Miles on the clock or not, Donegal are still a serious team
THERE might be few miles on the Donegal clock, but Frank McGlynn believes there are some chapters still to be written in their story, as he told Seamus Maloney...
AGE may only be a number to Frank McGlynn - but that doesn’t mean he isn’t happy to cling onto his 20s for one more Championship season.
The Donegal defender hits the big three-oh in August - “it’s there, circled on the calendar” - late enough in the year for any pen pics that appear to carry the reassuring entry: Name: Frank McGlynn; Club: Glenfin; Age: 29.
“It’s still 29 there in the programme for now,” says the Donegal star, “so I’ll take that.”
Elsewhere in the programme, there are plenty of key Donegal players - the McGees, Rory Kavanagh, Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher, Christy Toye and Colm McFadden - who have left their 20s behind them. Selector Maxi Curran recently dismissed criticisms of the side’s age profile, saying Rory Gallagher’s management team and the players “have listened to a lot of talk about this Donegal side being too old now”.
McGlynn acknowledges the passage of time has inevitably changed the way the team prepares, but agrees with Curran that it doesn’t mean they can’t replicate the success they’ve had in the past: “There’s no denying that, when the age does go up, things are tailored to suit that and the bodies aren’t as prepared to do the things they once were as teenagers or players in their early 20s,” says McGlynn.
“But with the sport science and strength and conditioning behind all teams now across the country, age is but a number. A lot of those same things were being said about Kerry in 2014 and there was nothing to stop those 32, 33-year-olds on All-Ireland final day. You take confidence from the likes of that.”
Donegal didn’t manage to stop Kerry that All-Ireland final day - and neither did their minors, who also fell to the Kingdom at Croke Park the same afternoon. Four of that minor team made their senior debuts this year - Ciaran Gillespie, Eoghan Gallagher, Michael Carroll and Caolan McGonagle - and featured throughout the league.
With Donegal also reaching three successive Ulster U21 finals from 2013 to '15, the young players coming into the panel have built up a level of experience McGlynn didn’t have when he joined the senior set-up in 2006. That experience has also come in a system designed to facilitate a seamless transition into the senior team - a transition McGlynn and other players his vintage had to make mid-senior career when Jim McGuinness took over in 2010.
“When you think back to when we were playing minors and U21s ourselves, the game has moved on so much,” says McGlynn.
“The minors and even U21 county teams we played on were more like club teams at that time. Now, even club teams have moved on to the sort of level county teams maybe would have been at 10 years ago. County teams have just gone that bit further ahead.
“With the minors and U21s that have come through for Donegal, they’ve reached All-Ireland finals, they’ve reached Ulster finals in recent years. All that’s going to stand to them. The set-ups they’ve been in is pretty similar to the set-up they’ve come into as senior players. It’s good in that way that they don’t know any different. It was more of a culture change for some of us that had been there for four or five years at inter-county level, whereas they’re coming in at the start of their senior careers and looking at it that this is run of the mill stuff.”
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Reaching Ulster finals has been run of the mill stuff for this Donegal team and, if they manage to get there again this season, it will be their sixth successive appearance in the decider. That would better the mark of the Donegal side that reached five between 1989 and 1993 and be the first time a county has played in six finals in-a-row since Down were in a mind-boggling 12 between 1958 and 1969.
McGlynn, who teaches first and second class at Stramore National School in Glendowan on the edge of Glenveagh National Park, acknowledges reaching the last five has been “a great achievement”. If they do reach a sixth, it will be via a different road to the one they’ve taken to the previous five.
As the last team to enter the Championship - waiting for Antrim or Fermanagh - this year will be a very different campaign to last season’s, when they went straight in at the deep end against Tyrone in the preliminary round, just five weeks after they lost to Cork in the National League semi-final.
By the time Donegal take on Antrim or Fermanagh, nine weeks will have passed since they played Dublin the last-four of the NFL and their late entry to proceedings also means the Ulster Championship will be done and dusted - if they get to the final again - nearly twice as quickly as it was in 2015.
McGlynn sees plenty of benefits and not just because he picked up a hamstring injury playing for Glenfin at the end of last month that he's hoping to shake off in time for club championship duty this weekend.
“When the Championship draw is made and you know you’re the last quarter-final out in Ulster, your training is then tailored that bit, so you’re not under as much pressure towards the end of the league to have your fitness levels at max,” he says.
“Last year, we were out in the middle of May so, towards the end of the league campaign, it was almost a necessity to be at 85/90 per cent of your fitness because it wasn’t going to be found in that short space of time.
“Now, you’ve a break of nine weeks, plenty of time to get that fitness worked on and, for myself, it’s a blessing because even with an injury in another year - last year for instance - you would be under pressure of missing the first round of the Championship.
“For us, the quarter-final to the final is only five weekends, so it’s a massive change. That makes a big difference. In other years, the first round came very soon, then there would be a big break. But this year, with that five-week Championship in Ulster, it will really focus the mind.”
A little like that circled date on a calendar - though not too much. It is only a number, after all.
Read through a team list from Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone and Monaghan and you’ll find very good players. Of course you will, they’re the top teams in the country.
The same is true of Donegal, whose best players all have All-Ireland medals to show for it, unlike Mayo, Monaghan and most of Tyrone. For all the attention Donegal’s system gets, their greatest strength is the fact they’ve got talent to burn and the system is implemented by some brilliant footballers.
You don’t reach five Ulster finals in-a-row, win three of them, an All-Ireland and add another Sam Maguire decider appearance without serious players - and Donegal definitely have them. More importantly, they have them in positions that can win you games and get you out of trouble when you maybe don’t deserve it.
Among their forwards, Odhran Mac Niallais has established himself alongside Patrick McBrearty as another potential match-winner with a gorgeous left foot. And then there’s Michael Murphy, who remains just about unmarkable if you’re careless enough to leave just one man on him and still an almighty nuisance if you double up.
Donegal’s biggest problem is that it’s tough at the top. They’re in a very small group of counties for whom anything other than an AllIreland title must be considered a disappointment.
With that being the case, Donegal have very little margin for error and any day from the All-Ireland quarter-final stage on where they don’t click leaves them open to winter regrets. They’ve also been victims of their own success, having racked up so many miles - with a pretty unchanged panel - since beginning the most successful run in the county’s history in 2011.
Although the solid U21 teams who lost three successive Ulster finals between 2013 and '15 - including some of the minors who won Ulster and reached the 2014 All-Ireland final - have bolstered the squad, their best players remain the ones who have been there the whole way.
When Donegal have been beaten in the Championship since 2012 - twice to Mayo in All-Ireland quarter-finals and in the 2014 decider against Kerry - they’ve looked a little jaded and found themselves unable to chase a game by hitting the opposition with the waves of counter attacks they’ve based their success on.
Another key ingredient in the good times has been Paul Durcan, whose kick-outs in particular will be a huge miss after it was confirmed by Rory Gallagher he won’t be commuting from Qatar.