Much Ado About Nothing

Since my last blog, Donegal have played almost like zombies (I don’t mean for this to sound insulting, so apologies if it offends) in the National Football League (from herewith, ‘the league’) – winning one game – at home to a Kerry side that everyone was beating at that stage – and losing three games, two of them from winning positions. The Tyrone loss aside, where a loss could be justified based on the key turning point involving Michael Murphy just before halftime, it certainly seems like Donegal haven’t been too concerned about winning games that were there for the taking.
So, if victory isn’t really important, why risk our key players in each game? Michael Murphy especially has played a lot of football this year, and any team he plays on leans heavily on him, so why run him out for 70 minutes every weekend? Likewise, Neil Gallagher, who has been labouring under an injury and hasn’t been that effective against either Cork or Mayo – what has he gained from these games? And two weeks ago, we saw the downside with Neil McGee hobbling off and he will now miss what turns out to be a meaningful league game, although his Championship status does not appear to be in doubt.
I can’t quite figure out if Jim McGuinness is trying to give the opposition the illusion we are trying to win the game by playing our full strength team or perhaps he feels that supporters deserve to see the All-Stars. I’m not suggesting that we field an under strength team as we do in the McKenna Cup, but surely the likes of Gary McFadden, Martin McElhinney, Matthew Smyth etc etc deserve more playing time in the league and are senior players who are part of the panel, so it’s not like we are playing an obviously weakened hand. Continually playing Neil Gallagher at full forward when he is so obviously ineffective in that role for Donegal seems pointless as well – do the likes of Mickey Harte and Conor Counihan really believe that we would do this in a Championship game? Maybe they do…but I doubt it.
Look, no matter how many league games we lose this year, we still come away as All-Ireland Champions, which should be a great source of satisfaction, even to folks like me, who absolutely hate losing nearly any game. But, despite saying that to my travelling companion as we left Omagh, it sounded a little hollow hearing and reading others saying after the defeat in Castlebar. We have to accept that as All Ireland Champions, and as well due to the aura that has been created around Jim McGuinness, that opposition supporters will take joy in beating us – and if we are going to turn up and play the game, we have to accept the consequences of losing – and we should try and be graceful about it as we are only making a rod for our own back if we take it personally. If the All-Ireland Champions came to our home patch (in years other than 2013 of course) and we dispatched them, we’d probably be just as happy with ourselves. So let them enjoy their victories – there will be plenty of time to trade barbs during the summer months.
Anyway, we now find ourselves in a fairly similar position to last year, relying on the results in the last round of the league to determine which division they will play in next season. Like 2012, Donegal have the advantage of playing their last game at home, although it’s very likely that Dublin will present a much sterner challenge than Armagh did last year, even if they have already qualified for the league semi-final. Dublin come to town with a new manager, a big panel and a fair deal of competition for places, with players from Ballymun no doubt keen to impress after missing league action due to their involvement in the latter stages of the Club Championship. Still, you would like to think that even without Neil McGee and Karl Lacey, if Donegal want to win this game and play somewhere close to their potential, they will have enough to overcome the challenge of the team currently ranked as ‘the best team in the Country’ by many. At least I hope they do, for any number of reasons. Not least due to the fact that going to Drogheda or Portlaoise for a league game doesn’t have quite the allure as travelling to Cork or Killarney.
Looking at the playing squad (the twenty we can actually use on the day of a game), assuming Lacey and Neil McGee are fit to start and we suffer no further injuries, it’s very likely that the team that starts on 26 May will be as we saw it in the All-Ireland Final, with Ryan McHugh and Ross Wherrity/Marty O’Reilly seeming likely to replace David Walsh and Christy Toye as substitutes. Martin McElhinney, Brick Molloy and perhaps Declan Walsh will be the other three in the twenty, with Declan Walsh likely to be only used in the case of an injury rather than as a tactical change. Ryan McHugh, while seemingly undersized, has slotted in well enough and like his older brother, appears to be a dynamic sort, getting up and down the field well. More of a defensive player, but quite like David Walsh in many regards – I’m assuming that David doesn’t return this season. Wherrity started the season well, and sure looks like a useful fella to have, offering fielding and potentially scoring and assisting, but he, above all others, had a poor day out in Castlebar, having being brought on as a substitute only to be substituted himself (with no obvious injury) before the end of the game. In theory, he’s quite a similar player to Toye, albeit without the running ability perhaps, and it’s probably fair to say that Chirsty was not the player we came to know so well from earlier in his career, so perhaps the drop off in not having Christy won’t be noticeable.
All in all, we will be looking for more from our starting 15 to give us the 20% that Jim McGuinness referred to last year if we are to improve enough to retain our All-Ireland – there certainly doesn’t appear to be anyone new coming through at this stage that will make us noticeably better than last year. Of course, there is scope for improvement – already this year, Leo McLoone, Eamonn McGee and Rory Kavanagh (who has been perhaps Donegal’s best player this year) have stood out – and of course it’s worth noting that these three missed out on All-Stars last year and so maybe are playing with a chip in their shoulder this year. Elsewhere on the pitch, our full forward line is leaning even heavier on Michael Murphy for scores – with Colm McFadden and Paddy McBrearty making negligible contributions so far in that regard. That is a concern to me for a number of different reasons. Firstly, Colm was outstanding last year, but I think most of us would acknowledge that last year was a bit of an outlier for Colm based on what we have seen in the past, and given his age, it seems unlikely that we can expect anything more from him this year, indeed, a little regression wouldn’t be a surprise. To give some balance, it doesn’t appear he has been fully fit so far this year and as far as I am concerned, he hasn’t played badly. But, his role in the team is (or at least I think it should be) as an inside scoring forward. If he is not contributing in that regard, or is asked to do something else, he is less effective. As regards Paddy McBrearty, I’m on record as to being disappointed in his progress. He was ‘dropped’ for the Tyrone game, but came back and played well against Kerry. In addition, he had a very encouraging outing against Tyrone in the U-21 Championship, but in general, while there have been good touches, he still doesn’t look like he’s going to contribute too many scores. Both McFadden and McBrearty need to play better come the Championship – otherwise it’s going to be too easy for teams to focus on stopping Michael Murphy.
*Sighs*. Reading the above, it almost sounds like we have real problems. The reality is; we don’t, at least not at this stage. My faith in the team and our manager is unshaken – and will remain so. Relegation would not be the end of the world, and even if we lose on Sunday, our safety is not necessarily at risk. The reality is that unlike 2011 and 2012, we need to hit the ground running much earlier in the Championship this year, so perhaps the lacklustre displays in the league are no surprise. Karl Lacey is back in training. The evenings are getting longer. Maybe life isn’t so bad after all.

Until Victory, Always


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