Young Donegal side must move on from Championship reality check
STORY OF THE SEASON
FIVE years on from standing on the steps of the Hogan Stand, Sam Maguire in hands, Donegal stand at a crossroads. The backbone of the side that delivered the county’s first All-Ireland title in 20 years is gone, with those who remain left to try and steer the ship back on course in the face of a stiff wind.
A huge influx of young players, a surprisingly strong League turning into a hugely disappointing Championship and the manager charged with overseeing the transition to a new team calling time after three years.
2017 was a funny old year in Donegal.
By the end, though, few inside the county were laughing. Early season promise fuelled what was an ultimately unrealistic level of expectation on young shoulders and, when the defeats came – and, boy, did they come – feelings of unease spread.
Having blooded so many U21s through the Dr McKenna Cup, there was a sense of trepidation as Rory Gallagher readied his troops for the National League opener against Kerry in Letterkenny – and the early signs weren’t good.
Relegation fears aired before a ball had been thrown in were only exacerbated as a three point win for the Kingdom sought only to flatter their hosts.
But Donegal’s young guns weren’t done yet. Victory in Roscommon was followed by a draw with the all-conquering Dubs in Ballybofey and a win in Cavan before Tyrone were beat out the door as the rain tipped down at MacCumhaill Park.
All of a sudden, talk of the recently departed Eamon McGee, Christy Toye, Rory Kavanagh, Neil Gallagher and Colm McFadden subsided, the names of Jason McGee, Ciaran Thompson, Michael Carroll and Michael Langan lingering on supporters’ lips instead.
A last-day defeat in Mayo denied them a League final crack at the Dubs but Gallagher would have had every right to be happy with a job well done by the end of March.
When he subsequently played down his young team’s Championship chances, it was dismissed as cuteness. But the former Fermanagh forward – now in charge of his native county – must have had genuine concerns heading into the summer months.
So much work had been done prior to and during the National League, making sure the less experienced players were in a position to challenge the big boys, but there was trouble on the horizon once the top teams caught up in terms of physical preparation.
A facile opening Ulster Championship win over Antrim asked few questions of Donegal - beyond a tricky opening 20 minutes - but with Michael Murphy on top form at midfield and the likes of Paddy McBrearty looking sharp coming off the bench, a mouth-watering semi-final clash with Tyrone looked to be in store.
But it was in Clones on June 18 when it became apparent that making the transition from grizzled veterans to new kids on the block wouldn’t be as straightforward as it had seemed.
Towards the end of the first half, they were blitzed by the Red Hands and, once Murphy and Ryan McHugh had been nullified, Donegal ran out of ideas and were steamrolled.
It was a painful reality check and worse was to come after gutsy Qualifier wins over Longford and Meath set up a meeting with Galway.
A huge Donegal support headed to Sligo for the clash with the Tribesmen, an All-Ireland quarter-final place the prize for the winner.
Kevin Walsh’s men were coming off a Connacht final trimming at the hands of Roscommon, and little was expected from their travelling faithful. But, just like against Tyrone, Donegal faded after 20 minutes and were annihilated in the end.
They finished the game with 12 men, going down by 15 points. Where to from here? Well, wherever it is, Rory Gallagher won’t be part of it having announced his resignation a week later, with Declan Bonner was finally confirmed as his successor last week.
The steps of the Hogan Stand look an awful long way away now, and Bonner will be well aware of the scale of the job he has undertaken.
WHAT THEY NEED
JUST two things – patience, and another Michael Murphy to play on the edge of the square. Not too much to ask, is it?
Despite a slight air of despondency in Donegal, new Donegal boss Declan Bonner has plenty to work with and, having managed the county minors and U21s in recent years, should have an in-depth knowledge of the talent at his disposal.
The Championship was a reality check, no doubt. In their two heavy defeats at the hands of Tyrone and then Galway, the dogged defence that set them apart during the Jim McGuinness era was nowhere to be seen.
The bodies were back, the numbers were there, but the discipline and intensity in the tackle were sadly lacking.
Somehow Bonner needs to help the current Tir Chonaill collective rediscover that bite – but it won’t happen overnight.
