Archive for January, 2014

Back to Reality

I hate January.  Or, to be more specific, I hate football in January, at least in recent years.  Believe it or not, last January was my first time ever going to a McKenna Cup game.  Not that remarkable given I haven’t lived in Donegal in around 15 years and am gone back south when the first games are played.  I recall watching a quite exciting McKenna Cup Final win against Tyrone on TG4 a few years ago, but then Jim came along and our approach to the Competition changed.  It’s varied between outright contempt to mild indifference, to a seeming acceptance that competitive games might be of some benefit.  I like going to games, but whatever about the league, you’re never sure of what you’re watching in the McKenna Cup.

January football is not a realistic representation of what we can expect to see come July.  Or at least I hope it’s not.  However, the lethargy that tends to feature in McKenna Cup performances was on display in Croke Park in August last year, in the last game of consequence played by Donegal in 2013.  I’m hopeful that this year’s League campaign is the beginning of the end, and that the ending is more like 2012 than last year.

Portlousy (sic) on the first Sunday in February is a long way from Croke Park on the third Sunday in September, but it’s a chance for Donegal to get back to something resembling reality.  That is, showing us what we can realistically expect to see in the summer.  Well at least I hope so.  My view, – that is all there is on this blog – is that Donegal need to build momentum.  There will be few cameras at any of our games in Division Two.  We’re unlikely to meet any of the competition we will face during the league until the Ulster Final (and that’s a big if, on both sides…).  So, we have no real need to play it cagey.  Still, Donegal are listed as favourites for the Ulster Championship, so perhaps we’ll get more attention than our division warrants.

At least we don’t seem to have picked up any significant injuries during the McKenna Cup.  Indeed, the most encouraging thing was that all our first choice players returned to action.   Karl Lacey and Christy Toye are the most notable names to see game times, due to the fact that Karl wasn’t anywhere near himself last year and Christy last played for Donegal during the 2012 All Ireland Final, a day that seems like it was quite a while ago now.  I’d like to think that Karl can approach the level of performance we have come to expect from him, but the bar is set lower for Christy – but even if he can play a role from the bench, he could improve the squad from what we had last year.

One of the most interesting statistics from the McKenna Cup was that the six players who played every minute for Donegal were: Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden, Frank McGlynn, Eamonn McGee, Leo McLoone and Odhran MacNiallais.

I have to say, I don’t really understand having Michael, Colm and Frank play so much football at this stage.  In the case of Frank McGlynn, maybe we were a little light on numbers at the back, so I can understand that to a greater degree.  Eamon McGee is suspended for the first two games of the League following on from last year’s All Ireland Quarter Final, so it makes sense that he played so much football during the McKenna Cup.

The last two players on the list are possibly the most interesting.  Leo McLoone played exclusively at centre half back for some if not all the game time.  Many seem to believe that this is his best position, but the jury is still out on that I think.  If this is to be his position for the rest of the year, it does raise questions about how the rest of the backline will be reorganised.  You have to feel that when everyone is fit, Paddy McGrath, Neil McGee, Frank McGlynn and Karl Lacey are first choice.  You can probably include Anthony Thompson in that group, so by default almost, Eamon McGee becomes the odd man out.  Or, does Karl Lacey play in a free/sweeper role, similar to that undertaken by Mark McHugh in recent years, with McHugh reverting to a more conventional half forward role?

And then we have Odhran MacNiallais, who, by most accounts, had a very promising McKenna Cup and definitely fills a need in the half forward line.  He did start in midfield for one game, but I don’t think we’re likely to see him at that position in any meaningful games.  Even if he’s not picked to start, the hope at least is that he can take the place of Ryan Bradley or Ross Wherrity as a member of the playing squad.  Of course, it’s not impossible that we see Ryan or Ross back for the Championship, but it looks like odds are against it at this point, and, any upgrade over what they offered last year would be welcome.

Also featuring in the McKenna Cup was Darach O’Connor, or ‘Jigger’ as he is more commonly known.  Unlike MacNiallais, Jigger is truly a new addition to the panel, having played Minor and Under-21 last year.  If you’ve not seen him, well, let’s just say that he’s no Michael Murphy in terms of size, but he is talented for sure.

Now, to the League.   What Donegal’s strategy, if indeed there is a strategy, is anyone’s guess at this point.  Last year, all we heard about was ‘25th May’ and so it was, we put in a series of extremely poor performances throughout, which saw us (rightly) relegated as a result of drawing our final game at home to Dublin.  In 2012, we secured survival only on the last day by virtue of beating Armagh, at home.  In 2011, in Division Two, we won the title after beating Laois in the final, and it has to be said, looked good at times, finishing with an overall ‘regular season’ record of won three, drew two and lost one.  However, the one loss could have been seen as tactical as it denied Tyrone a place in the league final, where they would have played Donegal…..

Thankfully, there hasn’t been too much talk of our trip to Derry in May at this stage, although I did hear/see it in a recent interview. Please, let that it be it for now.  I don’t want to hear how we are focused on the Championship when I am spending time and money getting to games in the League.  By all means, prepare for the Championship throughout the League.  But play along with the rest of us in the stands when the league games are on – these games do matter.  There will be time enough for talking about the Championship after the League concludes, be that in Armagh in 6 April or in Croke Park on 27 April.

And so to Portlousy (sic).  Consider the following.  Donegal have never won their opening League game under Jim McGuinness.  Our record against Laois under Jim McGuinness is played four, won two and lost two.  Last July, we beat them in Carrick-on-Shannon, but were truly on a hiding to nothing.  That game was totally unremarkable on the pitch, with the only incident of any interest coming on the sideline, where Rory Gallagher and Fergal Byron seemed keen to get better acquainted.  That charming fella Justin McNulty was probably the spark for the incident, and so it was satisfying to see him take out his frustration on a flag later in the game.  Sadly Justin has departed Laois, replaced by nice guy Tomás O’Flaharta, a Kerryman, with Laois supporters no doubt hoping that he can emulate the great Micko.  Fergal is still around, so I will be keeping an eye on him.  Still, with Laois likely to be missing two of their more well known and talented players in Ross Munnelly and Colm Begley, Donegal are good value for the win.

As for the rest of the League campaign, I think most supporters would find relegation unacceptable.  We can probably live without promotion, although it would be nice to have more high profile opposition in more interesting towns (Galway aside) next spring.  And, wouldn’t it be nice to win a Division Two title in Croke Park?  It would go at least some of the way to exorcising the demons that linger from our last appearance at headquarters.  I’d rather see that happen in April rather than have to wait until August.

My prediction for this year’s league campaign – Donegal will lose to Galway and Monaghan, but win the rest of their games.  We’ll then take on Monaghan/Meath/Galway in the Division Two Final, a game I’ll preview when the time comes.  All predictions wrong or your money back*

Until Victory, Always.

 

*Not mine, stolen from TMQ.