Cahair O'Kane: Donegal veterans chose the right time to go
“Never in my life did I demand as much from any group of people as I did those boys.” - Jim McGuinness, Until Victory Always
THEY always said it couldn’t be sustained. But nothing in life lasts forever.
When Jim McGuinness inherited a squad that now famously had their spirits crushed in Crossmaglen in the summer of 2010, none of what Donegal achieved over the next five years seemed possible.
The first pre-season, they trained Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. The first year of it took them to an Ulster title, but they fell short of the All-Ireland.
Fitter and stronger still, they returned the following year with an improved counter-attacking game to claim Sam Maguire. It was all so worthwhile then.
Donegal’s methods were regarded in many quarters as an abomination, but in others they were revered. This was a new level of what was physically possible for Gaelic footballers.
The standards that Jim McGuinness brought to Donegal football would have taken their toll on any group of men over a prolonged period of time.
But the fact was that he inherited that squad when it was just approaching the top of the mountain. The timeframe McGuinness had in which to squeeze every drop of juice he could from them was short.
An average age of 25.8 for the All-Ireland final win over Mayo is only a partial truth. There were only five starters beneath that mark, and 19-year-old Patrick McBrearty pulled the average down.
Eamon McGee was 28; Karl Lacey the same. Neil Gallagher, Colm McFadden and Paul Durcan all 29. Rory Kavanagh 30. Subs David Walsh (30) and Christy Toye (29) were equally at their peak.
As a spectator, it’s Toye who’ll be missed the most. Even in the quarter-final win over Cork during the summer, coming off the bench in a late cameo, he made two vital interceptions and his use of possession was as pristine as ever.
“He could play until he’s 50,” read his player ratings in The Irish News.
Wishful thinking on my behalf. How I loved watching Christy Toye. Other players rely on their pace or athleticism or a dummy. But when people talk about ‘you never lose it’, they’re talking about the Christy Toyes of the world.
You never lose the appreciation of space. You never lose the instinct to make the right decision on the ball. In a different era, he could have played another few years yet, and still run games from centre-forward.
“He has this strange imperturbable streak,” recalled McGuinness in his book as he recounted his former team-mate’s 2011 goal against Kildare, scored within 20 seconds of his return from a two-year absence.
The sad thing is that it had taken that crop of Donegal players until that point of their careers to fulfil their potential. A first ever National League title in 2007 was all some of them had to show.
They managed to fill their pockets with medals in the end, and to sustain it physically after winning the county’s second All-Ireland, producing a breath-taking display of hard running in the 2014 semi-final win over Dublin.
But ever since Kieran Donaghy danced in front of the Hill after finding the roof of the net, the wane has been definite. And totally natural. It was not so much to do with the unsustainability of the training – or indeed the lifestyle demands – on a group of footballers as it was simply the age profile of that squad.
That so many of them made it as far as the summer past was testament to their dedication but when it came to facing Dublin again, the difference between 2016 and 2014 was stark.
They did come within a whisker of winning Ulster on a baking hot day in Clones. But digging deep into the well and finding such a performance wasn’t going to reverse the inevitability of time.
The Dubs’ wariness of being bitten twice by the same dog allowed the margin to remain respectable, but there was a comparative lack of energy about the Donegal attack.
Rory Gallagher said last week that he knew the exodus was coming, even Odhrán Mac Niallais. He mightn’t have expected to lose Leo McLoone too, though he would feel justified in his frustrations at a lack of meaningful playing time.
There is no sadder sight in sport than watching a team or an individual that didn’t know when to quit being humiliated. That was inevitably the next step for that Donegal team had so many not made the wise decision to go now.
I’m in the camp that thinks Rory Gallagher has done a good job since taking over. He’s tried to put his own slant on it, to be a bit more direct in attack. He has gotten more out of Patrick McBrearty in that way.
Last season he tried to find a balance between loyalty to the veterans and offering opportunity to the next generation. For all the praise Cavan and Tyrone have received for their recent underage teams, Donegal have won two of the last three Ulster minor titles and were favourites for the All-Ireland in 2015 before they were stunned by Derry in the provincial semi-final.
Being able to drip-feed the likes of Michael Carroll, Eoghan Gallagher and Ciaran Gillespie into senior action would have been preferable to the current situation.
Gallagher’s decision to take the senior players out of Dr McKenna Cup duty does offer three invaluable tests for the U21 unit under Declan Bonner, but it may have come a year too late to save any lingering All-Ireland dreams.
They will remain among the leading pack in Ulster and those young players could offer a badly needed injection of pace to their attacking play.
Donegal clung to an all-too-brief era of success but in finally letting go, they have given wings to a new generation.
Being loosely attached to a side that conquered all from nowhere must serve as a massive inspiration.