County focus: Donegal's veteran heroes are running on empty
STORY OF THE SEASON
The last hurrah? It looks closer to probable now than possible. Within hours of an All-Ireland quarter-final defeat by Dublin, Eamon McGee and Colm McFadden had announced their exit stage left. There may be more to follow. Karl Lacey, Rory Kavanagh, Neil Gallagher, Anthony Thompson and Christy Toye are all on the list of further prospective retirees.
If there’s one fault you could lay at Jim McGuinness’ door, it’s how little Championship experience he offered to players outside the 19 or 20 he trusted so implicitly. Rory Gallagher had no option but to begin the process of pre-empting the end for that team.
As a force to challenge for All-Ireland titles, it looks to be over for them. They conjured a big performance out of themselves against the Dubs but, even though the champions were off-colour and finished with 14 men, they were still the better side and deserved their victory. They struggled to match Dublin’s athleticism, which was the one thing you couldn’t have thrown at this Donegal side at its peak.
Gallagher would never have openly said as much, but he knew his chances of an All-Ireland were extremely limited. His best chance was to work with the mileage his team had accumulated by redrawing the plans.
A big pre-season led to the good start they needed in Division One. Three straight wins looked to have them over the line but, with four successive defeats, they could easily have fallen flat. They finished on six points, the same as relegated Cork, yet ended up in a Division One semi-final.
It was probably the last thing they needed, psychologically. They’d eased up considerably on training in a bid to keep legs fresh for summer, but being paired with Dublin led to a 10-point defeat and question marks over their ability to mount a real challenge.
Yet, they came so close to adding another Ulster medal to their collection. They came within three minutes of it. They’d weathered the Fermanagh storm in their opening game, with Mark Anthony McGinley’s penalty save just before half-time a blow to the Erne men after they’d just seen Neil McGee leave the pitch following a red card. The third-quarter of that game was one of the flashes they showed through the season.
Their drawn semi-final tie with Monaghan was the game that finally sparked the Championship into life. They were probably second best that evening, but it was still them who let slip a two-point lead at the end. There was no debate over the better team in the second game, despite just a point separating the sides at the end. Donegal were by far the better team, scoring 10 points in the first-half alone and generally dominating so many of the game’s battles.
Tyrone were fancied in almost every quarter to have too much for them in the final, but what transpired was the ultimate game of chess. Both sides were so determined to avoid contact and getting turned over inside opposition territory that the game became pedestrian.
Had they been asked to name their terms, it was what Donegal would have chosen. They had chances to put it away but, in the end, they were outdone by brilliant individual scores from Sean Cavanagh and Peter Harte.
They command the deepest respect of the rest of Ulster, still. They will justifiably set their sights towards a provincial title once more in 2017. But it’s likely to be a considerably different looking team when the new season starts.
Their minor and U21 teams of recent seasons have had enough about them to suggest the future remains bright.
WHAT THEY NEED
More fresh legs, a midfield ball-winner and a permanent foil for Patrick McBrearty. The style of football Jim McGuinness invented and Rory Gallagher has carried on requires serious energy levels above all else. They were lacking them in too many areas this year and, ultimately, they were outlasted by Dublin.
They made strides towards replacing some of the runners of old this season, with the introduction of Eoin McHugh and Marty O’Reilly’s repositioning giving them a fresh impetus. That allowed the legs whose energies were sapped by five years’ hard work to take it a bit easier.
They also hadn’t got Neil Gallagher as their go-to man for kickouts and they missed him terribly. Michael Murphy was effective in midfield, but could unleash holy terror if he was allowed to live on the edge of the square more regularly.
Next year could be hugely transitional if there are more retirements. If Karl Lacey and Anthony Thompson stay on, Gallagher may have to make big calls in reducing them to roles from off the bench.
Rory Gallagher’s second year in charge may have ended at the same juncture as his first, but it was arguably a more successful term. They worked hard in pre-season to secure their Division One status and achieved that with three straight wins.
Conscious of the age profile, he then let the players ease off before building back up to Championship. They were three minutes from justifying the plan when they led Tyrone by a point in the Ulster final, only to let them off the hook.
As that game and the Dublin game showed, the one thing he cannot do is turn the clock back. Bleeding a number of U21s and a new goalkeeper in Mark Anthony McGinley were important steps towards the future.
They showed more variation in their attacking play than in 2015 and, with a few more fresh faces next year, Gallagher can help them find another level.
