Those fears seemed to be coming to fruition when Kerry left Letterkenny on the opening Sunday of the Allianz League Division with a win that was a lot more comprehensive than the 2-17 to 1-17 scoreline suggested.
However, since then, Donegal have picked up seven points from eight and on Saturday night at a saturated MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey, easily overcame Ulster champions Tyrone.
For a team who generally aim to merely avoid the drop, Donegal are flourishing.
Five unanswered points from Rory Gallagher’s team towards the end of the first half was essentially the difference. From a stagnant 0-4 to 0-4, Donegal went in at the break in a decent position at 0-9 to 0-4 ahead on a night when scores were difficult to come by.
Two Peter Harte scores in succession had brought parity for Tyrone by the 20th minute. However, Ryan McHugh, Michael Murphy, Paddy McGrath, Ciaran Thompson’s third of the night and Hugh McFadden all popped over to give Donegal a firm grip.
“We’d have been very pleased with the first half performance,” manager Rory Gallagher said afterwards. “We got some great scores and I thought we were full value for the five-point lead. The second half was very scrappy, and hard to watch even from our point of view.
“We set out our goal, we had to get at Tyrone. They’ve a great defensive system in place the last couple of years that we’ve found difficult to break down. But we went at it with a really positive attitude and we did very well overall.”
Tyrone needed something at the start of the second half and when Sean Cavanagh opened the scoring in part two, Donegal might well have been expecting a backlash.
However, Justin McMahon’s close marking of Murphy earned the Tyrone centre-back a yellow card from David Coldrick and manager Mickey Harte couldn’t run the risk of losing such an important player to a second, so McMahon’s number was literally up.
The knock-on effect would be nine minutes injury time at the end. But by then the contest was long since over.
Tyrone’s need was obviously more than Donegal’s but the home side were content to sit in and pick off their opponents on the break. Cian Mulligan, Ryan McHugh and McFadden scored points, while Tyrone didn’t hit the target for 33 minutes.
Donegal aren’t the physical side that won Sam Maguire five years ago and rely these days on the fleet-footedness of the likes of the McHughs, Martin O’Reilly and the excellent Thompson. Their style, it might be noted, would certainly be more preferable to the harder pitches of summertime so there’s certainly reason for optimism in the north-west.
On the flip side, there’s little reason to put this down as anything other than a bad day at the office for Tyrone. It was only their second loss of a calendar year, following their reversal against Cavan in the Dr McKenna Cup in January.
“After one misplaced pass and another and another and Donegal are picking off a few points in the meantime, that’s hard to get out of — especially against a team like Donegal,” Tyrone manager Mickey Harte said.
“We all know playing a team like Donegal you have to be with them step for step. If you give them a lead they are very good at protecting it and it’s very hard to break them down.
“You have to say the players tried very hard and the conditions that were there really didn’t suit our running game as well as a good dry sod would do. But those are the conditions we had to play under and we didn’t manage it very well. The end result is we got a bad beating and we have to live with that.”
C Thompson 0-3; R McHugh, H McFadden 0-2 each; F McGlynn, E McHugh, M Murphy (f), P McGrath, C Mulligan 0-1 each.
S Cavanagh (2f) 0-3; P Harte 0-2, R Brennan 0-1.
MA McGinley; P McGrath, N McGee, E Doherty; E Gallagher, F McGlynn, P Brennan; C Thompson, M Murphy; M O’Reilly, E McHugh, R McHugh; M Carroll, H McFadden, J Brennan.
C Mulligan for McGlynn (h-t), M McHugh for McGrath (bc, 56), M McElhinney for McFadden (64), M Langan for P Brennan (65), B McCole for J Brennan (70), S McBrearty for E McHugh (70+5).
M O’Neill; C McShane, R McNamee, C McCarron; T McCann, J McMahon, R Brennan; C Cavanagh, D McClure; N Sludden, K McGeary, P Harte; M Bradley, S Cavanagh, M Donnelly.
C Meyler for McShane (h-t), P Hampsey for McClure (h-t), Aidan McCrory for McMahon (45), R O’Neill for Brennan (53), J Munroe for McCarron (59).
D Coldrick (Meath).