Looking Back, Looking Forward

With the 2015 football season officially beginning for Donegal today in Owenbeg, it seemed like a good time to look ahead, but also to take a look back at the year just ended.

As 2014 began to draw to a close, I began to reflect on the year we had witnessed.  I can’t really make up my mind as to how I should feel about it.  On the one hand, we won our third Ulster title in four years and doubled up with our minors.  We gave, by most accounts, the outstanding performance of the year when we swept aside the overwhelming favourites and 2013 All Ireland Champions Dublin in the All Ireland Semi-Final and our minor team reached the All Ireland Final for the first time ever.

But, we ended the year losing two All Ireland Finals in the space of a September afternoon. Our Under 21 team lost a very disappointing Ulster Final in devastating fashion to Cavan for the second year in a row.  The Man himself walked away at the end of his four year term.  So while expectations were low at the start of the year, I still feel disappointed despite the Ulster titles.

Where to now for Donegal?

The positives are that none of our 2014 panel has announced that they are retiring or will be otherwise unavailable for 2015.  Yet.  There have been many rumours, but no formal announcements as yet.  I would be disappointed if anyone threw in the towel at this point.  I am not sure why anyone would wait to announce that they are retiring until now – I don’t think any of them should fear for their place, except maybe Colm McFadden.

We also added several new faces to the starting team and the squad in 2014.  Ryan McHugh was Young Footballer of the Year, despite a very below par showing in the All Ireland Final.  Odhran MacNiallais showed that he belongs at this level.  Young Jigger had his moments, especially his goal against Antrim, but did look out of his depth at times.  Hopefully all three can build on their encouraging starts in 2014.

One thing that has struck me is the lack of information coming forward about the new management team.  At this point, all that appears official is that Glenswilly and Saint Eunan’s College Gary McDaid will be to Rory Gallagher as Rory Gallagher to Jim McGuinness.  There was a story/rumour that the highly rated and well travelled Martin McElkennon was approached to join the effort but turned it down due to the travel involved.  Former County Secretary Aodh Martin O’Fearraigh has been put in charge of logistics.    It’s far from clear if there is an insane level of secrecy around things or if the new manager is finding it hard to get others to commit to his vision.   All in all, the new manager has had little to say in public until this week just past.

Rory Gallagher’s biggest fault, so far, is that he is not Jim McGuinness.  This is his first time being in sole charge of a senior team.  Indications are that McGuinness’ role was more than just team manager; by all accounts, he also took an active role in fundraising.  It was in no small part his charisma and connections that ensured the trips to Johnstown House and Lough Erne Resort were possible.  If such trips are to continue, another method of funding may have to be found.  We shouldn’t underestimate McGuinness’ impact of drawing a crowd either.  Will the support be as strong under Rory?  If anything, our football may be more defensive.  Unless we are winning games, that may become an issue.

The McKenna Cup Panel is missing a lot of familiar faces.  There’s no indication, as yet that anyone will be missing for any longer than for the McKenna Cup, although there are doubts over Rory Kavanagh, Leo McLoone, Anthony Thompson and Luke Keaney.  Some of the ‘new’ names have been named to pre season panels previously, but have not made the cut for Championship or even League.  There are a few completely new names to the Donegal panel, although by and large, they should be familiar to anyone who has followed the Senior Club Championship lately.  The two most intriguing names are McHugh’s.  Mark, as was expected, returns from exile.  Mark McHugh will, hopefully, be in a position to contribute in 2015.  If focused on football, he can have a positive impact, even if he’s not a good a footballer as his brother.  His cousin Eoin progresses from the Under 21 team and I am hopeful we get the chance to see him in action during the League.  He has shown promise for club and county underage sides, and perhaps would have featured under Jim McGuinness if not for injury.  By my reckoning, he should be able to offer as much as Jigger at this level.

I have no idea what to expect from the League.  Jim McGuinness’ position on it seemed ambivalent, but his team selections and reactions suggested that he wasn’t playing to lose.  In his four years in charge, we played in Division One twice and Division Two twice, although he was only responsible for relegation one time having inherited our time in Division Two in 2011 from John Joe Doherty.  Regardless, Donegal have struggled to maintain a consistent presence in the top division under any manager.  Relegation would not be a good start for the reign of Rory Gallagher, but it would be far from the end of the world.  With four home games, we should be looking to stay up.

One thing Jim McGuiness was consistent on was his respect for the Ulster Championship.  Whether Rory Gallagher takes it as seriously remains to be seen at this stage – I have no reason to believe that he won’t.  It would be tempting to look at the draw and think that you might be better off going through to a Quarter Final via the Qualifiers.  But, things may have changed in recent years.  For a start, the Qualifier draw is now ‘fixed’ and should Donegal lose to Tyrone, the path to a Quarter Final is littered with teams that could be considered better than average.  Ulster, as usual, will be tough to win.  Finding ourselves playing Tyrone in the preliminary round for the second time in three years doesn’t seem ‘fair’, does it?  We have no reason to fear anyone in Ulster at this point in the year, but perhaps the rest of them will fear us less than they did in recent years due to the changes on the sideline and that could be important.  I look forward to our clash with Tyrone in Ballybofey in May.  First, they will visit us in Ballybofey in March during the National Football League.  When Donegal travelled to Omagh as All Ireland Champions in 2013, the atmosphere in the stands and on the pitch was ugly.  I’m pretty sure that day helped fuel our fire for the subsequent beating we gave them in the Championship later that year, a year in which our Championship displays were poor at best.  Let’s not get too carried away when we see them in March.

So what are reasonable expectations for 2015?  With four home games, against some of the weaker teams in Division One, I think survival in the top flight is realistic.  I have no interest in semi-finals or a League final; sixth place will do fine.  I also think an Ulster Championship is achievable, especially if the squad remains intact and we don’t suffer injuries to key players.  Ulster is hard, but winnable.  After that, I don’t know.  If we can win Ulster, an All Ireland Semi Final should be well within our reach.

If Donegal need to take inspiration from any team for the year ahead, I reckon we could do worse than look at our opponents in the All Ireland Final.  Kerry lost their best player to injury early in the season and several more to retirement and yet emerged with glory.  Guys like Marc O’Sé, Aidan O’Mahony and Kieran Donaghy showed that there is space in the modern game for thirtysomethings.  Eamon Fitzmaurice redefined their approach to the game – it was amazing to hear their own fans giving out about it during the All Ireland Final – but ultimately he delivered a title and that is what the game is all about at this level.

Until Victory, Always.


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