Donegal able to look back - and forward - with great positivity
Story of the season…
IS your glass half-full or half-empty? To say that it was a mixed year for Donegal would be an understatement.
Ulster Champions - but not the best team from Ulster.
In the ‘Super Eights’ – but no longer in the top eight of the National Football League.
Two trophies (McKenna and Anglo-Celt Cups) to show for their efforts, but not one of the top two (Division One or Sam Maguire Cup).
Donegal lost to the team who won it (Dublin).
Donegal also lost to the team (Tyrone) who lost to the team who won it, suffering a first senior Championship defeat by the Red Hands in Ballybofey for 45 years, and a first loss there to any visitors for eight years.
Yet 2018 was undoubtedly a season of progress for the Tir Chonaill men.
After missing out on the All-Ireland quarter-finals last year for the first time since the Jim McGuinness revolution, and being embarrassingly hammered by Galway to boot, Donegal returned to the last eight in its new format.
They lost to Dublin by five and Tyrone by seven, having looked like edging the latter out for a place in the semi-finals.
To reach the last four would have been a remarkable achievement, but this was still an impressive season for Declan Bonner’s side.
Back in charge for his second spell, the Na Rossa man brought great positivity and brio to the senior set-up.
This was a different Donegal, nowhere near as defensive as they were under McGuinness and Rory Gallagher. Bonner wasn’t helped by two of his most important defensive players, Neil McGee and Frank McGlynn, both being in their 30s, with the benefit of experience beginning to be outweighed by miles on the clock.
Their League campaign – and results – were a good indicator of what was to come in the Championship.
Donegal were attacking and enthusiastic, but conceded too much again the better teams, falling short against the very top sides. They lost to Kerry, Galway, Dublin, Tyrone, and Monaghan, beat Kildare and – crucially in terms of their final placing – only drew at home to Mayo.
Averaging a score of around 15.5 in the League – and only 13 in each of their last three games – they conceded 18 points per game on average, with the predictable consequence: relegation.
They turned those figures around in the Championship, scoring 9-125 in seven matches (averaging 21.7) and conceding 6-100 (an average of 16.9) – but they lost both meetings with Division One opposition.
Ulster was won in some style, though, breaking Tyrone’s scoring record from the previous year, literally registering a ton of scores (8-76) and conceding 2-55 over their four provincial outings, to win their matches by an average margin of almost 10 points.
The turnaround from last year’s semi-final shellacking by Tyrone was all the more remarkable given the turnover in personnel.
There were seven differences in the starting sides for their last games in 2017 and 2018, although admittedly that would only have been six, had Paddy McBrearty not had his season ended by injury in the Ulster Final.
The loss of the in-form Kilcar star is the big ‘What if?’ hanging over this year for Donegal.
Yet there were still plenty of positives.
Newbie goalkeeper Shaun Patton settled in superbly, generally doing very well with his re-starts, and the only other actual SFC newcomer, Stephen McMenamin showed that he’s one for the near future.
The returns of Leo McLoone and Odhran Mac Niallais augmented Donegal’s options around the middle eight,
Like everyone else, Donegal remain behind Dublin, and may be a little short of Tyrone and Monaghan – for now. But, like Kerry and Galway, the men from the hills are coming up the hill…
That glass? Three-quarters full, at least – and there’ll be Champagne in it sooner rather than later.
What They Need…
Baby, they’ve got it. Well, all that they can control anyway.
Donegal require defensive improvement, to give more experience to some of their younger panellists, and to return to the top flight of the League – and all of those can be achieved in Division Two next year.
Donegal have a very good fixtures schedule, with four home matches, mostly in the games that would be regarded as their tougher tests – Ulster rivals Fermanagh and Armagh, plus Meath and Kildare.
OK, they face three long trips, to Clare, Tipperary, and Cork, but weekends away can be very useful in terms of team bonding, and Donegal should be optimistic of winning all those matches, perhaps apart from the one in the Rebel County.
