It was a bridge too far for Donegal on Saturday last as they bowed out of the championship to Mayo but there was no shame in the defeat.
Before a ball was kicked in the championship this year, I felt it was almost impossible for Donegal to get back to an All-Ireland final, such was the draw they were given with Tyrone, Armagh, Derry and Monaghan on their plate in Ulster before getting to the crunch August games in Croke Park.
Maybe if they had won the Ulster final, the task would have been a little easier, but even at that it meant that Donegal had to peak for May 17th against Tyrone and then keep that level of fitness over the next three months - an almost impossible expectation.
As it turned out, the exertions (and knocks) of those games in Ulster had a draining effect and the Donegal we saw in Croke Park on Saturday last was only a shadow of the real team. Very few of the team were able to reach their true level but that is a reflection on the system rather than on these heroes.
Consider that when Aidan O’Shea got free to score the vital goal before half-time, Neil McGee was already carrying the injury which would force him to retire early in the second half.
When did we ever see Karl Lacey play a hopeful pass across his own goal area? Or Colm McFadden send a free towards the Donegal goal to a Mayo player? Big Neil Gallagher was surely suffering from a serious knock which he took seven days earlier in the Galway game when he landed heavily after contesting a high ball.
The heavy toil of the campaign from 17th May just took its toll, both mentally and physically.
Mayo, on the other hand, were so fresh after playing just two games in that time. They were tested for a period in their first game against Galway but then had it all their own way against Sligo. The comparisons between the road travelled by Donegal and Mayo before Saturday are stark.
It was a rotten hand that was dealt to Donegal this year, but they have to take it on the chin and move on.
There are big decisions to be made by a good number of the squad about their involvement going forward. Hopefully, they will take their time in making those decisions because they deserve that space given the service that they have given the county.
St. Michael’s pair Colm Anthony McFadden and Christy Toye have soldiered now for 13 championship campaigns with McFadden setting new records each time he pulled on the jersey - 61 championship appearances and 167 in total.
Christy Toye is just two behind in championship appearances with 59 while Karl Lacey, Paul Durcan and the McGees (Eamon and Neil), have all played over 50 championship games. Only one other player, Michael Hegarty, has reached the 50 mark.
The other players that look likely to reassess their situations include David Walsh (who got little game time this year) and Neil Gallagher, the two most senior members of the squad.
It would be a serious blow if a big number of those mentioned decided to call it a day, but at the same time whatever decisions are taken have to be respected. Not alone that, but players who have played their part in winning Donegal’s second All-Ireland need to be honoured when they make that decision.
Rory Kavanagh stepped away last year and it is imperative that the County Board begin the process to honour the 2012 heroes just as happened for the heroes of 1992.
There is a strong case to be made that all the above players still have a part to play. It would help of most of them were given the months of January, February and March off before they begin next year.
The wounds of Saturday’s defeat are raw at the moment but once the club championship returns, the sore will disappear and there will be renewed anticipation ahead of the draw for the 2016 Ulster championship. That is just the way it is.
I’m sure Rory Gallagher and his management team will begin soundings with the players as the weeks roll by. It has been a good year for the Killybegs-based man, getting as much as he could out of a very talented bunch of players.
It’s easy to nit pick, but I felt that Donegal should have used their bench in the final 20 minutes of Saturday’s game. Players for the future like Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Declan Walsh as well as Martin O’Reilly could have been given game time on the big stage which could have been beneficial to the transition that Donegal surely face in the next few years.
Overall, though, I would be extremely proud of the way Donegal played in 2015. Apart from Saturday last they won every game except the Ulster final, going down by just a point to Monaghan.
Despite going down by eight points on Saturday last, I would contend that Donegal were the best team in Ulster this year, but sport is not an exact science and very often you don’t get what you deserve.
But there’s always next year!
So Tiarnan McCann’s dive after his hair was ruffled which saw Darren Hughes red carded has been punished with an 8-week suspension. But what about the equally serious issue in the Monaghan-Tyrone game - the black card picked up by McCann for cynically hauling Drew Wylie to the ground and then getting up and doing the same to another player to stop a quick free being taken. The punishment for this offence (which took place in the Monaghan half of the field) with a black card is laughable. It should carry a suspension and also a free kick should be awarded to the opposition on the ‘D’. That would stop this cynical behaviour. Remember Barry John Keane kicking the ball away to stop Paul Durcan re-starting the game in the All-Ireland final last year! Black cards are too lenient in these cases.