Archive for December, 2013

Back to the Future

Four months ago, I sat down to write the epitaph for Jim McGuinness based on rumblings I had heard and a feeling in my gut that he would not be seeing out his term as Donegal manager.  Now, as we head into 2014, Jim is still at the helm, although much seems to have changed since the end of the 2013 All Ireland Championship.

Despite the traumatic way in which Donegal exited the 2013 Championship, it was absolutely right that Jim and all of the players returned in 2014.  They may not have owed us supporters anything, but they owe it to themselves to give a better account of themselves in 2014.  There were too many ‘flash in the pan’ type of views being aired in the wake of the defeat to Mayo, with some people conveniently forgetting that Donegal were at least the third or fourth best team in the Country in 2011 as well as being the best team in the Country in 2012.  Maybe Donegal have reached their peak and are a team in decline, but 2013 doesn’t take away from what went beforehand.  Still, performances in 2013, with the Tyrone game aside, were largely uninspiring, even if they were out of character.

Now, let’s not dance around the elephant in the room any longer.  We won’t know until it’s too late what impact the implosion in the Donegal backroom team has had on the playing squad.  Rory Gallagher is widely renowned as a brilliant football man and it’s hard to believe that Jim McGuinness won’t miss the man that stood at his shoulder over the past two seasons.  His replacement, Damien Diver, has less of a pedigree at this stage, but he was a man Jim wanted involved previously, so he hasn’t come from nowhere.  If nothing else, it’s great to see one of Donegal’s most likeable servants involved again.  As to what Maxi and Francie brought to the party, it’s harder to say.  I would hope that Paul McGonigle and John Duffy won’t do any worse.

Given the dispiriting manner in which we exited the 2013 Championship and the manner in which we finished the League campaign, it’s hard to know what to expect from Donegal in 2014.  Unlike 2011, when at least we had an infusion of talent (both on and off the pitch) from an Under 21 team that had come within a width of a crossbar from winning an All-Ireland title.  In 2012, we had come within a kick of a ball of making an All Ireland Final the previous year and had won the Division Two League title.   There is no real feeling of momentum heading into the 2013 season.

So what are realistic expectations for Donegal in 2014?  Promotion from Division Two and an Ulster Championship seem attainable when looking at the competition.  Still, I expect Division Two to be competitive, and if Donegal’s fitness and attitude aren’t right, we could find ourselves playing at that level again in 2015.  I would hope it gets no worse than that.

Turning to the Ulster Championship, we couldn’t really have hoped for a better draw, even if we must play away from home in our opening game.  Derry will play Division One football in 2014, but there is little to suggest that they are a team on the rise.  If we can get past Derry, something will be badly wrong if we can’t beat Fermanagh or Antrim.  After that, we’ll have to see.  If that sounds arrogant or disrespectful to other Counties, so be it – Paddy Power agree with me, with Donegal listed at the quite short price of 15/8 favourites for the 2014 Ulster Championship (Derry are 5/1; Fermanagh 30/1 and Antrim 35/1).

Regarding playing personnel, I don’t expect our Championship 15 in 2014 to be much different from the team that started the 2012 All Ireland.  But, in the challenge games played so far, there have been hints that new things are being tried – Leo McLoone featuring at centre back and Karl Lacey in the corner stands out as interesting, but until the full panel is available, it’s hard to know how much will change.  It would be good to see some new faces tried out during the League.  Some of those who were named in the training panel might not end up being good enough to feature in a Championship match, but it would be good to see for ourselves.

The main issue Donegal will face in 2014 is that which saw us fail last year – the fitness of our best 18 players.  We had a degree of luck in this regard in 2012, with our first choices largely available and capable of playing seventy minutes from June through September.  2013 was a different matter, with more than half of our starters suffering injury at various times throughout the season. You could argue of course that we need a deeper squad, but in reality, most, if not all, Counties would struggle in such circumstances.  But it’s probably fair to question the preparation in 2013 – hopefully the positive noises coming from the camp at this stage indicate that things will be different in that regard in 2014.

Away from the training pitch, things are less than rosy.  Although agreement between the Clubs and the County was reached regarding fixtures, anecdotal evidence would suggest that club players themselves aren’t really on board.  Donegal are not the first County to pursue this format, but it has attracted national media attention.  So too has the standoff between the County Board and local media regarding the coverage of the County Convention.  It was embarrassing to hear PJ McGowan on national radio the morning after that event telling us that the ‘in camera’ provision was to ensure that a positive spin was presented on events in Donegal GAA.  I’d challenge anyone to show when our local media have presented anything other than a fair and balanced view of events within the County – which is all anyone should expect from them.  And then we have the missing money, the facts around which in the public domain remain scant.  At least we made the right choice from PRO.  The County Board need all the good press they can get at the moment.

It’s a new year.  It’s a new season.  We have a new jersey.  We have an All Ireland winning manager and eight former All Stars returning.  And hopefully the 2012 Player of the Year will be fit in 2014.  Expectations outside the County are low.  Let the good times roll.

Until Victory, Always.