Some of the best wine was kept to last as Donegal gave their supporters something to chew on when they showed resilience to get over the line on Sunday last against Armagh and retain their top flight status.
Any analysis of the 2012 National League campaign would reveal that Donegal were well below the standards set in 2011 with the low point coming against Laois in the second game of the campaign. There was just three points between the teams at the finish, but the scoreline portrayed a false account of the game, with Donegal getting two goals in the final minutes to put a distorted gloss on the final score.
The high point came in the final quarter of last Sunday’s final game against Armagh. When the chips were down and Donegal were a couple of rungs down the ladder to Division Two, they found their battling qualities to pull the game out of the fire. To do so without their captain Michael Murphy and their defensive rock Neil McGee was even more praiseworthy.
Sunday’s final game also unearthed the best performance by a newcomer so far in the 2012. It took a while for Declan Walsh to get a chance, but when he did, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
Back on 6th January, there were a few of us present in Kinawley for Donegal’s opening challenge game of the new season against Roscommon - thanks to Edmund Brennan’s brand new Opel. In the cold and just about adequate floodlighting, Donegal made changes at half-time and one player in defence began to impress. As we were on the opposite side to the Donegal dugout, we had no information as to who this player was, with Martin O’Reilly being my first guess.
Martin McHugh was with us and he moved away and went on the ‘phone to a contact on the far side. Soon he was back telling us that it was Declan Walsh of Malin was the player who was the stand-out performer.
Walsh has bided his time since then, getting a run as a forward substitute against Laois, before getting the opportunity on Sunday last. It was only one outing and he may have to show the same sort of pace and assuredness on the ball a few more times before he gains a regular place, but for now he is among the success stories of the league.
The other player who has staked a claim, albeit with a few more opportunities, is the aforementioned Martin O’Reilly. When introduced on Sunday last, he was prepared to take the game to Armagh at every opportunity and is the sort of player that supporters will get behind.
Some of the other plusses were the consistency of some of the players - like Paul Durcan, Frank McGlynn, Neil McGee, Karl Lacey and Neil Gallagher - all outstanding in most games they played.
The heavy defeat in Killarney was a stark reminder of the standard that is required when you take the field against the big guns. The game against Dublin could have been similar to Killarney, but for a stirring second half display, while the win over Mayo reflects the topsy turvy nature of games - Mayo looked so poor, you wouldn’t have put bad money on them getting three points from their remaining games at home to Dublin and away to Kerry.
Winning three games out of four at home and losing all three matches away from home might not be enough for survival in another campaign. Certainly it looks as it won’t be any easier next year as Tyrone and Kildare make the step up to the top flight. That and the fact that Donegal will probably have only three home games will make it even more difficult.
But that is what should make it even more attractive. Being a player among the big boys is what Donegal should want and they have already shown in 2011 that even without some of their best players, they were able to survive.
They will look at Cork and Mayo, teams they have beaten, contesting the league semi-finals; they also look at Down - a team they had on the rack - also in the semi-final; it could have been even better.
They will also know that there are areas where they have plenty of room for improvement. The half-forward line (through Mark McHugh) scored just three points in the seven games. Frank McGlynn and Neil McGee were just as fruitful in the scoring stakes.
When you look at the scoring statistics elsewhere on this page, you can see that there is still a very heavy reliance on Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden when it comes to scoring. As they prepare for the Ulster championship - as is the case most years - the health of those two always comes into focus, and hopefully both will be flying for the summer months.
What was positive from the result on Sunday last is that it put a smile back on Donegal supporters’ faces. Winning a game that is close (like the win over Kildare in Croke Park last summer) is a great fillip for everyone, players and supporters.
The Donegal followers respond when they see that the players wearing the jersey are prepared to give their all, and hopefully Sunday last is the taste of things to come this summer.