Kings of Ulster again in a season of rich promise for Donegal
Story of the Season
TWO objectives were achieved with impressive style and two trophies – Division Two and the Anglo-Celt Cup – were delivered in what must rank as a successful season for the Tir Chonaill men.
But there was no great leap forward. Promotion to Division One and the retention of the Ulster Championship were probably the least the Donegal players, management and supporters would have expected. They would all have hoped for a place in the All-Ireland semi-finals but defeat in Mayo - in another winner-takes-all third round Super 8 clash – denied them a spot in the final four.
That was a disappointing end to a season that began in Ennis in late January when Donegal had eight scorers in a three-point win over Clare.
They built on that by beating Meath before suffering a mid-campaign wobble that saw them lose to Tipperary and early pace-setters Fermanagh, managed by former Donegal manager Rory Gallagher.
However, Bonner was able to right his ship quickly and a crucial win against Armagh was followed by victory over Cork and a walk-in-the-park 13-point success over Kildare in Ballyshannon saw Donegal clinch promotion.
Fit-again Paddy McBrearty watched that game from the clubhouse at ‘the Rock’ and he would have been impressed with the skill and pace of emerging forward Oisin Gallen who finished with four points against the Lilywhites.
Gallen landed four more in the final against Meath and Jamie Brennan landed an eye-catching 1-2 in a two-point victory at Headquarters.
With top-flight promotion secured, Donegal’s Ulster Championship campaign began at the quarter-final stage against the Fermanagh side they had hammered in the 2018 final.
Of course, Rory Gallagher’s men had won the League meeting but momentum had swung and with McBrearty back in the team, fully recovered from the cruciate injury that had ruined his 2018 and top scoring with five points, Bonner’s men won by six.
Next up was a Tyrone side that already beaten Derry and Antrim. Mickey Harte tinkered with his formation, Bonner did not and Donegal put the Red Hands to the sword in the first half with Brennan running riot. The Bundoran wing-forward hit 1-3 and also sent a shot cannoning off the post as Donegal advanced to the final.
Cavan were their opposition but the game was over by half-time and a late Breffni rally only served to add some respectability to the scoreboard. It finished 1-24 to 2-16 and Donegal set their sights on the Super 8s and a ‘group of death’ that also included Meath, Kerry and Mayo.
Meath hung in there in the opener at Ballybofey but with goalkeeper Shaun Patton outstanding and Michael Murphy reigning supreme in midfield they had no answer to the pace and skill of the Donegal forward unit. McBrearty hit 1-6 and Gallen got the other goal in a nine-point win.
It paved the way for a game of-the-season contender against Kerry in round two at Croke Park.
An injury to wing-back Eoghan Ban Gallagher had been a serious blow to Donegal hopes but their clash at HQ was breathless, end-to-end stuff from first whistle to last.
The sides were level six times in the first half but the Kingdom led by a point at the interval. Paul Geaney hit the Donegal net, Murphy replied for the Ulster champions and it was the Glenswilly colossus who had the final say in an enthralling drama – his late free levelled it at 1-20 apiece to set up what amounted to a semi-final play-off against Mayo in Castlebar.
At the same stage 12 months previously, Donegal had fallen short against Tyrone in Ballybofey. With Stephen Rochford, the man who had guided Mayo tantalisingly close to an All-Ireland title, working as Bonner’s assistant-manager, Donegal fans travelled to Castlebar feeling like they had the inside track on their opponents.
But the fluency they had shown against Meath and Kerry eluded Donegal. Cillian O’Connor’s goal meant Mayo led by six points at half-time and despite a second half penalty from the inspirational Murphy, Donegal fell short and bowed out.
What They Need
A LITTLE luck with injuries should be top of all Donegal fans’ Christmas lists. In 2018, Paddy McBrearty was tearing up defences for fun when he went to ground in the Ulster final win over Fermanagh. Fans’ fears were realised when the Kilcar dynamo was carried off with a cruciate ligament injury that ruled him out for the rest of the year.
