The GAA season for 2016 got underway last weekend and the weather was a little kinder as both the Donegal U-21 and senior teams got into competitive action. Indeed, there was action for the hurlers as well and the minors began their preparations on the training fields.
The number of players that are now involved in squads is huge and it must present a big financial challenge for the county.
Despite all the talk about cutting down on games, it seems as if the opposite is the norm. Tournament games and challenge games are part and parcel of preparations. The U-21s have around ten weeks to their championship, while for the seniors the trip to Newry on Saturday, 30th January to play Down in the opening game of the Allianz National League is a really big game.
Donegal and Down met in MacCumhaill Park on Sunday last and both sides were largely experimental. Donegal were comfortable winners, although their failure to put more distance on the scoreboard was a negative.
Donegal had six debutants in the starting 15 and a number of others like Eoin McHugh, Eamonn Doherty and Caolan Ward, who are relative newcomers. Most of the newcomers impressed with a number of them making a big impression in what were good conditions for the time of year. The pitch in MacCumhaill Park was in remarkably good conditions, but naturally it was still soft on top, which militates against the lighter player.
The big question is - how many of the raft of newcomers in Rory Gallagher’s squad will play a part when the Ulster championship comes around in June?
It will probably be surprising if any more than two debutants line out when Donegal play Fermanagh or Antrim on June 12th. You could imagine that if it turns out to be Fermanagh in Ballybofey, the prospects of debutants would be better than playing Antrim away.
If you’ll pardon the pun in the present climate, a lot of water will run under the bridge between now and June. To play senior championship at the present time, a certain physique has to be achieved, such is the way the game has progressed.
To play at that level as a forward is even more difficult. But that is the challenge for all of the newcomers. Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Stephen McMenamin are probably close in the physical stakes; Jack O’Brien had a very good debut, as did Caolan Ward, which gives plenty of options at the back going forward.
Ciaran Thompson could hardly have performed better on his debut, along with Stephen McBrearty and Michael Carroll. Eoin McHugh would probably be better suited coming from deeper and all of these players will be on programmes that will allow them to mix it in the physical stakes when the ground gets harder.
Others will get their opportunity in the coming weeks and given the attendance that turned up in Ballybofey on Sunday, the Donegal GAA public are looking forward to exciting times.
Murphy - 100 not out
The reception given to Michael Murphy when he was introduced in the second half on Sunday underlines the popularity of the Donegal captain.
I’m not sure of the statistics, but at 26, I would harbour a guess that he is the youngest Donegal player to reach the 100 milestone. The facts provided by Fr. Seán Ó Gallchoir, carried in our Monday edition, makes very interesting reading.
Michael’s scoring rate of 4.3 points per game is an amazing statistic. The talk has already turned to Michael targeting Colm McFadden’s total of 167 (and Colm will be hoping to extend that target!)
Can the Donegal captain reach that? From my calculations Colm Anthony was 27 when he reached the milestone on a day that was not memorable for Donegal - the championship game against Armagh in Crossmaglen in 2010. In five seasons since then Colm added 67 caps but that was in a period when Donegal were averaging six championship games each year.
Even if McFadden didn’t add another cap, it is a very good target. Even if Michael Murphy remained healthy it would probably take six seasons to reach the target.
It would be interesting to see what odds the bookies are giving!
For the Donegal support, though, it is just good to see Michael showing the same sort of leadership which is his trademark. After the game on Sunday he was the recipient of a presentation to mark his 100th game. His humility on those occasions just has to be seen to be believed as he stops to pose for photographs with children and speak to supporters. On Sunday he wandered over to the fence and handed his gloves to a young supporter saying, “will you look after those for me”!
Just typical of the role model that he is.