Donegal’s victory over Antrim in Sunday’s Ulster Championship preliminary round has given all and sundry the ammunition for another debate on the health of Gaelic football at provincial and national level.
That debate is likely to continue for much of the summer and in a few weeks time the Donegal-Antrim game will be well down the agenda.
The term ‘puke’ football was coined by Pat Spillane when his beloved Kerry were overturned by Tyrone in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final and one Donegal man found the formula of words to sum up Sunday’s fare outside MacCumhaill Park on Sunday evening - Donegal played ‘puke’ football but Antrim were a ‘puke’ team.
The pressure to avoid defeat is the underlying factor which is determining the preparation of teams and that fear of losing is the major factor why teams are happy to win ugly. The danger of being punished if you allow opposition space is far exceeding the reward for being attack-minded and having an open game.
It is very early days to make a qualified judgement but the national media had just one game to fix their gaze on last weekend and they took full advantage.
Donegal are into the first round proper and given that Sunday’s date (15th May) was mentioned in nearly every interview by players and management since Christmas, maybe it was no surprise that we witnessed such a spectacle. The one and only aim was to get a first win in MacCumhaill Park and the management and players will be happy to have achieved that.
Now, as Neil McGee reiterated, they have the monkey off their backs. In doing so expectation has been lowered, which may not be such a bad outcome. However, alongside that the side have much improvement to find if they are to be serious challengers for Ulster honours in 2011.
The positives, apart from the result, came in a large number of good personal performances. We had the introduction of young Patrick McBrearty to get a feel of senior championship flavour. Jim McGuinness must have felt that with Donegal in a comfortable position, that the timing was right to give him a taste of what he can expect. McBrearty is a huge talent and must be nurtured carefully. He has been coached in the Kilcar way by good underage coaches at club and schools level like Neilly Byrne but Donegal supporters will have to be patient with him; remember he still hasn’t reached his 18th birthday. His pedigree is excellent with a maternal link to former Dublin forward Tommy Conroy as well as the Kilcar background.
Might be worth getting a few euro on Kilcar to reclaim Dr. Maguire in the next five years, especially as there is another in the McBrearty clan coming along who is equally as good as well as a host of other good young players in the 15-17 age group. It might help of Michael Hegarty’s hamstring holds up too!
There was a very impressive championship debut for Marty Boyle, who hardly put a foot wrong and is a very live option for the remainder of the campaign.
Sunday also saw Mark McHugh get on the scoreboard and that can only help his confidence at this level. Indeed, all of the six forwards selected got on the scoresheet with Michael Murphy the only one not to score from play.
However, there were negatives also and some of them worrying. The trend of pulling Murphy far from goal, which started in the Division Two League final in Croke Park was again in evidence. Murphy was magnificent as a playmaker in Croke Park, but in the more competitive championship, it is hard to see Donegal making much of an impact unless they position their greatest threat at the end of the opposition ‘square’.
The Cavan management of Val Andrews and Terry Hyland were in the stand at MacCumhaill Park on Sunday and they were given plenty to encourage them for their June 12th meeting in Breffni Park.
Donegal’s great run in the Allianz National Football League was based around scoring prowess. Their average total during the league was 0-16 and you would expect that they will have to equal that total to be successful in most games on firmer summer grounds.
They have some breathing space now to prepare for that Cavan game but management will be keeping their fingers crossed that there are no casualties in the first round of club championship fixtures this weekend.
The end of May usually signals the end of exams for college based players and that will improve Jim McGuinness’s hand in making preparations more thorough, if that is possible.
There were rumblings about Dublin based players being transported by helicopter last week for training, but surely that was a sensible option when it was available. The dangers involved in players travelling 300-mile round trips by car must be a constant worry for management and, more importantly, parents.
The Donegal panel have this week off from county training as they prepare with their clubs for the club championship, but after that the focus will be on Cavan. It’s hard to imagine that their gameplan will change, especially going into Breffni Park, where the atmosphere will be much more hostile than Sunday last.
However, they will surely have to register more than 1-10 to make the Ulster semi-final and whether that can be achieved without having Michael Murphy on the edge of the ‘square’ is the big question.
Should make for an interesting three weeks!
Footnote: Back to one of my pet subjects. Match programmes and team lists. The Ulster Council always produce a good programme for championship days but they rely on the participating counties to provide accurate team information. While Patrick McBrearty’s omission from the Donegal senior team line-out was understandable, the omission of two names from the minor list was not acceptable. You also had two players listed as Donegal substitutes who were not togged out. On such an important day for young footballers, they should be treated better. It is not the first time this has happened. By highlighting the issue, maybe it is something that can be avoided in the future.