End of an era
Donegal’s exit from the championship was not unexpected but there was a certain amount of pride for Donegal supporters as they left Croke Park on Saturday evening. They had watched their team give everything, but it was not to be.
In some respects there was a good margin between Donegal and Dublin, but you would have liked to see how they would have fared if their paths to the quarter-final were swapped. It might not have altered the outcome, but let’s paint the picture.
On Sunday, June 12th Donegal played Fermanagh at home. Six days earlier Dublin accounted for Laois in Nowlan Park (June 6th). To reach the quarter-final, Donegal had to play Monaghan (twice), Tyrone and Cork, all tough games.
On the other hand, Dublin had a three week break before a game with Meath and then another three week break before playing Westmeath in the Leinster final, before another three week break and last Saturday’s meeting with Donegal.
Three weeks before each game, while Donegal played five games in six weeks. The chips were always stacked against Rory Gallagher’s side.
They could have cashed them in when Dublin went 0-11 to 0-4 up early in the second half, but they fought to the end and although it never looked like they could bridge the gap, they made Dublin sweat a little.
Afterwards, we had the announcement of the retirements of Colm Anthony McFadden and Eamon McGee and the hint of retirement from Rory Kavanagh. There may be others who are considering their position, and they should be given that personal space to make their own decisions.
The statistic of a record 173 games and 25 goals and 438 points for Colm McFadden in a Donegal jersey is a remarkable return. He really flourished under Jim McGuinness and was pivotal in Donegal winning their second All-Ireland in 2012. But the one characteristic which I will always remember Colm McFadden for is his modesty. He seemed to be the same in victory and defeat and certainly didn’t display any ego that someone with his scoring record might be so inclined to do. There were days when things didn’t go his way, but he never seemed to let it affect him. Remember the U-21 Championship game in Clones when he was top scorer, but was substituted before half-time, and then asked to go back on in the final minutes. Many players would have been togged back out and maybe on their way home, but not Colm. It would be fitting if he were to add a Donegal Senior Club Championship medal to the impressive tally which he possesses.
Eamon McGee has been threatening to score goals at the end of his career, one which he can be very happy with. Arguably the most talented of the McGee clan, Eamon would probably agree that he didn’t take his football all that seriously for a good part of his career. But, like many of the squad, he knuckled down under Jim McGuinness and produced some of his best football in his latter years. Indeed, many would feel that he deserved one of the three All-Stars won by little brother, Neil - especially in All-Ireland winning year, 2012.
But apart from the All-Star, Eamon has won most of the medals available, and no doubt he has a career ahead of him in the media, especially social media! His ability to converse, both on and off the field, is legendary.
Any critique of the year would say that Donegal came up short. The main target was an Ulster final and I’m sure if Rory Gallagher and his management team had that game to play again, they might do some things differently - especially in the second half. But all managers would like that opportunity; I’m sure Mickey Harte would like a re-run of Saturday’s other quarter-final and allow his side to be a bit more attack-minded; Jim McGuinness, no doubt, would like to have another go at the 2014 All-Ireland final.
If Saturday’s games proved one thing, it is that being overly defensive is not going to cut the mustard anymore. Teams like Dublin, Mayo and Kerry have adapted to the Ulster way and know that by being patient and disciplined, they can find a way.
When Donegal took the game to Dublin, it was a different story altogether. Likewise when Tyrone went at Mayo. Going forward, the emphasis on attack has to be much greater. And we have the nucleus of a team that can play on the front foot - Ryan McHugh is as good as any in Ireland at the moment at that; Eoin McHugh, as I predicted, has made the step up; Martin O’Reilly, Paddy McGrath, Ciaran Gillespie all have the pace to make an impact.
And we have plenty more young players to come in. Ciaran Thompson looked at home in his first game in the white heat of Croke Park. It was just a pity that more were not tried/trusted earlier in the campaign.
But while there was disappointment at not getting past the last eight, there has to be optimism for the years ahead.
New championship plans
And what of the plans by Croke Park to bring in a Group system for the last eight in the championship and add two extra games before reaching the semi-final stages.
At first glance it looks like it would make a fairer contest for the eight teams that reach that stage.
It it is all so obvious that the system as it stands is unfair. But, as one observer wrote in a Sunday newspaper, looking for a solution at the quarter-final stage is starting from the wrong place.
Having a round-robin series of games for two groups in the last eight is perfectly fair. But the elephant remains in the room. The big problem remains - and that is that the provincial championships are totally imbalanced.
Croke Park may tinker with the system, but unless they take the bull by the horns, they will never get a championship that is fair.
If this new group system is passed by Congress (and I have serious doubts about it getting a two thirds majority) then there would be a big decision to be made by Donegal and Ulster teams at the start of each year. If you were serious about winning the Sam Maguire then it would be in your interest to forget about winning the Anglo Celt and just prepare for the Qualifiers.
That would be a tough decision to take, but it is a reality.
The group games in the last eight would be where it would be at, with a huge spotlight on these games as regards TV rights, etc. The championship would really begin at that stage, something akin to the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Players - and at the end of the day, they are the most important pawns in this game - would want to be playing in August.
Maybe the Croke Park proposal has taken that into account. They know that they could never remove the provincial championships because it would be like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. Have they found a way to sideline the provincial championships without actually axing them?
It is not often that Donegal hosts a national competition, but this weekend at the Lakeside in Ballyshannon, some 2,000 rowers will take to Assaroe Lake, to contest the various races in the All-Ireland Coastal Rowing Championships.
Every bed from Sligo to Drimarone has been booked with teams from nearly every coastal county competing.
It is something of a coup for the Donegal Bay Rowing Club and the venue at the Lakeside in Ballyshannon is ideal for competitors and spectators.
The action begins on Friday afternoon at 2.30 and continues on Sunday evening. There is free admission. It could be well worth a visit.