Donegal winning with maturity . . . now for Tyrone

Two weeks into the National League campaign last year Donegal had completed their first two games back in Division One and they had registered two defeats - away to Down and home to Laois.

Two weeks into the National League campaign last year Donegal had completed their first two games back in Division One and they had registered two defeats - away to Down and home to Laois.

There were some so-called supporters beginning to wonder where were Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher taking Donegal.

Twelve months on and the story is oh so different. One of the best league crowds seen at a Donegal home game in quite a while turned up in MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey on Saturday evening and were well rewarded with Donegal, in the end, having an easy victory over Down. They are much further advanced than the same period last year and also have two league points on the board.

Saturday’s game - never mind what Jim McGuinness might say publicly - would have been targeted as one that was a must-win game. The Glenties maestro says that the league doesn’t matter, but that will not stop him preparing properly for each game. And when you prepare properly the percentages are on your side.

Donegal’s preparation is now a work of perfection - and that is the same for every game. Remember their motto: Only perfect practice makes perfect.

While Donegal have got into their stride much quicker than last year, it is obvious that there are some aspects of their game that they are still working on.

But it is remarkable and a credit to all concerned that despite having their celebrations of winning the All-Ireland in the run up to Christmas and then having their well-earned holiday in Dubai, that the players are in such remarkable physical condition.

Talking to St. Michael’s clubman Mick McColgan in the hotel before the Kildare game in Croke Park, he remarked that Colm McFadden was around two stone lighter when weighed at the start of the year this time around. McFadden, to be fair, was troubled by a back injury during last winter and didn’t return to league action until early March.

I think I have already recounted a story of overhearing two Kerry players discuss the merits of McFadden’s fitness after the game in Killarney last March. The St. Michael’s sharpshooter had answered his Kerry critics by September, finishing top scorer in the championship.

Despite having a hamstring strain, he showed on Saturday night that he very close to being back to his best, and that is important to take the pressure off Michael Murphy.

While Donegal were far from clinical on Saturday night last, there were so many positives to take from the game that few supporters left MacCumhaill Park without a smile on their face. Indeed, it was great to see so many youngsters take to the field immediately after the game to watch their heroes warm down.

Ryan McHugh’s ability or confidence was never in doubt, but even he could hardly have dreamed of having such a perfect debut. His only deficit is in the physical stakes, but that is something that he can work on.

The same is true of Ross Wherity, who may need to bulk up a little for the modern game, but he will take much from Saturday night’s encounter. With each passing moment, his confidence grew and he has put himself in the picture.

There were plenty of other positives as well, not least the pure class of Eamon McGee in the full-back role. Can you imagine a Donegal defence without the McGee brothers. Neil has been taking the plaudits over the last few years, but we always knew that Eamon had the class to make a huge input and, thankfully, we are getting the rewards now.

With Eamon commanding the ‘square’, it allows The Tank (Neil) to play a role in driving Donegal forward with his great supporting runs.

On Saturday night last Donegal were much more in tune with their running patterns than the previous week in Croke Park. Players were turning up on the shoulder looking to take the ball at pace; Declan Walsh, Anthony Thompson and Neil McGee being great examples while Mark McHugh was a conduit for possession throughout the game. Thompson looks close to being the fittest player on the panel, such was the number of gut bursting runs he was able to make.

We have come to expect Rory Kavanagh to go on his solo runs, gliding through gaps almost seamlessly and he was poetry in motion again, even on a sticky MacCumhaill Park, and the finish for his second half point was as good as any score at the Ballybofey venue in any league game.

Ryan Bradley, too, was almost back to his best, shrugging off defenders like shaking snow off a rope. The Buncrana man is a vital cog in the panel, so much so that, like Neil Gallagher, when he is missing, there is a gap left behind that is hard to fill.

And what about Michael Murphy. The Glenswilly man is in such a rich vein of form that you would like to take him away and wrap him in cotton wool until that vital game with Tyrone on May 26th. He must be managed with great care over the next few weeks as he has a punishing schedule with College, Province and County. He is due to play in the Sigerson Cup quarter-final today against UCD; he is in the Ulster panel (and almost certain to be full-forward on Joe Kernan’s team) that plays Munster in the Interprovincial semi-final at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh on Sunday.

When you factor in a possible Sigerson Cup semi-final and final the following Friday and Saturday and a possible Interprovincial final on February 24th, it could be a very busy 11 days for Murphy. All of Donegal will be hoping that he is used with care by the various managers. I’m sure Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher will have more than a passing interest on the issue.

The gentle giant of Donegal football, Neil Gallagher, made a very welcome return from injury on Saturday night and in doing so played his 100th game for the county. He did so without any fuss, and that is the way he would want it. Neil doesn’t do fuss. But, like a number of key players, Donegal only know his real value when he is not on the pitch.

Overall, it has been a good start to the campaign. The next outing, away to Tyrone, is now a mouthwatering prospect and expect to see a bumper attendance in Healy Park, Omagh on March 3rd.

What are we to expect? Jim McGuinness says Donegal will prepare the same as they do for every other game. The result will not be important. I’m sure Mickey Harte would say the same.

The result may not be overly important, but there will be areas that both managers will be working on. I’m sure Mickey Harte will be making plans for Michael Murphy. Likewise, Jim McGuinness will be working on a plan to look after Tyrone’s key player, Stephen O’Neill.

But it will all be done with both eyes firmly on their Ulster quarter-final clash 12 weeks from that March Sunday.