Caolan Ward: on any given day we're better than Tyrone
THEY may have won the Anglo Celt Cup last summer but Donegal’s crown as the best side in the province was soon stripped from them by Tyrone’s Super 8s win in Ballybofey.
Monaghan also outflanked them from the other group to reach an All-Ireland semi-final and in doing so, almost instantly dilute the weight of their June silverware.
But it was the Red Hands that did the damage, coming and exposing their hosts’ fragilities on a ground where Donegal had lost just twice in a decade.
Despite the early season wobbles on the other side of the Strabane-Lifford border, the summer stars are expected to align for the latest instalment of the rivalry at this year’s Ulster semi-final stage.
Donegal are doing their preparing away from the cut-and-thrust and the cameras. Four points from four paints a decent picture but they’ve been fortunate both days, especially on Saturday night when they were outplayed for the whole of the first hour by Meath.
They could conceivably win seven from seven, and possibly even step over the top of a Tyrone side that has nothing to show for its opening two games, yet Donegal might not know exactly where they’re at heading into summer.
Young defender Caolan Ward admits that it’s harder to gauge yourself out of the top flight.
“It probably is in that you’re not playing that level of opposition week in, week out. If you go back to last year, grand it was a great season but we still didn’t beat any of the top teams we played,” said the St Eunan’s man.
“We always reference ourselves to the Tyrone game and that’s where we have to get to now. It’s step by step and we’re getting ready for championship.
“That’ll be a first chance to hopefully get a crack at Tyrone and Monaghan in Ulster. We class ourselves as a top team as well and any team coming up against us is trying to lift their performance for us.
“In terms of their evolution, Tyrone probably have that group of players together a bit longer than us, but I still think on any given day we’re better than Tyrone and we’ll be ready for them.
“We let ourselves down last August, so we’re ready and we’re hoping to get another crack at them down the line.”
They were made sweat on the opening day in Ennis before a late flourish took them past an under-rated Clare side, and for 60 minutes on Saturday night it seemed like Meath were destined to leave Ballybofey with the two points.
Just about everything Donegal tried in that spell didn’t work, and Meath’s counter-attacking play was swift and effective. Yet, with Ciaran Thompson and Niall O’Donnell holding the attack together, they did enough to stay in the game.
And then the break fell their way when Caolan McGonigle nipped in bravely to touch the ball past the hesitant Andrew Colgan, and from a point down the momentum carried Donegal over the finishing line to a two-point win.
“Meath are a top team and from their point of view, they’ve probably been under-achieving. They have aspirations of closing the gap to Dublin and they’re putting a push on,” said Ward.
“For us to come up with two points against a Meath team able to bring on the likes of Graham Reilly and Cillian O’Sullivan, it’s very pleasing.
“You could probably hear the crunch of the ground. Other than the pitch it was almost a perfect night for football, it was something both teams were going to have to play with and I don’t know if it made that much impact.
“The game was probably quite entertaining in that it was so nip-and-tuck, Meath went four or five up and we were able to claw it back. It had the supporters on the edge of their seats the way we ground it out.”