Although some of the fizz has been taken out of the provincial championships since the introduction of the qualifiers back in 2001, there’s a semblance of a climactic feel to Donegal’s preliminary round opener against Cavan in Ballybofey tomorrow.
Early days it may be, but the Super 8s will feel like an awful long way for whoever comes out defeated, with Donegal tipped by many to reach that stage and Cavan justifiably possessing hopes of their own having gained promotion to Division 1 in the spring.
With Tyrone and Monaghan on the other side of the Ulster draw and a now Division 4 Derry awaiting the winners from tomorrow, there might just be an avenue of opportunity for the winners of the preliminary round tie in Ulster.
Donegal are not as impenetrable as in years gone by, but their record at MacCumhaill Park remains sturdy, having not lost at County HQ in a combined 20 league and championship matches, since John Joe Doherty’s team were defeated by Down in 2010 after extra-time.
However, when Mayo’s Kevin McLoughlin pointed the equalising score in March, the 0-13 to 0-13 draw felt like more of a loss for Declan Bonner, the Donegal manager.
Bonner, though, throughout a league campaign that contained a number of hard luck tales, did insist that gaining experience for his somewhat novice panel ahead of the championship always took precedence.
“We set our stall out at the start of the season that we knew the games that were coming early on were going to be fairly difficult,” Bonner said in March. “We knew we would be fielding a fairly inexperienced side.
Hugh McFadden, who will start at centrefield, agrees: “You won’t sit around worrying about the league now. The championship is the only thing worth talking about. People won’t be sitting in October talking about the league. When you’re in it, you love it and the standard in the League means it’s one of the most entertaining competitions. But we’ve moved on from it. We weren’t sitting around feeling sorry about it.”
Much has changed in the north-west since Jim McGuinness’s back-to-back Ulsters from the preliminary rounds of 2011 and 2012, and from the 15 that started the 2012 All-Ireland final success over Mayo, only Paddy McGrath, Neil McGee, Mark McHugh, Leo McLoone, Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty remain.
Much will depend on the form of McBrearty, who notched 0-34 in five outings in Division 1 before missing out in the losses to Tyrone and Monaghan with a knee injury, while the perennial debate over the placement of captain Murphy, now 28, has a few more pages, one feels, to be written yet.
McLoone and the mercurial Odhran MacNiallais have bolstered the regime with comebacks.
Youngsters like Jamie Brennan, Ciaran Thompson and Eoghan Ban Gallagher have come from a reasonably successful underage production line, with Bonner taking the 2014 minors to Ulster title and All-Ireland final and also last year’s U21s to provincial success. Shaun Paul Barrett’s minors were Ulster champions two years ago.
Donegal were tarred in certain circles for collective training in the month of April, which goes against the new directive from the GAA. However, Bonner was insistent his panel needed all the preparation they could get for Cavan’s visit, with it being one of the first dates circled on the championship calendar.
“We have a job to do to prepare the team for Sunday, which is 13 days into May,” he said. “We are up against a very good Cavan team. We have to get the lads right. We had to have our preparation as good as we can and we have done that. Every match in Ulster is a final.”
Preliminary round it may be in the northern province, but words like Bonner’s certainly add to that climactic feel. Donegal and Cavan don’t want their Ulster dreams to fizzle out before their competitors even start. It’s all to play for right from the off.
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