Although Donegal beat Fermanagh in Ballyshannon last Sunday, the McKenna Cup is over for the Tir Conaill men.
Fermanagh’s superior scoring average’s put them into the semi-final against Cavan last night (Wednesday). The other semi-final also took place last evening between Tyrone and Armagh.
The cosmetic exercise of the McKenna Cup will have allowed Rory Gallagher to experiment with emerging talents coupled with the gradual introduction of our seasoned players into competitive play in preparation for the National League which starts on 31st January with a home tie against Derry in Ballybofey. Many of the Donegal regulars returned to the fray last Sunday.
One player who wasn’t there was Rory Kavanagh. He has announced his retirement from the inter-county scene citing family and work commitments. Rory was a great servant to Donegal football for 14 years and his absence will be sorely felt by the county. One can understand his decision given the demands on inter-county players nowadays. His retirement has opened the door for others to fill the void. Martin McElhinney, Odhran McNelis and Christy Toye all have the ability to line out in the middle of the field.
As the new season gathers pace, it is welcomed news to learn that Naomh Conaill’s Anthony Thompson will commute between the UK and Donegal thus committing to the county for 2015. Thompson is a quiet man and goes about his business inconspicuously. He is undoubtedly one of the unsung heroes in Donegal football. His decision to travel from his place of work in England is a tremendous boost for Donegal’s aspirations this year.
With the National League imminent it is important that we have as strong a team possible available on the field for our opening games against Derry and Dublin. It is worth noting that both these teams have also been fielding experimental teams in respective pre season competitions.
It seems that Derry played an almost full strength side against Donegal in Owenbeg a few weeks ago. This was obviously a ploy used by Derry manager Brian McIver with the forthcoming National League in mind. He was setting down a marker for this all important clash. In respect to fitness, it was obvious in Ballyshannon that Donegal hadn’t as much work done as Fermanagh.
With no disrespect to Fermanagh, the McKenna Cup competition would be perceived in a totally different light than in Donegal. It is a massive competition for them and their manager Pete McGrath will have prepared diligently. Derry, Dublin and Donegal are hoping to be around in August when the business end of the season takes place.
Right now there is little difference in the amount of training that the top teams have done. So basically, it’s a level laying field. Rory Gallagher’s approach is apparently different to the one that Donegal have been accustomed to under the stewardship of Jim McGuinness. Collective training started this season in late December whereas last season training began on November 1st. Training sessions are shorter, for the time being anyway. This may change when the season begins proper and when the rest of the panel are introduced.
To date there is little sign of Karl Lacey, Colm McFadden, David Walsh, Ryan McHugh or Paddy McBrearty but expect these players to be propelled into action for the start of the National League. The return of Mark McHugh to the fold is another plus for Rory Gallagher and his squad. With the exceptions of Rory Kavanagh and Leo McLoone it is business as usual for Donegal.
Rory Gallagher’s strategy of gradualism is obviously geared towards championship. Most of these players have put in a gruelling couple of years which paid great dividends. Gallagher’s approach should serve to reenergise the squad. Sunday 17th May will see Donegal play Tyrone in the preliminary game of the Ulster championship in Ballybofey. This should be a riveting and fascinating contest. For Donegal, this game will be their ultimate focus. By that stage, the team will be fit and chomping at the bit.
Irrespective of what happens in the National League, Donegal will go into this game as slight favourites because of home advantage plus the experience that is contained within our team. There are 17 Sundays between now and then. In terms of football, this is not a long time. Already, we see a lengthening of our evenings. Although our weather is bitterly cold, the month of January is almost over. February is a short month and then we roll into the spring season. Donegal is back in Division 1 where we will be playing the top teams in the country. There is an exciting year in prospect. A good run in the National league will set us up well for the Tyrone championship game. Rory Gallagher will be eager to do well and I believe that 2015 is going to yet another great year for Donegal football.
Keep the faith!