Vince Lombardi, an American football player and coach, once said “that the strength of the group is the strength of the leaders.”
In his after match interview Odhran Mac Niallais heaped praise on his manager and his ability to get the squad to believe in the “game plan” and stick with it. You could say that the young lad has been given the opportunity and it’s only courteous and mannerly that he would have the utmost respect and admiration for his manager but MacNiallais’s words were honest and sincere, something you won’t hear on television that much.
I have in the past heaped praise on Jim McGuinness and his players for one reason; regardless of all the criticism, even in winning the All-Ireland, they have remained loyal to each other.
Of course it was expected that we would win last Sunday and we would have hoped that it would have been as comfortable as it was but it would be wrong to believe that we can take too much out of this game and that is no disrespect to the Antrim management and players who gave their all for their county.
However that counts for nothing when you are a player. It doesn’t matter if you play for Dublin or Antrim, you go into every game wanting and demanding of each other to win. Antrim and counties who have had limited success in the last ten, twenty years, are the counties that deserve the credit for keeping it going and putting themselves as managers and players in the firing line.
Looking back at most games we have a habit of looking more at the positives than the negatives. It’s part and parcel of making sure we don’t damage the confidence of the players and also if you’re too negative it can be seen as you are not totally behind the team which couldn’t be further from the truth, especially from those who have had the pleasure of wearing the jersey and understand what’s required to be there and give the necessary commitment to reach the top.
But there were things last Sunday that would not have pleased the Donegal management and would be certainly worrying come the Ulster final and beyond. While Jim has done his best to make sure that many of his players, especially the older lads, have got as much rest as they possibly can, it has become increasingly obvious that injuries will have a huge say in what we can achieve this year.
While Karl Lacey may not have been missed last Sunday that much, it is important that the Four Masters man is fit for the final. Last year he was dogged with injuries and was nowhere near the player of 2012 and the team struggled without his leadership and man marking ability but his performance against Derry in the first round showed that he was getting close to his best. It is vital, especially if we play Monaghan, that he is back in the team.
Also worrying would be the withdrawal of Neil Gallagher half-way through the first half. As soon as he went of we struggled to compete when the ball was in the air from the kick outs . It was only the fact that Antrim did not contest the Donegal kick outs that helped us kill them off at the start of the second half.
Another point that would be of concern was that we went in level at half-time against a team that were limited; against better opposition, especially as I said earlier if we have to play Monaghan (who I expect to take care of Armagh in the other semi-final next Saturday) we might not get the same chances or openings as we did against Derry and Antrim.
On a more positive note the performance of Odhran MacNiallais, Darach O’Connor, Christy Toye and Paddy Mc Grath will have pleased the management team. McGrath’s desire and commitment to get back after a long year or so out with injury is a credit. Christy Toye again showed that given the ball he is a willing runner and has the capacity to kick scores from out the field.
MacNiallais is easy on the eye, a lovely style of running and a brilliant left foot. He, too, has given the team a real boost with his endless willingness to run and support his team mates at both ends of the field.
It’s hard to imagine you could be doing your Leaving Cert one week and playing in an Ulster senior championship semi-final at the weekend. Like MacNiallais, Darach O’Connor’s performances in the last two games has been extraordinary for a such a young lad who wouldn’t have had the same physical attributes as the likes of Paddy Mc Brearty when he was a minor. O’Connor has a great burst of pace and it’s hard to read what he might do with the ball. His low centre of gravity means he’s very hard to tackle. Jim and his management team deserve great credit for giving these lads the opportunity in such high profile games but they have seen something in them and they have not let him down.
Another good win for the Donegal minor team last Sunday. In the end they were too strong for an Antrim team that struggled to contain Lorcan Connor, Jamie Brennan and Co. It’s important to note that Declan Bonner’s experience at senior management level will be a huge help to the minor players as they prepare for our first Ulster final at this level since 2006.
It would be a great year for a double.