Donegal were given a wake-up call by the Royals of Meath in MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey, but it could be a very good outcome in the long run.
Donegal had to rely on a last ditch Michael Murphy free and, in some ways, were hauled over the line by Christy Toye, who had a very good 70 minutes in the Donegal jersey.
Overall, it was a very patchy Donegal display - slow out of the blocks and there were mistakes all over the field including failing to finish off some good moves with goals and points.
In the end, they were happy to get a share of the spoils and the equalising point was a magnificent effort by Michael Murphy, captured by his Glenswilly clubman Thomas Simmons on camera and posted on twitter.
There were many who felt the award of the free at the time was soft, but I have been informed by a former county player, now sometimes referee, that it was a correct decision as a second Meath player came in when the ball was being thrown up.
The Donegal management and players pointed to a very heavy pitch as a partial reason for the dip in performance from the opening three games against Laois, Galway and Monaghan. Maybe it was because Meath came to Ballybofey more hungry for league points as their position at the foot of Division Two was becoming perilous.
Even allowing for the fact that Meath dominated the middle third for a good part of the game, Donegal had enough chances to win the game when they did spring to life. The execution to complete some good openings created by the running of Christy Toye and Anthony Thompson deserved a better finish.
When Donegal look back at the video analysis of this game, there will be plenty of food for thought. The tactics employed for kick-outs in the opening half just didn’t work with Meath able to fill the large gap that Donegal were trying to employ for Paul Durcan. In the end it was just too complicated and made Durcan’s task almost impossible.
The turnover rate was also poor from a Donegal perspective and there will be a vast improvement needed in score completion, with a number of efforts from fairly close range coming back off posts and goal chances also going abegging.
To get a result this Sunday in Pairc Esler in Newry against Down, Donegal will have to be much more clinical in all aspects of their game. Indeed, it will be the ability to be clinical that will make the difference going forward.
With the advent of the black card, tackling has to be more precise and any lazy tackling will be punished. The tackle has now become something very akin to the ruck in rugby. The tackler must release the player when he first makes the tackle. Getting a hand in and leaving it there will be seen as a foul and more often than not will allow the player in possession to grab the hand and make it look even worse.
The one point gained on Sunday could be invaluable before the campaign is complete. If Donegal could get a share of the spoils (or better) on Sunday then they would still be on course to get back to Division One with a win at home to Louth in Ballyshannon on March 30th.
With their other rivals, Armagh and Monaghan, meeting on Saturday night, it’s possible that they will have company on seven league points by the time they take on Down.
However, Donegal still have a very healthy scoring average advantage and even at this stage two more points could be enough to get them to the Croke Park final on 27th April.
There is probably only one drawback - if it can be called that - of reaching the league final and that is the opposition is almost guaranteed to be from Ulster with Down, Monaghan and Armagh in the hunt for promotion as well. At this stage Laois or Meath can’t be ruled out, but it would seem that Louth and Galway are likely to be battling at the other end of the table.
The management of the game time for the senior members of the squad is going well and hopefully Neil Gallagher will be given even more time this Sunday. His introduction was vital to Donegal’s comeback on Sunday last and it also aided Paul Durcan with kick-out options.
On Sunday Odhran MacNiallais was not a threat in front of goal because he was playing so deep. To be more of a force, we have to get our half-forward line threatening the opposing line, just like Christy Toye did last Sunday. The St. Michael’s man, who has had a horrible run of injuries over a 4-5 year period, seems to be really enjoying his game at the moment and that is a big plus to Jim McGuinness and his management team. Toye is a natural footballer and uses the ball well. His return to full fitness gives the side a great boost ahead of the championship preparation.
Hopefully, Donegal can bag at least three points from their next two games to ensure their promotion which will give the side that extra bit of space to then prepare for the championship and that date with Derry in Celtic Park on May 25th.