The provincial inter-county football and hurling championships continued last weekend without much to get excited about. I didn’t see the hurling but I’m sure it was more exciting than the football.
After watching Dublin and Longford in the Leinster football championship it has to be said that there is an enormous disparity between our inter-county teams, in Leinster at least. Ulster is still the most competitive. We have a class difference here too with only Donegal, Tyrone, Monaghan and possibly Armagh considered strong counties who can compete with the best in the country. Donegal are the only one of these teams capable of actually beating the best though.
After hammering Longford in Croke Park, Dublin will know in their heart and soul that this victory was superficial. In fact Dublin could field a third team and still win the Leinster championship. I watched some of the highlights of the Ulster clash between Fermanagh and Antrim. One cannot fault the integrity of the players but this was a scrappy affair.
The All-Ireland Gaeltacht semi-final between Glenties and Ardara was taking place at the same time as these highlights were shown and I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one to switch over to TG4. It is obvious that a change in the structure of the championship is required. It serves no purpose to get hammered and then go through the ‘back door’ system and get hammered again. Weak teams seem to be getting weaker while the strong teams are getting stronger and moving ahead of the pack.
In reality we only have a handful of teams who are in with a genuine chance of winning the All-Ireland title; Donegal, Dublin, Mayo, Cork or Kerry. I hear you asking and “what about Donegal’s next game against Armagh”?
Indeed, Armagh could hijack Donegal in the Athletic Grounds but Armagh will not win the All-Ireland. Take Dublin out of Croke Park and throw them into the heart of Armagh facing a partisan crowd baying for championship blood. Given these circumstances, Dublin may lose this particular contest and Armagh would still not win the championship. That said, Ulster teams are used to squaring up to each other in such intimidating situations and I expect Donegal to win this battle comfortably.
As it stands, Dublin is the team to beat. They are not as vocal or flamboyant as they were last season and this is down to the fact that a better team beat them in the All-Ireland semi-final. Dublin still maintain that they were caught off guard. We will not know how good they are until August when the All-Ireland quarter-finals take place.
The gulf currently existing between the top teams and the weaker teams cannot be blamed on those teams who have made it their business to get to the top.
For Donegal it has been a long road. Our success in Ulster was sparse until the early nineties and then again until the messiah McGuinness arrived on the scene. Since then we have been spoiled and rightly so. Donegal have invested much time, energy and finance into our inter-county teams. Success does not happen by chance. Our wealth of underage talents have been nurtured and handled with care since they were wanes.
In fairness to the successive county boards, they worked diligently and appointed good and great managers to the respective team management positions and supported them in every respect throughout.
During my time as an inter-county player, most times were tough. We took a lot of beatings down the years and even spent time in Division 3 of the National Football League. I was fortunate to play in times when we had a lot of success too. But it was intermittent.
Today, our expectations are so different. When Donegal won the Ulster title last year, there was no great hullaballoo. There was a greater prize to be won. Donegal are one of the top team teams in the country nowadays and every other team want to beat us. It took hard work to get us where we are and it will take hard work to keep us at the pinnacle.
In Rory Gallagher, we have a progressive and tactically astute manager. Like many assistant mangers and coaches he probably did not get due credit for his contribution to Donegal’s All-Ireland success in 2012. Believe me, he was hugely influential.
I remember back in 1995 when Seamus O’Reilly and I managed our U-21 team to Ulster success we had a trainer/coach named Donnacha McNeilis. He is the father of our current rising star Odhran. Without Donnacha, we would never have won that title. He was the masterful tactician.
In 1992 we had a trainer called Anthony Harkin who also faded into the background and again I feel his influence was diluted somewhat. These men often go unnoticed but the management and players alike know and appreciate their tremendous input.
Donegal will have a tough test against Armagh on Sunday week and with Derry or Down in the Ulster semi-final a few weeks later. Monaghan will cruise into the Ulster final and will lie in wait for us. The result will be the same as last year.
Keeping the faith!