Usually it would be fairly easy to assess most National League campaigns. You find your feet in the first few games; then you get to the level of intensity and fitness you know you need for the summer ahead, and take it from there.
This year, however, it’s hard to know what Donegal team are going to show up. There's a bit of the Jekyll and Hyde going on. In the first three league games against Down, Cork and Mayo we were cruising. But four defeats in-a row have raised the same questions that came about after our defeat to Monaghan in last year’s Ulster final and our quarter-final defeat to Mayo.
Are we being naïve in still playing a blanket defence that more than often now is being broken down because teams regularly practice breaking down such tactics? When we played a more open attacking formation against Roscommon we were opened up like a knife through butter. When we were too defensive against Dublin we couldn’t get enough support for the players up front to score enough; against Kerry our discipline was not good enough and yes we might not have got many good calls on the day, but you have to learn to deal with that kind of stuff and move on.
The first three wins can be put into perspective with two of the teams being relegated and Mayo, under new management, finding their feet. While last Sunday’s defeat to Monaghan made very little difference in our standing in the league table or the fact we still qualified for the semi-finals, it was the manner in which we lost.
We started well; we were up a goal and four points after 20 minutes and they hadn’t scored; things were going good. All we needed to do was kill the game for the next five minutes and game over. We had enough experienced players on the field to know how to deal with the situation but we let them into it.
They got a new lease of life and came after us. We struggled with our tackling; our handling was not where it should be at this time of year and our decision-making on the ball was not good.
Could it be that we believed they would get their chance? Have the last few defeats by Monaghan put questions into our minds?
The second half is typical of what Monaghan have offered over the last few years; they never give in, they hang on to the last and if they get the chance they take it. In the second half we managed to kick two points, one from play; not near good enough and while we can sugar coat it all we want this was not good enough by anyone’s standards.
We could also point to the fact that we still only got beat by a point, but again this Monaghan side are nowhere near to what we can expect come the summer. Neither are we, but they have put another question in our heads and that was the reason we needed to make our mark last Sunday when we had the chance.
I have heard and talked about teams and managers not wanting to show their hands too soon. What happens come the championship and we have to play the same opposition? Do you think it will not play on the minds of some of the players? Of course it will, it’s human nature.
What now? How do we approach the game against Dublin on Sunday? Do we go to Croker and go at them and forget about being over defensive and maybe get a hammering? Or do we park the bus and try and beat them playing on the break?
In last year’s semi-final we played a very open, attacking game against Cork and they ran through us at their ease. It was grand last year because we had an early start to the championship so maybe it was important not to give away too much on how you were going to approach the championship. But this year is entirely different. If ever we needed a win to pick us up it’s this year. Five defeats in-a-row would not be a good way to go into the championship.
Nobody doubts that we don’t have the talent. There is no question in the commitment of the players and to be fair to the county board, everything that can be done for the players and the management team is being done. But we have got to get our act together and we need to start next Sunday. It’s one thing to be always preparing for the championship ahead, but winning matches is a habit and losing can become one too. It takes very little to put a team on a downward spiral. Losing games can drain the confidence of any player regardless of his talent and if it gets into the squad, it often takes a long time to move it on.
Sunday’s semi-final against Dublin takes on a whole new meaning and regardless if you have to park three buses in front of the Dubs, as long as you get the right result, so be it.
Look at Leicester City; they are still hanging on to the top spot in the Premiership. They're not playing the beautiful game anymore; they're winning games and winning ugly. Why? Because at the end of the day, you do what you have to do.