It was not the start that new Donegal manager Rory Gallagher would have hoped for when our senior football team suffered an eleven point defeat to Derry in Owenbeg last Sunday.
It must be stated that he fielded a very much experimental team which was to be expected. However, Derry fielded a very strong team with many regulars taking part. The McKenna Cup is a preparatory competition for the National League which commences on January 31st for Donegal in Ballybofey. Our first game will coincidentally also be against Derry.
Donegal only started collective training for the new season at the end of December. Not one member of the losing team to Kerry last September in the All-Ireland final started this game. A manager learns much more from losing that from winning. There were many new faces on the Donegal team. Also players who were part of past years squad with little game time got their chances. Obviously, it is going to take a bit of bedding in for all concerned with the National League being the main focus in the short term for the squad.
Our established players will form the bulk of the team when this competition kicks off. Indeed neither the McKenna Cup nor the National League count for much when the championship begins in May.
It is interesting to note that Glenties men Anthony Thompson and Leo McLoone are opting out for the present with Thompson now working in the UK and McLoone taking a break. I hope that both players are available for the serious football in the spring and summer.
Another player rumoured to be considering his position is Rory Kavanagh. Rory is considering retirement which I would strongly advise against. We are in the depths of winter and I appreciate that for the likes of Rory Kavanagh that the prospect of another season of gruelling training that not seem that appealing now, summer will come. The evenings will be long and training pitches all over the county will be teeming with players of all classes and categories.
For a retired inter-county footballer these evenings can be empty and frustrating especially when that player knows in his heart and in his soul that he could be there. I say, play as long as you can play because nothing, absolutely nothing compares to being a player. You have the rest of your life to manage, coach, spectate or even referee! The buzz, the excitement, the expectation and the camaraderie vanish overnight.
Yes that time will come for all inter-county players but, for Rory Kavanagh that time, in my opinion, has not yet arrived. Only Rory Kavanagh knows best but, I have a feeling that Rory will be around when the pitches are greener and the ground is firmer. Perhaps the impending trip to Dubai for the Donegal squad may invigourate Rory. The debacle surrounding this holiday has been widely reported both nationally and locally. Thankfully a resolution has been reached to the point where the trip is confirmed for departure on Friday 13th February. There is a break in proceedings in the National League at that time. No doubt there will be a training schedule in place for the current members of the Donegal squad.
The McKenna Cup continues for Donegal in MacCumhaill Park this Sunday when the students of Queen’s University will be our opponents. Fermanagh beat Queens comfortably last weekend. Even with an experimental team, Donegal should secure both points from this encounter. It gives Rory Gallagher another opportunity to try out players under competitive circumstances. A win here plus victory over Fermanagh on Wednesday 14th January could see Donegal progress to another game in the play-offs of the McKenna Cup which would ensure another competitive game for the players.
Of course it depends on other results at that stage. In the final analysis, Rory Gallagher will not be too concerned about the McKenna Cup. His immediate focus of attention is the National League and having a team strong enough to beat Derry at the end of the month. The National League is quite competitive nowadays where winning the initial two games are perceived as important in respect of the remainder of the competition. Losing a game or games at the outset immediately puts a team under pressure. Winning the league is not an important factor in the minds of most managers or players. Donegal would like to maintain Division 1 status though.
Derry may have put down a marker in Owenbeg last Sunday but they know and more importantly we know that it was a false one. There will be much work and alterations taking place in the next three weeks within the Donegal camp. It is important to unearth some new talent every year for the progression of inter-county football. Indeed Donegal has a wealth of young talent. There may be a few new prospects but expect the familiar and established players to take to MacCumhaill Park on January 31st.
Keep the faith!