There was an air of disappointment as Donegal supporters left Elvery Sports McHale Park, Castlebar, on Sunday after they watched Donegal pick up their fourth defeat of the National Football League.
Donegal fans have become accustomed to high intensity, passion fuelled performances from Donegal during Jim McGuinness’s tenure, but Sunday’s performance was lethargic and lifeless.
While Donegal’s fortunes in the championship have been completely rejuvenated under the new management, our league performances on the road in the top flight have been the one downside. We lost our three away games in 2012 and this season has proved no different, losing away to Kildare, Tyrone, Cork and Mayo.
We did, however, have a good away record in our first league campaign under McGuinness, winning games in Celtic Park, Healy Park and Pairc Tailteann.
On Sunday laset Donegal had 14 of the 15 players that started in the All-Ireland final played in Castlebar, and Karl Lacey would have started had he been fit. Mayo named 11 of their starting side from September, and it was their regulars who stood out.
Kevin McLoughlin was allowed too much space in the first half to dictate proceedings, while Mayo’s midfield pairing of Seamie O’Shea and Barry Moran dominated the aerial exchanges.
For Donegal, it was hard to pick out a player who played anywhere near to their full capacity, and despite an early surge from Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden, both men struggled to get into the game.
The one beacon of hope for Donegal will be the performances of Ryan McHugh and Marty O’Reilly in the second-half. They played following their excellent victory for the under 21s against Tyrone, and an extended run for Maxi Curran’s charges in the competition, would provide an excellent platform for their development.
McGuinness continues to hold his stance that he is happy with the progress being made during the league despite four defeats, but there will be a number of factors of concern for him.
The concession of soft goals was one of the first things outlawed when the McGuiness regime first started. In the last two seasons, the Donegal defence has become recognisable for its rigidness and uncompromising manner.
However, against Kildare they were caught unaware for two goals. In the Tyrone game, Stephen O’Neill scored from a Neil McGee error, and against Mayo, Marty O’Reilly was turned over on the Mayo 13 metre line and seconds later the ball was in the net on the other side of the field.
The passing against Mayo was loose and that is something that has huge emphasis in the Donegal style; retaining possession is key. Indiscipline has also crept into Donegal’s play, with Anthony Thompson receiving a red card for two bookable offences. And worryingly, Donegal gave away five frees, which Mayo scored from.
This year’s league campaign has followed a very similar pattern to 2012, and once again, Donegal will go into the final round of matches with their Division 1 status still under threat.
Donegal have scored 74 points in six games this year, one point less than last year, and have conceded 74 points, fourteen points less than 2012.
Donegal play Dublin in their final game on Sunday eeek, and although Dublin have already qualified for the National League semi-finals, many of their players be out to impress new manager Jim Gavin.
Gavin has introduced a number of younger players to his panel, and competition for places is fierce, as they approach the start of the Leinster championship.
The Dublin game is now a must-win match for Donegal, and that may be the perfect preparation, as Donegal get ready for their Championship opener against Tyrone on May 26.
The final round of games see Kerry travel to take on Tyrone in Omagh; Mayo travel to Cork; Kildare travel to Down and Donegal at home to Dublin.
If Kerry lose, they are almost certainly relegated, as their points difference is 20 behind Donegal, and 22 behind Mayo.
If Donegal lose to Dublin, and Mayo and Kerry both win (or draw), Donegal will be relegated,
If Mayo lose to Cork, and Donegal and Kerry both win (or draw), Mayo will be relegated.
If Donegal lose to Dublin and Mayo lose to Cork, and Kerry win, then Donegal must lose by 3 points less than Mayo or they will be relegated.
If Donegal, Kerry and Mayo all win, then Kerry will have to make up 15 points on Cork, 20 points on Donegal and 22 points on Mayo.
Allianz National League Division One Table
P W L D F A Dif Pts
1 Dublin 6 5 1 0 116 75 +41 10
2 Tyrone 6 5 1 0 87 78 +9 10
3 Kildare 6 4 2 0 87 95 -8 8
4 Cork 6 3 3 0 81 86 -5 6
5 Mayo 6 2 4 0 82 80 +2 4
6 Donegal 6 2 4 0 74 74 0 4
7 Kerry 6 2 4 0 53 73 -20 4
8 Down 6 1 5 0 68 87 -19 2