A good run of results in Division Two would also send them into the Championship in good heart. Sure, their demotion this year did them no harm in Ulster, but if they get a tough opponent, perhaps an away tie, they may well want confidence to be high going into that.
For all that Division Two won’t do them much harm, and may do plenty of good, they will want – and need to get back to Division One, in order to be best prepared to take on the best in the years to come.
What they can’t control are injuries, so they’ll need particular star players to stay fit, notably captain Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty. They could probably cope with the loss of even the brilliant Ryan McHugh, but the long-term loss of either of those two others would have a seriously adverse impact on their chances of major Championship success.
Defensive improvement and giving more experience to some younger players could go hand-in-hand: Stephen McMenamin and Caolan Ward can only benefit from more game-time, as would Conor Morrison, freshening Donegal up at the back where, besides their two 30-somethings, Paddy McGrath and Leo McLoone are both 29.
Some say the opposite of negativity is naivety, and Donegal’s change in approach has definitely left them a little too open, giving up too many goals and goal chances.
Tighten up at the back and Ulster's top county this decade could be the best again in the next decade.
As safe as anyone can be in GAA management. Declan Bonner continued to show he has the silver equivalent of ‘the Midas touch’, turning talent into trophies, working with many of the young stars he oversaw at Minor and U21 level.
The Na Rossa clubman has made Donegal a more attractive, attacking proposition; his next task will be to improve their defensive record, having conceded an average of 17.5 points per game over 14 League and Championship matches.
The New Breed…
Donegal have tremendous talent coming through – and that’s only considering those who were fringe players on this year’s panel.
Daire O Baoill looked lively off the bench at wing-back and Cian Mulligan and Niall O’Donnell are very exciting attackers and have shown they know how to score at senior level, the former bagging two goals off the bench in this year’s Championship.
Better still might be Aaron Doherty of Naomh Columba, about whom I shall quote a source in the county: “Donegal supporters excited about him in same way they were about Murphy, McBrearty. He’s phenomenal.” The Glen lad scored 2-11 in this year’s Southern Regional Board Minor League Final.
The young blood pushing for places in defence include Conor Morrison and Caolan McGonagle, while a star of two summers ago, Gweedore’s Kieran Gillespie, might come back into contention.
The versatile Peadar Mogan of St Naul’s, sweeper with the Ulster winning minors of 2016, is a potential option at half-back or in attack.
Donegal also expect to have former Minor captain Michael Carroll back from the USA and lanky midfielder Jason McGee available again, after stepping away from the senior set-up after injury to focus on the U20s. Neither is 21 yet.
EOGHAN BAN GALLAGHER
Any one of Donegal’s three Allstar nominees (and Ulster Allstar winners) - Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher, Michael Murphy, and Ryan McHugh - could get and merit this accolade, while Paddy McBrearty was well on course to be the fourth in contention before cruciate knee ligament injury ended his season.
However, the nod goes to the Killybegs lad, who is also the most likely to win a national Allstar. Although he often wore the number four jersey, he was a very attacking back, not only scoring 1-2 from play but setting up chances for colleagues with his surging runs.
It’s a measure of his importance to the team that few were fooled by the pre-match talk that he would miss the Tyrone game due to an arm injury.
End of the Line...?
Rumours of Frank McGlynn’s departure have been aired every summer since 2014 but the Glenfin man might just decide to end his stellar spell in the senior set-up now. The 32-year-old still played well, often in a sweeper role, but he may not have the pace and engine to cover the ground the way he used to.
One of other three 30-somethings in the Donegal squad, defender Neil McGee, will come under scrutiny too, having been troubled by injury and absent through suspension during this year’s campaign.
However, Bonner may well try to persuade both to stay on and pass on their experience and defensive nous to the younger lads.
Otherwise, it’ll be more about getting into this panel rather than leaving it, although work commitments have limited the involvement of Anthony Thompson (who’s also 32).
Number - 100
A year after Tyrone broke the scoring average record in the Ulster SFC, Donegal shattered it by racking up 100 in total (8-76), averaging 2-19 over their four matches.