THE NEW BREED
Donegal may have fallen short of silverware, but they reached a six successive Ulster final and retained their place in the country’s top-eight, despite the surgeries Rory Gallagher performed. There is work to be done on Mark Anthony McGinley’s kickouts, but it was a promising first year for the new number one, who made several big saves, most notably from a Sean Quigley penalty and an early Diarmuid Connolly effort.
Ciaran Gillespie could have considered himself unlucky to be dropped for the Dublin game and he displayed promise in the defence through a handful of appearances. But the standout new face was that of Eoin McHugh, who showed real fearlessness in running at opposition defences and taking on defenders.
There was also a bit of game-time for U21 captain Ciaran Thompson and Eoghan Bán Gallagher off the same side, while Michael Carroll will be hopeful of making an impression in 2017.
At 22, Ryan McHugh this year became a real leader for Tír Chonaill. From putting Peter Harte on the back foot in his superb Ulster final display to kicking another three points from play against Cork, to shutting down Declan McCusker on Fermanagh’s kickouts and dominating Michael Darragh Macauley, his was a superb season.
END OF THE LINE
The end has already been confirmed for two of their stalwarts and it’s expected more will follow in the coming weeks. Colm McFadden and Eamon McGee announced in the hours after their defeat by Dublin they had met the road’s end.
McFadden had seen very limited game time this year - the dying seconds of games, mostly - and as the season progressed, it became apparent he would step away at its conclusion. The finality and swiftness of McGee’s announcement - in his truly individual style, quoting a passage from Lord of the Rings - was a surprise, but the decision itself was not hugely so.
Eyes are now on Karl Lacey, Rory Kavanagh, Anthony Thompson and Christy Toye as the 2012 team stands on the verge of break-up. The latter was the only one to be reduced to a bit-part role, but his cameo appearances were still highly valuable to Donegal and he may yet stay on.
There are no guarantees about the decisions of the other three but, if they do stay on, all three could find their starting time reduced next year.
Ulster SFC quarter-final: Donegal 2-12 Fermanagh 0-11;
Ulster SFC semi-final: Donegal 1-11 Monaghan 0-14;
Ulster SFC semi-final replay: Donegal 0-17 Monaghan 2-10;
Ulster SFC final: Tyrone 0-13 Donegal 0-11;
All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers round 4B: Donegal 0-21 Cork 1-15;
All-Ireland SFC quarter-final: Dublin 1-15 Donegal 1-10
TEAM BEATEN IN ALL-IRELAND SFC
All-Ireland SFC quarter-final: Dublin 1-15 Donegal 1-10: MA McGinley; P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee; A Thompson (0-1), K Lacey, F McGlynn; R Kavanagh, R McHugh (1-0); O Mac Niallais, M McElhinney, E McHugh; P McBrearty (0-3, 0-2 frees), M Murphy (0-6, 0-5 frees, 0-1 45), M O’Reilly; Subs: C Gillespie for Mac Niallais (HT), L McLoone for Kavanagh (42), C Toye for Thompson (47), M McHugh for E McGee (55), C Thompson for McElhinney (60), C McFadden for Lacey (71); Yellow cards: R McHugh (8), M Murphy (15), E McGee (52), N McGee (72)
TEAM BEATEN IN ULSTER SFC
Ulster SFC final: Tyrone 0-13 Donegal 0-11: MA McGinley; P McGrath, N McGee, C Gillespie; R McHugh (0-3), K Lacey, F McGlynn; R Kavanagh, O Mac Niallais (0-2); A Thompson, E McGee, E McHugh; P McBrearty (0-3, 0-2 frees), M Murphy (0-2, 0-1 45), M O’Reilly; Blood sub: M McElhinney for E McHugh (33); Subs: M McElhinney for Kavanagh (45), M McHugh for A Thompson (53), C Toye (0-1) for F McGlynn (64), E Ban Gallagher for C Gillespie (67), A Thompson for E McHugh (68), C McFadden for P McBrearty (71); Yellow cards: R Kavanagh (37), A Thompson (51), P McGrath (76)
2016 NFL DIVISION ONE
Down 0-7 Donegal 3-15; Donegal 2-14 Cork 1-7; Donegal 1-14 Mayo 1-12; Kerry 1-13 Donegal 1-8; Donegal 0-17 Roscommon 1-19; Dublin 1-10 Donegal 0-7; Monaghan 1-10 Donegal 1-9; Division One semi-final: Dublin 1-20 Donegal 0-13