Much has been made of the retirements by a raft of Donegal players in recent weeks. Odhran Mac Niallais, who is simply taking a year out, is the only player whose absence could have an impact on the Donegal team.
Anthony Thompson will be back after Easter. Leo McLoone was mainly used as a late substitute while Davy Walsh spent most of last year recovering from injury. The years have simply caught up with Rory Kavanagh, Eamon McGee and Christy Toye. They served their county impeccably during their careers. It’s always sad to see players opt out and retire but the time is well overdue that Donegal introduce some young blood and new faces. For me, it was a privilege to work with all of these players during my time on the medical team with Donegal.
Football and time moves on however. Despite our doubts about the entertainment value that Gaelic football now gives to the supporters, the vast majority of us are eagerly awaiting the start of the new season proper. Don’t expect any changes in respect of defensive team formations. I read a few different reports on the McKenna Cup final that took place between Tyrone and Derry last Saturday evening. Tyrone stifled Derry’s attack with a mass of players behind the ball. Derry were not accused of doing the same probably because they didn’t have the ball that often, if we are to read anything into the huge nine points margin that they were beaten by. So, first blood to Tyrone but they will know that this was a facile victory given that some of the Ulster teams disregarded the McKenna Cup competition by fielding weakened teams. Still, this wasn’t Tyrone’s fault and they will be delighted to have won their sixth successive McKenna Cup title.
Kerry are first up for Donegal, who will make the rare surge through the county and into Letterkenny. Donegal will be determined to get off to a winning start and I believe that our lads will do just that given that Kerry are slow starters in the National League.
Donegal have been preparing quietly but meticulously with a number of challenge games in recent weeks. Word emerging from the camp is that the lads are very positive and relishing the year ahead. Donegal fielded a near full-strength team against Mayo last weekend where a number of probable debutants for the Kerry game started. Rory Gallagher made the most of this game introducing another 15 players during the second half.
It will take a few games in the National league to find the right balance since competitive matches will reveal who is able to perform to the standard required to make the grade. There are many positives with this new-look Donegal team. We have to be patient and not be disappointed if immediate success doesn’t come our way.
Given that Kerry are a top four team, there will be no easing into this competition for Donegal. To win our home games is important and having the Kingdom at home is a great advantage. After playing Roscommon away in the next round, Donegal will host All-Ireland champions Dublin at home. Roscommon showed signs early in the season last year that they may have been a team to fear. They fell away badly in the latter part of the season and haven’t recovered. I feel that we can pick up both points from them also.
After a two-week interval, Donegal will host Dublin which has the makings of a terrific encounter. Tyrone and Monaghan will also have to come to Donegal which makes life that bit easier for us. The schedule is a favourable one but there will be no easy games for Donegal. Cavan, who were promoted along with Tyrone last season, will be keen to stay in Division 1. Former Tyrone player Mattie McGleenon, who has taken charge of the Breffni men, is a great manager and I feel that his presence will have a major influence on this young Cavan team. They may prove a difficult challenge for Donegal but I still feel that our lads will have too much for them.
After the public air of grievances within the Mayo set-up, it’s difficult to forecast how the current players will respond. One of the protagonists, Aidan O’Shea has been ruled out for the first few games on the league because of an ankle injury that he picked up playing basketball. Still, Mayo, too, will be eager to impress and get the ship steadied for the season ahead. We cannot forget that they contested last year’s All-Ireland final and will be a force to be reckoned with.
Playing in the top flight of Gaelic football is the only place to be. As you can see, all of Donegal’s opponents are good and great teams. To maintain division one status will be a difficult ask but our lads are well capable of meeting the challenge and progressing to the play-offs. We have four home games which is always a good advantage. Our young debutants will add energy and pace to our play. I would like to wish Rory Gallagher and his players all the best for the forthcoming year and, like all Donegal supporters, I am looking forward to the season ahead.
I would like to thank the Dungloe GAA club for having me as their guest of honour at their annual GAA celebration function at the beautifully appointed Waterfront Hotel in Dungloe. I also need to thank former county legend Adrian Sweeney, who filled in for Tony as my chaperone for the evening. Tony just about made the banquet for the prize-giving preferring to see out the last minutes of the Arsenal game at his home. Thanks also to Raymond and Myles Sweeney whom I forgot to mention in my speech.
Anyway, roll on Sunday. Dun na nGall Abu!