For Donegal this year, age and miles on the clock are the only numbers with which they need to concern themselves.
On duty with BBC for last June’s Donegal-Fermanagh Ulster SFC quarter-final, my colleague Martin McHugh and I had a rather heated discussion about Donegal’s chances for the game and the season ahead. My point remains relevant a year on — Donegal had basically two choices: Stay the same or change their style of play and move away from their high-octane, high-energy, quick transition from defence to attack to a direct kicking game with their go-to man Michael Murphy positioned at full-forward and Paddy McBrearty playing off him. No finesse needed, just lump the ball into them and push up and support them. Put the ball in as agriculturally as you like!
My main reasoning behind option two was that it was very obvious Donegal didn’t have the legs to carry out the game they were playing. Éamon McGee, Paddy McGrath, Frank McGlynn, Anthony Thompson, Rory Kavanagh, Christy Toye, and Colm McFadden were all struggling with the pace of the game and trying to get ahead of the ball. No shame in that at all when you consider the service given by these great players and if Donegal’s game-plan had been more orthodox, they could have had a serious effect on the game.
This was also a great opportunity for Rory Gallagher to stamp his authority on the way Donegal would play. A chance to garner support for his new regime and refresh those players who looked, from my vantage point, very deflated, even dead behind the eyes from their six years of hard slog, five of which Jim McGuinness presided over.
On making my point last year, McHugh took exception, thinking my issue was with Gallagher when in fact it was on the contrary — I wanted Rory to be his own man and not a carbon copy of what had gone on in the previous five seasons. So what has changed since last year? Simply the personnel? There is zero refinement of the Donegal game-plan or the way they set up. They have been able to add much-needed energy and the most important ingredient in modern day inter-county football — pace.
Ciarán Gillespie, Ciarán Thompson, Michael Carroll, Eoghan Bán Gallagher, and Eoin McHugh have completely changed the squad’s dynamic, competent athletes with lots of pace and composure. Ally that to Murphy, Frank McGlynn, Ryan McHugh, Neil McGee, and McBrearty and it gives you a pretty awesome blend of vitality and young though very experienced players. The injection of youth and pace has given the Donegal set-up a new lease of life.
At times during the league, they looked unplayable. From my club experiences, I know exactly what an injection of new blood can do for a changing room. I used to love the abandon with which the new young players performed and the energy they brought to training. Another aspect was their naivety off-the-field. Like the young lad coming out of school and finding himself on a building site and being sent to the hardware store for “sky hooks” or a “long stand” or even the “bubble for the spirit level”.
In 2007, we drew with Dr Crokes in an All-Ireland club final. We had put in a really abject performance and, as a team, were pretty down on ourselves. As a group and as directed by our management team, we decided no media contact at all between drawn game and replay. So, the next day at lunch-break myself and a few friends, one of which was my team-mate and best friend James Hughes (RIP), decided we would test out how serious some of the younger lads took the media ban. We rang one of them and set the record button. I pretended to be a journalist from The Irish News. My opening gambit was (in a Belfast accent), “Hi, I am Brendan Crossan from The Irish News. Are you okay for a few words?”
The young man’s reply was “No problem, Brendan”. Immediately, I knew we had him, so I asked him between 10 and 12 questions, which he answered in depth, holding back on nothing. I remember yawning loudly during one of his answers, but, undeterred, on he flowed.
I wasn’t cruel enough to use the recording immediately but some months later on the way to a game, I played it over the loudspeaker on the bus. We got a good bit of mileage out of those young lads in the early days, but they loved it. We were able to create a great team spirit and it broke the monotony of the dark winter nights.
Donegal has a new spark brought about by the new faces in that changing room. This rejuvenation extends not just to the players and management but also the backroom team, some of whom have outlasted many a manager. The supporters feed off that youthful exuberance too, plus the fact that defensive football laced with pace is a lot easier on the eye than the lateral stuff played by the majority of inter-county teams.
Donegal are a force in 2017 and can have realistic aspirations of winning Ulster and possibly the bigger prize but they need to go the direct route of winning that Ulster title. As Ulster champions, they can challenge Kerry as Dublin’s only realistic rivals for Sam. There is a health warning that comes with nascent talent, as a few below-par performances in the league underlined.
Alan Hansen’s ‘you’ll never win anything with kids’ springs to mind because it was so spectacularly refuted by Man United.
Believe me, in the hills of Donegal they are creating another unstoppable force capable of mixing it with the big boys.