The final table of the Allianz National Football League sees Donegal miss out on a final appearance by a score difference of three points.
Donegal were in third place, but level on points with Kerry, Monaghan and Mayo. Kerry’s seven point win over Tyrone along with Donegal’s two point defeat in Castlebar, put the Kingdom through on a +13 difference as against Donegal’s +10.
It was that close. At one stage midway through the second half of the final round of games, it was heading for a Donegal-Monaghan league final, but then Dublin finally opened up Monaghan for two goals to turn the tide in that game, while in Castlebar, Aidan O’Shea came on to cause Donegal to lose their cool and their four point lead.
Donegal will have plenty to ponder over the course of the seven games in 10 weeks. A poor opening performance against Kerry was rescued a little by hitting 0-9 in the final quarter.
Lucky to get the full league points in Dr. Hyde Park (thanks to Roscommon going for goal when a point was there for the taking, and Eoin McHugh hitting the winner within seconds), Donegal have shown snatches of some very good football against Dublin, Cavan, Tyrone, Monaghan and Mayo.
With such a young squad, Rory Gallagher will be pleased that his team showed an improvement with each game against the top teams in the country. It was a great learning experience, and even on Sunday last, they looked a much better team than Mayo. It was just a lack of composure and discipline which were their undoing in front of a hostile crowd in Castlebar.
There were many, with a number of ‘new’ players really performing to a consistent high level. Ciaran Thompson finished with 0-19 (0-16 from play). He was a revelation, scoring in every game, with the highlight his 0-5 in Kingspan Breffni Park.
Eoghan Bán Gallagher was equally impressive, despite having a huge workload in recent weeks with the U-21s. He has cemented a championship place. Jason McGee, who turned 19 just before the Dublin game, will be more than happy with his performances. There was a hiccup with his shoulder injury which saw him miss a couple of games, but he looks a real midfield prospect.
Cian Mulligan missed the early part of the campaign due to injury, but he has made a huge impact in the three games he was involved. He was a quality minor for the county and looks another great prospect.
Jamie Brennan has had probably the toughest role, something of a lone front role. He will have learned a lot from the seven games. So too will Michael Carroll, who is still only 19.
Caolan Ward had a great start to the campaign and was unlucky to pick up a quad injury which has curtailed him. Hopefully, he will be injury free for championship.
The other positives were the consistency of a big number of players like Paddy McGrath, Frank McGlynn, Martin O’Reilly and especially Ryan McHugh. One felt that if Ryan McHugh had been on the field in Castlebar, Donegal would be in Croke Park this Sunday.
Michael Murphy has been given a new role around midfield and nobody could argue that this is where Donegal need him at this stage, especially with so many of the old guard of midfielders in retirement.
One other statistic which will be of interest is that Donegal had 18 different scorers during the campaign, with a big number of scores from open play.
One of the remarkable aspects of the 2017 Allianz National League has been the attendances at games. Donegal’s four home games had ‘official’ combined attendances of over 30,000. And in most cases that doesn’t include season ticket holders and U-16s.
Even on Sunday last, there were over 14,000 in Castlebar and over 13,000 in Clones. It seems that supporters were very happy with the fare on view in the league.
Donegal have six weeks from Sunday next to their first round Ulster Championship game against Antrim in Ballybofey. They head to New York next week as part of the preparation.
They have tested themselves against the best and know that they have been competitive against them. However, as they say, it was only the league.
But no matter what happens this summer, it has been an exciting and fruitful seven league games for Donegal.
An interesting fact from the Mayo v Donegal match programme on Sunday in Castlebar. Since the introduction of the Qualifiers in GAA, only one county with a population of less than 100,000 has made the All-Ireland semi-final.
Just goes to show that size matters much more now since the Qualifiers were introduced. In the 25 years prior to the introduction of the Qualifiers in 2001, the likes of Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon and Sligo qualified for semi-finals by virtue of winning their provincial titles. Since the Qualifiers, Monaghan, Laois and Westmeath have won provincial titles but have not made it to the last four.
By the way, the one county with the population of less than 100,000 that reached the last four was Fermanagh in 2004, under our own Charlie Mulgrew.