Spent five days in Donegal last week. Ahead of covering their clash with Tyrone in Ballybofey, it was an opportune time to take in the so-called Forgotten County although it’s Donegal’s understanding of what a kilometre is that’s just as much in need of refreshing.
Notwithstanding that and a little inclement weather, it was a thoroughly enjoyable break, split between the north and south of the county. Rossnowlagh’s delightful Sandhouse Hotel was our base for the last couple of nights. Unbeknownst to me booking the accommodation back in March, it was also the Donegal team’s on Saturday. Cue some awkward moments and small chat.
“We’ve been coming here since Jim’s (McGuinness) time,” explained one player. “He wanted to get us away even for home games just for a bit of peace.”
The value of sleeping in one’s own bed was clearly not appreciated by McGuinness nor his former assistant and successor Rory Gallagher. But anyone who has stayed in the Sandhouse Hotel will know how therapeutic it is to stay in a room fronting onto the beach where the spray of the high waves less than 20 metres away can reach the bay window. There are worse things than being lulled to sleep by the sound of the sea.
Of course, congregating his players just less than 24 hours before throw-in provided Gallagher as it would have McGuinness the chance to re-enforce the game-plan to challenge Tyrone. Breaking bread together on Saturday evening and Sunday morning would have had worth just like the team meetings they would have held.
Much of the Donegal philosophy indoctrinated by McGuinness and Gallagher is based on spending a lot of time with each other. Last year, they had at least five training camps - Portugal, Inishowen, Mullingar, Johnstown and Enniskillen. The weekend before last, they returned to the Lough Erne resort in Enniskillen for a three-day training camp. At the same time, Tyrone were in Carton House in Kildare.
Where there is a purpose in top level GAA, there must also be money. On Saturday, volunteers stationed themselves on the primary junctions across Donegal’s towns shaking buckets for the county team’s training fund. Such a venture will be welcomed but it is hardly a serious source of revenue. We don’t know if Gallagher, although he’s an assimilated Donegal man at this stage having lived in Killybegs for more than five years not to mention his key involvement in 2012, enjoys the same network of financial backing as his predecessor but private donators are essential. Kieran McGeeney operates a similar system in Armagh and the savings he has made the county board as McGuinness did for Donegal’s can’t be understated.
When players have had half a year to consider and contemplate a game, it makes sense that the investment be reciprocated with an outlay of financial support. Just two months after Donegal claimed an All-Ireland title in 2012 and six months before they faced Tyrone in a 2013 Ulster opener, Karl Lacey was already speaking about their duel with the neighbours: “The Tyrone lads are already talking about how ‘Donegal aren’t as good as we are’. They have already had this chat about us.”
Nobody but the Donegal and Tyrone camps would fully understand just how much it meant to finally take to the MacCumhaill Park field after the May 17 date exercised them for so long. Given their rivalry and the very competition they were launching, that date resonates far stronger than May 31 would for the Dublin footballers or June 14 for Mayo even though they face Galway.
In that context, nothing is as unreliable nor as precious as an Ulster championship opener.
On that basis, maybe both counties should be given some slack for the hostilities which broke out between them sporadically during the game and then again en masse at half-time. Nothing about the egregious behaviour of some players and mentors can be condoned but there is so much to be worked up about. Ulster does that.
Now the stakes get higher for Donegal. When McGuinness hailed last year’s final win over Monaghan as “the best victory”, it might have seemed he was exaggerating but his side had indeed been dismissed before the Derry game. Now they’re considered an ageing group who snuck past Tyrone and face an away trip to face a promising Armagh side who almost bested them in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final.
Gallagher is a shrewd politician just as he is a preparer. As an outsider, he can’t really argue with the players lining out for their clubs next weekend. However, as soon as he has them back this day next week he’ll return to a war-footing. There may be another training weekend, another night away. Battles warrant encampment. Four games to the Anglo-Celt Cup, another three to Sam Maguire, for Donegal the journey is long but in a county where a kilometre is akin to a mile it is even longer.
Officials need teamwork to tackle sledging
After the final whistle in Ballybofey on Sunday, a high-ranking GAA figure bemoaned that fourth officials report little or nothing despite the histrionics and abusive language clearly used both sides of the whitewash.
If such a culture of indifference exists among what are essentially referees how can sledging be really tackled?
For the referee on duty, detecting the practice is complicated by the fact both he and players are moving. Gumshields mean what footballers say can also be muffled and easily misinterpreted.
But for the fourth official, linesmen and umpires, recognising such behaviour is not as arduous.
What we regularly see now is the ultimate two yellow card cop-out. Three times on Sunday, Joe McQuillan issued a pair of them (Paddy McBrearty and Ronan McNamee in the 11th minute, Paddy McGrath and Conor McAliskey in the 59th and Neil Gallagher and Sean Cavanagh in the 64th). On the first occasion, he did so on the advice of his umpires. The second and third sets of decisions were made having spoken to a linesman.
There doesn't seem to be any consideration that one player may be more guilty than another.
This time last year, it was David Coldrick who was criticised for missing an obvious black card offence. McQuillan was far from perfect on Sunday but his assistants could have helped him out.
If sledging and the like is to be addressed, better team-work among match-day officials is essential.
Carlow collapse poses questions
It’s often the case that the opening weekend in earnest of the championship is a time for knee-jerk reactions. Most of the reaction to Carlow’s embarrassing defeat to Laois, though, is reasonable. They lost to Meath in the first outing by 28 points last year. The year before the margin was 11 against Westmeath. Before that, it was 15 to Meath. They beat Louth in 2011 only to lose to Wexford by 14 points in a Leinster semi-final.
There are questions to answer: did Brendan Murphy leave what he felt was a sinking ship and why was a motivational video of the players doing strength and conditioning work (but not football) released on the internet when it should have been kept in-camp?
If there is one team that could benefit from a second tier competition it’s Carlow but there are several others who are already contemplating the pittance of the qualifiers.
Former GAA president Sean Kelly’s 2012 plan for a new championship — while retaining the provincial system — remains the best alternative to the status quo.
It would be right up Carlow’s street but Kelly’s maverick term in office may be a reason why it has thus far fallen on deaf ears.
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