You don’t just lose players of the calibre of Eamon McGee, Christy Toye, Rory Kavanagh, Neil Gallagher, Colm McFadden, Ryan Bradley, Paul Durcan, Leo McLoone and Anthony Thompson – either through retirement or time away – and continue enjoying the same level of success.
It will take a bit of time for these young men to gather the requisite experience to make them real contenders at senior level again.
In Paddy McBrearty, they have a forward coming into his prime. Still only 24, it feels as though the Kilcar sharp-shooter has been on the go forever, but his Championship performances demonstrated a real ability to stand up and be counted.
If they can tighten up defensively and get him on the ball in the final third, Donegal will be a serious proposition for most teams. Bonner will also hope to get more out of Ryan McHugh who – apart from occasional brilliance in victory over Meath – wasn’t quite at himself this year.
And then there’s the Murphy question. In the absence of any other experienced men operating around the middle, the big Glenswilly man has been stationed at centrefield and continues to be the leader of this side.
But if they could find a way to move him forward, patrolling the square, occupying full-backs, winning ball and bringing others into play, it would give Donegal a huge lift.
IN the midst of what turned out to be a disastrous Championship campaign for Donegal, McBrearty emerged with real credit and, at 24, is now one of the undoubted leaders of this young group.
The Kilcar ace came off the bench to end Antrim’s hopes, scoring 1-2 in a 17 minute cameo, and was one of the few to emerge with any credit from their crushing Ulster semi-final defeat to Tyrone.
McBrearty fired over four wonderful points from play as the Tir Chonaill men wilted in the Clones heat, and starred in Qualifier wins over Longford and Meath, bagging the match-winning score in Navan.
Donegal’s summer ended in a crushing 15-point beating by Galway, but again McBrearty took the fight to the Tribesmen on his own at times, finishing with six points.
AFTER a lengthy interview process, Declan Bonner was confirmed as Rory Gallagher’s successor last Friday night.
The 52-year-old – who previously held the post from 1997-2000 - has worked with several members of the current senior side at underage level, having led the Tir Chonaill minors to an Ulster title in 2014, when they went on to lose to Kerry in the All-Ireland final.
He then took over the reins of the U21s in 2016 before leading them to the 2017 Ulster title back in April.
END OF THE LINE
THE cast list of players Donegal have lost in the past two years is quite something. After the 2016 campaign Eamon McGee, Christy Toye, Rory Kavanagh, Neil Gallagher and Colm McFadden all walked away from the inter-county scene.
They have since been joined by 2012 footballer of the year Karl Lacey, who called time after the Championship defeat to Galway in July.
Goalkeeper Paul Durcan has also been out of the picture since moving to Dubai in 2015, and a return doesn’t appear likely any time soon.
That leaves Paddy McGrath, Neil McGee, Michael Murphy, Paddy McBrearty, Frank McGlynn, Mark McHugh, Martin McElhinney and Marty O’Reilly as the only survivors from the All-Ireland winning panel of five years ago, and it would be no surprise if Lacey is not the last to head for the exit door - with McGlynn and McGee seemingly most likely.
THE NEW BREED
WITH such a huge turnover of experienced players, the rebuilding process in Donegal was always going to be a sizeable one.
Rory Gallagher was well aware of this, having been there during the glory days and watched as miles accumulated on clocks, and set about introducing new blood to the fold this year.
The Dr McKenna Cup saw a host of U21 players drafted in, with many going on to cement their places during the National League.
Among those to star as the Tir Chonaill just missed out on a League final shot at Dublin were wing-back Eoghan Ban Gallagher, towering midfielder Jason McGee, the versatile Ciaran Thompson, Michael Langan and Michael Carroll.
Young forwards Jamie Brennan and Cian Mulligan also featured in the Championship, while Kieran Gillespie and Eoin McHugh still have their best days ahead of them.
Confidence may have taken a bit of a knock the way the season panned out but under a man who knows most of the new breed well, former minor and U21 boss Declan Bonner, the future should be bright in Donegal.
“We’ll not hide away, we have to face up to the truth of it. We have no choice but to face up to it; you have got to look yourself in the mirror and know where you are at”
Rory Gallagher after Donegal’s nine-point defeat to Tyrone