Ulster SFC: Kickout accuracy vital as mass defence runs its course

Peter Turley (right) battles with Antrim's Patrick McBride
Peter Turley (right) had a tremendous game in Down's midfield against Antrim

So what did we learn this weekend in Ulster?

Two things principally.

Firstly, that the accuracy of the goalkeeper's kickout is becoming an ever increasingly important aspect of the modern game and that the 13-men behind the ball, massed defence approach, is a busted flush for many intercounty teams.

Oh......there's a third. Don't stage Ulster Championship games at the same time as Champions League Finals involving English clubs or other big sporting events which have a massive public interest.

You had to feel sorry for Antrim goalkeeper Chris Kerr during the first half of Saturday's game against Down in Newry.

With six foot four midfielder Niall McKeever employed in the full-forward line for most of the first quarter, the Saffrons soon were getting cleaned out at centrefield as Peter Turley lorded proceedings.

When McKeever did revert to his regular role, things didn't improve in the Saffron engine room but the decision to opt for short kickouts then made matters worse as - after a couple of earlier warnings - Shay Millar's mugging of Matt Fitzpatrick set up Kevin McKernan for the goal just before the interval that effectively ended the contest.

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Goal before half-time changed everything - Harbinson

'Utterly bizarre tactic'

That all came after the utterly bizarre tactical decision not to contest Down kickouts which allowed Turley, Caolan Mooney, Darren O'Hagan and the particularly impressive Millar to get up a head of steam in their own half and burst at the straining Saffron defence.

Suffice to say, it's doubtful Antrim's tactical template will be finding its way into any gaelic football coaching manuals anytime soon.

As regards Down, they did what they had to do but it's arguable whether Eamonn Burns learned anything which he will be able to take into the Ulster semi-final with Donegal.

Donal O'Hare tried to shake off his tag of just being a free-taker as he looked lively in open play but will get he get as much ball against Declan Bonner's side?

Anthony Doherty's three long-range frees helped take some of the place-kicking responsibility off O'Hare and as Rory Beggan has already shown in Ulster this year, free-taking from distance can be a vital element in a team's arsenal.

Hugh McFadden celebrates with Patrick McBrearty after scoring Donegal's first goal at Celtic Park
Hugh McFadden's first-half goal put Donegal in control at Celtic Park

Derry's 'Maginot line' is breached

Moving on to Sunday's game at Celtic Park, Derry's attempt at building a wall to stop the Donegal attack proved about as effective at the Maginot Line was for the French Military in the summer of 1940.

The Oak Leaf tactic might have worked if gaelic football was 30-a-side.

However as Dublin showed in devastating fashion against Tyrone last August, using the full width of the pitch and employing pace is a sure fire way to breach the enemy's defensive lines.

In an Ulster Club Championship game on a gluepot pitch in November or perhaps a Football League game in February, men behind the ball can prove effective as runners struggle to pick their way through the mud.

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Derry missed chances 'frustrating' - McErlain

But thankfully, we now are in the midst of a rare genuine Irish summer with the pitches hard and the ball bouncing and the speed merchants able to do their thing.

Donegal's transition from defence to attack was hugely impressive on Sunday with the aforementioned kickout again a vital component as their number one Shaun Patton displayed what my colleague Cian Murtagh corrected described as a "laser-like accuracy" in quickly picking out a team-mate.

While up against moderate opposition, Donegal's running game looked fluent and pacy. OK...it was not the devastation wreaked by Frank McGlynn and Ryan McHugh against Dublin in 2014 but the smooth way, Donegal were moving through the gears, with runners making themselves available off the shoulder, must have pleased Declan Bonner.

After his relatively subdued outing against Cavan, Patrick McBrearty's eight points showed he was back to the brilliant form that he produced for much of the league despite Donegal's ultimately unlucky relegation.

Ryan McHugh's display, after his low-key game against Cavan, will also have delighted Bonner while Leo McLoone's three points was far from the sum total of his all-action display.

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Donegal still have room for improvement - Bonner

In the minus column, concerns about Donegal's defence will not have been assuaged by Sunday's contest.

Emmet Bradley's Trojan efforts apart, Derry offered little in attack but a few hopeful long punts into the Donegal full-back did cause some consternation with the ricochet favour the visitors on a few occasions when the ball could easily have ended up in the net.

Donegal corner-back Paddy McGrath was fortunate to avoid a black card in the first half for a hand trip on Enda Lynn while Neil McGee only lasted 12 minutes before having to go off because of injury.

In McGrath's defence, it was his first game back after injury so there may have been an element of Bonner rushing the corner-back back to action.

McGee was joined by Michael Langan and Jamie Brennan on the Donegal treatment table after their game and their fitness will be a concern with only a two-week turnaround until the Down game.

However, Odhran MacNiallais will be an obvious replacement for Langan - if the youngster is ruled out - after impressing as a substitute on Sunday while Cian Mulligan's second goal in as many games suggests he could comfortably slot into Donegal's full-forward line should Brennan's injury prove problematic.