He returned good as new and then this year Eoghan Ban Gallagher, from down the road in Killybegs, was in superb form at wing half-back but a broken ankle at training before the Kerry Super 8 clash finished his season.
The loss of Gallagher impacted on morale in the team and Donegal drew a match they could have on before bowing out in Mayo in round three.
Gweedore centre half-back Ciaran Gillespie missed the entire season with a cruciate injury and his absence was also felt as was that of his club colleague Odhran MacNaillais who opted out. Injuries and unavailability are part and parcel of the game but to make the breakthrough they crave, Donegal need to get their best 15 out on the pitch. Management, players and fans will have their fingers crossed for a change of luck next season.
Another area Donegal need to strengthen in is the full-back position. The county has been spoiled by the form and consistency of Gweedore’s Neil McGee who reached the 100-game mark for Donegal last season.
However, injuries have taken their toll on the uncompromising defender and, in his absence, the likes of Caolan Ward, Brendan McCole and Stephen McMenamin, have slotted into the number three position. However, both seem better suited elsewhere and Donegal have yet to find a long-term replacement for McGee whenever he decides to hang up his boots.
DECLAN Bonner and his backroom team extended their tenure into the 2020 season (his third at the helm) after their reappointment was ratified at a county board meeting earlier this month.
There was some talk that coach Stephen Rochford – recruited after taking his native Mayo to the brink of an All-Ireland title – would be tempted to succeed Kevin Walsh as Galway manager. Rochford had guided Galway’s Corofin to the All-Ireland club title but it is understood that he declined the Tribesmen’s advances and opted to continue his Tir Chonaill project.
Karl Lacey, Paul McGonagle, Gary Boyle and Andrew McGovern are also in the Donegal backroom team.
THERE are cases to made for goalkeeper Shaun Patton and Ryan McHugh, both outstanding all season, but Murphy was superb throughout 2019 and was deservedly named Irish News Player of the Year.
A leader, a ball-winner, a playmaker, midfield general, dead-ball specialist, enforcer and a terroriser of full-backs, Murphy is everything at once and the driving force of the Donegal machine.
Runs the game for the Tir Chonaill men and had a brilliant campaign in which he led by example with a selfless work ethic that drove his county to back-to-back Ulster titles.
He was superb against Kerry and then dragged Donegal back into the game against Mayo before the home side broke for home in Castlebar.
End of the Line
GWEEDORE full-back Neil McGee is one of the few veterans in a young Donegal side made up of players who should have their best years in front of them.
All-Ireland winner McGee, who reached a benchmark also achieved by his brother Eamonn of 100 games for the county in February, is 34 in November. He would be capable of playing on for another couple of seasons. Earlier this year he explained how he had been “re-energised” by the talented youngsters drafted into the panel by Bonner and he has yet to make a decision on his future.
McGee’s 2012 team-mates Paul Durcan (an unused substitute goalkeeper) and Frank McGlynn, now 32, are others who may ponder on their careers during the off-season. Paddy McGrath and Leo McLoone are two others who have passed the 30 mark.
The New Breed
THE first glimpse of Oisin Gallen confirmed that he was a talent who would be capable of making an impact at inter-county level and so it proved. Gallen’s introduction saw Donegal clinch promotion to Division One and he emerged from the bench to score a point in his first Ulster final appearance.
1-1 followed in the Super 8 win against Meath and two points in the draw with Kerry. He was kept scoreless by the experienced Mayo defence but he’ll return older and wiser next season.
Others to impress throughout the 2019 season included Niall O’Donnell, teak-tough man-marker Stephen McMenamin, Gweedore clubman Daire O’Baoill and Jamie Brennan who cut a series of defences to shreds throughout Donegal’s defence of their Ulster title.
Donegal’s 1-24 in this year’s Ulster final was the highest scoring return by a team in an Ulster final. The new benchmark beat the previous best of 20 scores (2-18) first set by Donegal in 2012 and equalled by them in the 2018 Anglo-Celt decider.