donegal going back to the drawing board. Mayo dished out a cruel lesson. And Devenney admits he feels for the players and management this week.
“No matter what, in their heart of hearts they would have been eyeing up Croke Park and the big days like an All-Ireland semi-final and maybe final. There were certainly signs of that this year – that we might be heading for those stages.
“There was some brilliant football played. But again, I look at Mayo’s physical ability, it does not trouble Dublin, Tyrone or Kerry.
“They are more physical but it’s not as massive a factor. If you take the (top) four or five teams, the only side that will struggle against Mayo will be Donegal. They know if they play the game on physical terms Donegal can’t handle it.”
Devenney believes it’s key that Declan Bonner retains the services of both Stephen Rochford and Karl Lacey for 2020. And while there was much talk about the panel’s strength and depth throughout the season ultimately, when stress tested, it failed.
“They’ve done huge work,” he says of the Tir Chonaill management team. “We did give up our defensive shape. Even if we want to get a little bit of it back I don’t know if we have the personnel at this time.
“We don’t have a centre-half back, we don’t have a full-back and we’re short an out and out corner-back. We’ve asked half-backs to fill in there and it was too much of an ask.
“(Odhrán) McFadden Ferry is a fantastic player but he’s not a corner back. Where young Conor Morrison went, I’m not sure.
“We have to get Kieran Gillespie back. We hopefully will have another look at Morrison. He looked like a tigerish corner-back.
“We’ve seen that a few injuries, and every side gets them, but it derailed us. We don’t seem to have the back up at the moment.”