Danny Hughes: Donegal in a good place on early-season form
DONEGAL followers can have no such concerns over their short-to-medium term ability to retain their status
within Ulster’s elite.
They were worthy winners over Down by 10 points and despite the Mournemen having a goal disallowed under the new handpass rule in the first half, the same rule infringement prevented Donegal opening up Down’s defence on almost three to four other occasions during the match.
The Donegal team had a handful of players from last year’s Championship squad, perhaps not guaranteed starters, however, their experience at that level of competition was in full view on Sunday.
They also had a few players who aren’t so much trying to break into the Donegal starting XV,
but rather into the 26 for a matchday squad.
Each Donegal player played the game as if it were their last chance. There was no sign of Michael Murphy, Paddy McBrearty, Ryan McHugh or any other of the big name players usually at the Tir Chonaill men’s disposal.
This, more than anything else, probably gives you an insight into the strength of Donegal football at the minute – consider too that current Ulster Club champions Gweedore are yet to throw their lot in with the squad.
I remember a time when the McKenna Cup was taken seriously enough and Donegal stars over the years like Brendan Devenney, Brian Roper and Adrian Sweeney all made starting appearances.
We in Down approached the competition in the same manner.
Thanks to the structural changes allowing universities entry into the competition and indeed thanks to new rule changes being adopted on a trial basis, these matches are now all about unearthing new players and are perhaps a last chance saloon for some.
I suspect that the Dr McKenna Cup will go the same way as the Railway Cup in time.
While these matches are still better than any challenge games, it is hard to gauge where either Donegal or Down will be come May and August.
However, I would be pretty happy with Donegal’s performances thus far this season if I were a Tir Chonaill fan.
Back-to-back 10-point winning margins is hard to argue with.
Whoever is overseeing Donegal’s strength and conditioning programme can be particularly pleased as they seemed able to brush Down players aside relatively easily in the tackle, especially when they ran
directly toward goal.
Declan Bonner’s men had too much power for a very experimental and inexperienced Mourne side which, I must admit, contained players even
I was unfamiliar with.
I was an interested observer in the Donegal management team’s dynamic along the line also, with Bonner, Stephen Rochford and Karl Lacey all present.
Lacey retains his role as the designated communicator between management and players, making those difficult runs onto the field from the
sideline, not unlike the same
ones he made as a player.
I still find the Rochford role within the Donegal team set-up a rather strange one, though.
2018 results for Donegal did not immediately appear to be won or lost on the sideline as far as I remember. And it is not as if Bonner is lacking managerial experience at that level.
Certainly, it appears that they didn’t lack any amount of leadership qualities within the All-Ireland winning squad of 2012 – as Lacey best demonstrates.
Whatever role Rochford has, he will certainly have his own ideas and, from my experience, if you have been a number one or held that position, it is almost impossible to be happy in an assistant role.
I remain sceptical.
Despite this, should the dynamic help Donegal win another
All-Ireland, former Mayo boss Rochford will receive the freedom of the county.
That is precisely what Paddy Tally (inset) will get should he take any silverware back to my beloved county.
On Sunday’s performance, Down are parked in the right division.
They played like a Division Three team and I know Tally won’t be happy with the performance for a number of reasons.
He will need to promptly call upon a number of experienced players currently resting.
I can testify from experience, comfortably climbing out of the third tier will not be easy.
It took a more experienced Armagh side a couple of seasons to achieve promotion from the third rung.
If you were jumping to any conclusions from Sunday’s performance, some of those wearing the Down jersey may
not get another chance for some time.
The management will know that they will have to make gains pretty quickly in the short-term.
Should you ignore a holistic approach, one area the current Down team are significantly lacking in is the physicality stakes.
On a number of occasions, lightning quick Down players were nudged off the ball by their more physical Donegal counterparts.
On several occasions, Donegal players broke through a number of weak tackles from the Mournemen which resulted in scores.
That physical element in the tackle won’t be rectified within a few months. That sort of progress takes years.
I understand that for many years now Down have had strength and conditioning coaches as part of the respective management teams.
So this is not a new area they are embarking on.
I feel that, as a county, we appear well behind Donegal, Tyrone and, dare I say it, Armagh, from that perspective.
I do know Tally has plans to rectify this trend, but ultimately it comes down to a player’s willingness to make sure they are responsible for their own development.
No management team, no matter who they are, can make a player train if the motivation of playing for their county at that level isn’t enough in itself.
I think this individual responsibility is being lost in the modern approach to the game and the issues around it. Perhaps there is a case that players are being spoiled too much.
Gear, food, physios on call, individualised programmes, mileage and player expenses are all well and good – all necessary in order to keep a changing room happy.
Ultimately, though, players should not lose sight of why they are in the privileged position of representing their county.
To make it to the top of any sport, it is five per cent talent, 95 per cent dedication.
As a county player, you represent two per cent of the playing population of the game – so that makes you ‘special’ in a way.
I remember a very wise manager saying to me once ‘Players will get what they need to succeed, not what they want. After that it is up to them’.
It still rings true.