Losing an All-Ireland final is a traumatic experience. Fortunately Donegal have lost only one of the three in which we have contested.
It is only four months since that fateful day since Donegal meekly succumbed to a very average Kerry team on 21st September last year. Most of the Donegal players who played that day will once again assemble on Saturday evening to begin the new season proper when Donegal will host Derry in the first round game in MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey.
Jim McGuinness stepped down as team manager in the aftermath of the All-Ireland final thus terminating the most successful period for Donegal football ever. In Rory Gallagher, Donegal has acquired the natural successor to McGuinness. Gallagher’s knowledge of the game is unquestionable. As an observer during my three year period with McGuinness as a physical therapist when Gallagher was McGuinness’s right hand man for two of those three years, I could not help but notice the chemistry between these two men. To me, they had the perfect relationship. Then something went wrong. I was out of the country at the time and returned to a tremendous hullaballoo where both men had parted company. I was never privy to the details of their separation. I felt that it was the perfect marriage.
Successful individuals are very single minded, decisive and possess a clear perspective of how they want to achieve their objectives. Otherwise they would not be winners.
Rory Gallagher has been courageous to step up to the plate. He knows better than most what is expected of him. He has inherited not a good team but a great team. The disappointment of losing an All-Ireland final has many repercussions. The psychological damage needs repairing. Confidence has to be reinstalled. The physical fitness required to compete at the top level will be much easier to regain than the mental fatigue suffered as a consequence of a gruelling year just passed.
The players have been given a long lay off since September which is obviously a strategy employed by Rory Gallagher as the first step in recharging the batteries. May 17th is D-Day for Gallagher and his charges. When this time arrives it is vital to have every player available, injury free, psychologically tuned and physically fit.
Yes the league is important but success is truly measured in the championship. There will be a few new faces although I suspect not many. Much of the tried and tested rearguard will form the backbone of Gallagher’s team. Their style of play under our new manager may well differ. We will get a hint of this on Saturday evening.
As previously stated in this column, I have every confidence in Rory Gallagher. Donegal could not have wished for a better person than he to continue the success that we have now become accustomed to. It may not come immediately but we must give him a chance to develop his team and to impose his own personality and game plan upon the team also. This certainly will not happen overnight. McGuinness is a hard act to follow and whoever replaced him was always going to have high standards to maintain.
Don’t forget, Gallagher is well acquainted with the players and has an intimate knowledge of their idiosyncrasies. My information is that the players are very content and comfortable with him. This is always a positive sign. To have your dressing room on board is vitally important to harmony and function. It is going to be an absorbing season with so much look to forward to.
This season we are returning to our natural place in the top tier of football in the country where we will be engaging the top teams. The championship preliminary game against Tyrone in mid May promises to be one of the games of the season.
Winning the Ulster title this year will be a feat in itself for Donegal given the difficult route handed to us. Tyrone and Donegal will be well acquainted with each other come the summer because they play in the League as well.
Few of the pundits now rate Tyrone as one of the country’s top teams but one can never write them off. Ulster also has the likes of Derry and Armagh in the mix this year too. I expect Armagh to be the dark horses in the Ulster championship. Their manager Kieran McGeeney brings with him a physicality which borders on the edge. One of Donegal’s toughest games last year was against Armagh in Croke Park in the All-Ireland quarter finals.
Derry, too, have their aspirations. We will learn a lot about Derry this Saturday evening in Ballybofey. I believe they have a good team but are still a bit off the mark. Monaghan are still living in a past glory when they beat Donegal in the 2013 Ulster final. Donegal are still the best team in the province.
The season begins this weekend. It is going to be a fascinating year of football. To Rory Gallagher, his mentors and his players I would like to wish you all the very best for what lies ahead.
Keep the faith!