Michael Donoghue has faith in Donegal's ability to test Meath
Allianz Hurling League Division 2B final
Meath v Donegal (Sunday, Avant Money Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada, 2pm)
ANY team that is missing a full-back of the calibre of Burt’s Stephen Gillespie would need a real good quality replacement.
Gillespie has been absent from Mickey McCann’s Donegal side since his wedding and honeymoon around a month ago.
And it is not so long ago that his considerable absence would have left a huge hole in the defence.
Luckily for Donegal they have a man of considerable calibre in the ultra-versatile Michael Donoghue, who hails from the broad green fields of Kilnadeema in the hurling stronghold that is south Galway and home club of Galway great David Tierney.
Donoghue has manned the edge of the square for Donegal’s last four games, starting with that heavy defeat to Sunday’s NHL Division 2B final opponents Meath.
On Sunday he will be there again in a huge test against the Royal county in an historic decider in Carrick-On-Shannon.
But it is one that he accepts as calmly and thoughtfully as he fields the questions about the big day.
Donoghue works for Irish Water, after coming to Donegal from Dublin in 2019 and was working in the Setanta area, where he hooked up with the club and has become a key figure for the county champions.
But the youthful 31-year-old is also a key figure for Donegal on Sunday as his hurling nous, physique and experience will be crucial if they are to pull off another shock victory.
And while many considered last Saturday’s epic win over Wicklow quite a shock, Donoghue believes that Donegal were always capable of such a result, even in the absence of seven key players.
Donoghue, who lives in Glenties (not much chance of hurling hype here), has played in a variety of positions for Donegal but is just happy to have a starting jersey for Sunday’s huge test.
Interestingly, Donoghue played no hurling from 2014 to 2019 when he was in Dublin – but as the old saying goes, class is permanent.
He made his debut for Donegal when he came on as a sub against Armagh in 2020 and has been a regular ever since.
“I have no particular favourite spot, and everyone would say that they like to play around midfield or half-backs but I am just happy to play anywhere if I can do a job.
“Full-back means a bit more pressure on you as you are the last line and if you are out the field you can take more risks and there is a bit more of a chance to recover.
“You are the last line and I have had good moments and bad moment.''
A lot more good than bad as he, Stephen McBride and Padraig Doherty have been Donegal’s most consistent line of defence in recent times.
“We need to be good on the ball and have the option of going short or otherwise teams will just sit back and wait for the long puck-out”.
When asked about the background to the remarkable renaissance that ended with wins over Tyrone and Wicklow that gave them the final shot, he said: “Even in the first game that we lost to Wicklow, we had chances in the first half, we had a lot of wides, and we were making a lot of simple mistakes all over the field.
“The obvious thing that wasn’t there, was our work-rate and that is the easiest thing to get right and is probably the thing you have most control over.
“So, we focused on that against Tyrone, near neighbours who had beaten us two years in a row so we were not going to lie down in front of them. The result looked after itself.''
When it was suggested that Donegal’s win in Wicklow was pretty epic he said: “It was an ideal situation as we had no pressure on us and nobody was giving us a chance.
“But we knew how poor we were against Wicklow a few weeks ago. They were missing a few last year, but we beat them down there last year so we would have had that confidence.
“We got off to a good start and kept building on it and that gave us the confidence and a lot of things went wrong as we were playing against a fairly strong breeze and Ronan McDermott got sent off early in the second half.
“But our work-rate in midfield was immense and we even had Ritchie Ryan and Ruari Campbell dropping back to help out.
“We stopped them from working easy ball out like they did in Letterkenny, but every time they got a score, we got one back and that was vital”.
A Meath team that has been in the Joe McDonagh and Christy Ring Cups as well as Division 2A will be an even bigger challenge.
The last time these sides met, a physically powerful Meath side pulled well away in the last 10 minutes to win by an eventual ten points on a score of 1-23 to 0-16.
They are a big strong physical side with some fine hurlers and have a great marksman in Padraic O’Hanrahan, who hit 0-11 the last day, and he is well supported by Nicky Potterton, Eamon Óg O’Donoghue and James Toher.
“We were well with them until they pulled away with a late goal and for a big part of that game, we were well with them.
“Physically and hurling wise they are very sharp and well- conditioned.
“It is a serious challenge for us as they are just down from the Joe McDonagh to the Christy Ring Cup and they have been in Division 2A for years.
“That is a huge bonus but we are in our first 2B final and Meath are serious opposition, but we will be going out there with no expectation, to work hard and see where that takes us.
“Their full-forward Eamon Óg O’Donoghue gave me a torrid time the last time we met so that is good motivation for me, and centre-forward Jack Regan is also a fine player”.
Donegal may be minus seven regulars, but Donoghue lauds the young lads who have come in and done a great job.
“In fairness to Mickey McCann and the lads they have brought in Oisin Marley, Ruairi Campebell and Dean Harvey along with Liam McKinney, Conor Gartland (injured) and Ciaran Bradley and we have Conor O’Grady back too. All those lads have worked hard in the pre- season to build themselves up.
“They have grown into the team and are establishing themselves for there will come a time when us lads in our 30s will not be there and there could be even better lads to take our place.
“It is all about improving the standards in Donegal.
“And even with all that we were missing the last day, we were still able to bring on subs like Oisin Marley who won a few vital balls and Conor O’Grady came on also.
“But you want seven or eight positions on the team up for grabs and to drive on you need that extra bit of bite in training to fight for places.
“The other lads are just coming back from injuries.''
Donoghue does not buy the handy line that, at a time of football turmoil, the hurlers are bringing back pride to the county.
“We don’t think about it in that way, and we are just doing the best we can. Just over two weeks ago you probably would have said that we are at the lowest that we have been in a long time.
“These things can turn around very quickly as can the perception of how you are going also. So, we are just happy that we are progressing.
‘We could and should have been in the 2B final last year. We were ahead against Sligo and left it behind and we are where we are after two one- point wins.
“Sligo got relegated after being in the final last year and ran Derry very close in the final.
“It shows just how tight this division is.''