Of all the discussions that I have heard since last September’s All-Ireland final, surprisingly very few have mentioned Patrick McBrearty.
In the debates about the quality of the football, about Kerry’s supposed mirroring of Donegal’s play, about the apparent lethargy of the Donegal team when chasing a three-point margin and about how Donegal were so programmed to play a particular way that they forgot to improvise, not a whole lot was said about McBrearty.
Whatever the form on the training ground and whatever reasons Jim McGuinness had for using the Cill Chártha man as an impact sub, Patrick McBrearty should have started that match.
Aidan O’Mahony deserved the many plaudits he got for his handling of Michael Murphy but we will never know how O’Mahony and his colleagues would have coped with Murphy and McBrearty playing together inside at the same time.
Neither will we know what extra dimension Mark McHugh might have added to Donegal’s game.
In the end, of course, it’s neither here nor there as we look ahead to tomorrow’s match in Ballybofey.
Donegal v Tyrone is Sold Out pic.twitter.com/g7iRazVdkb— Official Donegal GAA (@officialdonegal) May 15, 2015
All that matters now is what McBrearty can bring to the game tomorrow and what the respective squads can get out of themselves on the opening day of the championship.
Even though he’s been around the block and on the sidelines for three of the last four years with Donegal, Rory Gallagher will be giddy with anticipation ahead of this game.
Since he took the reins last winter, he knows that he will ultimately be judged on his decisions on days like tomorrow.
Gallagher has already shown that he isn’t going to rip up the Jim McGuinness template just to make a statement about his own style. Why would he? All the heavy lifting and the repairing of a broken culture has been done during the last four years. Because of what McGuinness and Gallagher and their management team achieved, it is unlikely that we will ever again have to see a Donegal manager shield his players from derision as McGuinness did on his championship debut as manager in 2011.
The old Donegal stereotype of a dandy team who gave their supporters so many reasons to expect the unexpected has now been replaced by a mature culture of achievement and expectation.
Strangely enough, even prior to McGuinness’ arrival, Donegal never seemed to have many issues with Tyrone.
Only once (in 2007) in five championship clashes in the Mickey Harte era have Donegal failed to beat Tyrone, but such has been the impact of the resurrection in Donegal football that they now routinely expect to beat Tyrone and all others whether home or away, league or championship.
What Gallagher was going to do with his inheritance was always going to be interesting to those of us looking in from outside. It was never going to satisfy a man of Gallagher’s nor indeed of the Donegal players’ ambition that the status quo would merely be maintained.
Nobody imagined that it would be enough just to keep the team as competitive as it has been since 2011.
For a side like Donegal to make advances this year, the emerging core group of players such as Ódhrán Mac Niallais, Ryan McHugh, Martin O’Reilly, Darach O’Connor and even Martin McElhinney need to take ownership of the team.
People often forget that Michael Murphy is still only 25 years of age but he has been the on-field general for so long now that I’m sure he would welcome the burden sharing.
Most of the above mentioned players have been doing their share for 12-18 months now. Tomorrow will tell us if they’re ready to take the battle further.
It was quite obvious from the opening round of this year’s league that McBrearty was going to be one of Gallagher’s main weapons of war. McBrearty was always a fine player and his youth is often gets overlooked, but under Gallagher’s guidance he has gone from being a player who flitted in and out of games to being a forward who constantly demands the ball and, more often than not, does something productive with it.
Given Colm McFadden’s decline, the maturing of McBrearty’s is possibly the most important development for this Donegal team and its timing couldn’t have been better.
In their last championship game, Donegal’s starting six forwards scored 0-2 from play between them (Murphy 0-1 and Mac Niallais 0-1) — the same as their starting six backs. It was evident where the focus of the remedial work would be.
In their last competitive game, against Cork just five weeks ago, Donegal showed enough while they were still interested in the game, to suggest that the full forward line is in good nick for the challenges that lie ahead. True, they switched off in the second half, but the concession of three goals from long balls gave Gallagher plenty of visual examples of just how ordinary teams like Donegal can be when they don’t work hard for one another.
Much like Cork, Donegal were very consistent in their use of players all spring. For their first four league games they started just 17 different players. By the end of the league, very few managers in Division 1 were as sure of their ideal championship line-up as Rory Gallagher was.
Despite their relegation, the same could be said for Tyrone. They seemed to have arrived at their optimum formation in their heroic onslaught in the final moments against Kerry in Omagh last month. Their hand is forced tomorrow by the unfortunate injury to Niall Morgan (a big loss given Tyrone’s running style that lends itself to winning frees from midfield in) but 12 of the starting 15 are in the same positions they occupied in the final round of the league.
New goalkeeper, Michael O’Neill, has the obvious advantage of not being analysed as much as Morgan would have been. Conor McAliskey is a more experienced and trickier proposition than Peter Hughes in the corner-forward position and the selection of three players in the half-forward line (McCann, Donnelly and Tierney) who are equally at home behind midfield gives us a sense of what kind of conditions Tyrone want to create.
It doesn’t take a great leap of faith to believe that Tyrone could genuinely rattle Donegal in this game.
One of the many challenges facing Tyrone footballers these days is that for the first time in their history, they are now dealing with an entire generation of their former players offering their opinions on the current squad on media platforms. This is a relatively recent phenomenon and those who argue that players allow that kind of stuff go over their heads need only look at how Tyrone’s U21 management, containing some of those former players reacted to their team being written off ahead of their semi-final with Roscommon a few weeks back.
If I have learnt anything about the Tyrone football psyche from years of observing them, it is that they are acutely sensitive to criticism.
Public discourse is incidental to the approach of a team with a thick skin but to a team trying to forge its own identity it can be unhelpful when the gilded players from a previous regime start offering their tuppence worth.
It’s pointless hoping for a return to the days when Tyrone were simply the best kicking team in the land (remember their 2008 quarter-final rain dance against Dublin). The 2015 model is built around getting the most out of utilising athe strong-running game we saw in the second half against Kerry. But such a game should be meat and drink to a Donegal team who thrive on stripping possession from runners and countering at pace. Unless Tyrone arrive with an alternative plan, it’s Donegal’s to lose.