So much for the black card!
Any notion the new rule would eradicate cynical fouling disappeared in Celtic Park on Sunday. All the optimism surrounding attacking play that followed the league looked a false dawn in a dour, defensive Ulster Championship battle.
The problem, though, is not the black card. It remains the same as it was before the new rule was introduced, the application of the rules within the spirit of the game.
With so much at stake now and an approach that goes beyond professional in most top tier counties, teams have worked out which fouls warrant the black card and simply decided to break up play with ones that don’t carry the new punishment. They still break up play; slow attacks and frustrate the opposition.
Sunday’s game in Celtic Park saw the biggest sporting crowd anywhere in the country over the weekend. The entertainment value? Practically zero!
But for the 10-minute spell at the beginning of the second half that won Donegal the game, this was a game most spectators present will be trying to forget rather than recalling over a pint.
That’s not Donegal’s problem, of course. Rumours of their demise were always going to have been greatly exaggerated. The back card, it seems, has hardly made a dent in Jim McGuinness’ defensive unit.
What should have though was Cavan referee Joe McQuillan who let McGuinness’ men away with a number of questionable challenges at key stages in the game, notably twice in the second half as Derry tried to claw their way back into the game.
On 41 minutes, Derry’s outstanding player on the day, Gareth McKinless, was flattened by two Donegal backs who contrived to win themselves a free with their challenge. Instead of a straight forward free to move within three points, fast forward 15 seconds and Michael Murphy goes down very easily at the other end and taps over the subsequent free. A three point game becomes a five point game in the blink of an eye!
Derry responded though by bringing the game back to Donegal at 1-09 to 0-09 and are again denied a clear looking foul on Benny Heron with 10 minutes to go. Play is allowed to continue and within 20 seconds Donegal substitute Martin McElhinney has extended a lead that should have been brought back to two points out to four. Against a Donegal defence, that is a mountain.
Yet Derry almost scaled it after once again reducing the deficit to a two point game and then watching as Gerard O’Kane sent a difficult shot inches wide. With that shot went Derry hopes on an afternoon of frustration.
Some of that frustration was rightly directed at the referee but he didn’t cost Derry the game. Those 10 minutes at the start of the second half did. Before that, Derry had executed a well thought out game-plan to perfection.
McGuinness’ plan to invite Derry onto Donegal and spring counter-attacks was not a surprise though Derry’s first half response was. Rather than run into the visitors’ trap and try to force the game, Derry were patient and turned the tables, drawing the visitors out of their defensive shell with possession football.
Playing Donegal requires a specific, disciplined approach and McIver had it perfect. Even the loss of Fergal Doherty who, alongside Patsy Bradley, had been dominating midfield did not upset the Oak rhythm.
Niall Holly was introduced and produced probably his best 20 minutes in a Derry shirt until a mix up with Emmet McGuckin surrounding a ‘two-on-one’ goal chance seemed to unsettle him.
He was never the same player after the break but perhaps the Eoghan Rua man realised the value of a goal that would have sent Derry in at half-time 1-6 to 0-4 up instead of the vulnerable two point advantage they held.
Emmet Bradley and Dermot McBride - who didn’t give Colm McFadden a kick all afternoon - were both excellent and all the positive performances in the opening 25 minutes were in red and white.
Donegal changed that with 12 blistering minutes which saw them hit 1-5 upon the restart. The goal itself, expertly finished by Leo McLoone, was not fatal to Derry but the succession of points that followed were and Murphy was pivotal. His outrageous score from a sideline ball had score of the championship stamped all over it.
By the time Derry woke up, their two point advantage had been turned into a six point deficit and despite an admirable effort, closing that gap against a defensive unit like Donegal is close to impossible.
Brian McIver said before the game there would only be a kick of the ball between the teams and McLoone’s goal proved him correct.
“The ten minutes after half time killed us. Up to that stage we were playing really, really well,” conceded the Derry manager.
“I don’t know what happened. We did not come out of the blocks after half time at all and falling behind against Donegal is a really hard way back.
“They came out after half time and started to get break ball around the middle of the field. They created the goal chance and took it. That was the difference in the end. They took their goal chances and we didn’t. That’s the fine margins between winning and losing.
“We learned a lot from the NFL final and we learned a lot there today. We’re still learning but that’s the only place to learn, against the last two All Ireland champions. You can’t get better pedigree to learn from!”
Despite the defeat, McIver praised his players.
“Fair play to the players they showed great character to come back and Gerard O’Kane came within a whisker of a score to leave a point in it with still four or five minutes to go. But it did not happen.
“There were a lot of decisions that should have been going our way that did not go our way. But the best of luck to Donegal! They are a strong, experienced side, hard to beat and best of luck to them later on in the season. We will regroup and take it from here.
“The players showed great character and there is nobody there pointing fingers at any player. We accept the fact that we were up against a good side and really put them to the test.
“Everybody is disappointed. We prepared very well for this game. I thought we played some very good, controlled football in the first half but we didn’t take the breaks, they took their chances and we didn’t. Bottom line, Donegal got the break and took it, we didn’t!”
Derry: Thomas Mallon; Dermot McBride, Gareth McKinless, Chrissy McKaigue; Kevin Johnston; Mark Lynch 0-4; Gerard O’Kane; Fergal Doherty, Patsy Bradley; Ciaran McFaul 0-1, Sean Leo McGoldrick, Enda Lynn; Emmett Bradley 0-3, Emmett McGuckin, Cailean O’Boyle. Subs: Niall Holly 0-1 for F Doherty, Benny Heron 0-2, for N Holly (Blood), Ryan Bell for C O’Boyle, Benny Heron 0-1 for N Holly, Oisin Duffy for K Johnston, James Kielt for E McGuckin, Ciaran McGoldrick for E Bradley. Black card: James Kielt (already booked)
Donegal: Paul Durcan; Eamonn McGee, Neil McGee, Karl Lacey 0-1, Frank Mclynn, Leo McLoone 1-1, Anthony Thompson 0-1, Paddy McGrath, Darach O’Connor 0-1, Christy Toye 0-1, Ryan McHugh, Odhran MacNiallais, Patrick McBrearty 0-1, Michael Murphy 0-4, Colm McFadden. Subs: Martin McElhinney 0-1 for C Toye, Neil Gallagher for D O’Connor, David Walsh for O McNelis , Luke Keaney for P McBrearty, Dermot Molloy for C McFadden.
Referee: Joe McQuillan, Cavan