If you’re a meteorologist, spring begins on 1st March. If you’re an astronomer, it’s 1st February. I’m neither but, astronomically speaking O’Donnell Park in Letterkenny it was spring. A huge crowd descended on the outskirts of the Cathedral last Sunday for Donegal’s opening league game against Kerry. The weather was calm. The bright sun had burned off the early morning mist which still lingered in the hills and valleys which surround lovely Letterkenny. The conditions were great for a Sunday stroll but perfect for a football match.
The expectant gathering of Donegal supporters were keen to view our new talent. From my vantage point it was difficult to make out the players because of the sharp piercing sun. With the help of other collaborating onlookers, a consensus was reached after each play who the player or players were involved.
But for a brief spell at the outset, it was Kerry who dominated. Like them or loathe them, they were a joy to watch as they breached the Donegal defence with slick sharp passing moves. When the Donegal management and squad sit down and do their video analysis, they will have noted how Kerry midfielder David Moran dictated the game with long diagonal kick passes into his full-forward line. This is how any midfielder should play.
Our midfield players will have learned so much from this point alone. When we did gain possession in this sector, we were often reluctant to employ the same tactic, preferring instead to walk the ball into a scoring area. When we did eventually reach the danger zone, Kerry had funnelled back and nullified our chances. During the first half, it was Michael Murphy and Marty O’Reilly versus Kerry. We weren’t basically able to cope with Kerry’s strength and fluency.
Donegal were short a number of players and the fact that Neil McGee cried off just before the game with a vomiting bug didn’t help matters. It must be remembered that Kerry were without a number of players also. With this performance, it seems that the Kingdom have plenty of emerging talents of their own.
A very well GAA educated Kerry supporter standing beside me said that 21-year-old corner forward Jack Savage is going to be the next big star in Kerry. He contributed three points on the day and his full-forward colleagues of James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney amassed another 2-7 between them.
This was certainly a baptism of fire for Donegal’s new recruits which seemed unfair for a first game. Most matches will not be as tough as this one though. Kerry came to Donegal to make a statement. They mean business this season since some of their older players will make this their last assault on the Sam Maguire.
Rory Gallagher is a wise man and he will know that Kerry are a top team but that many lessons will have been learned. Two regulars on the Donegal team, Paddy McGrath and Frank Glynn had to make way during the game due to injury which meant that Gallagher probably had to introduce more new blood than expected.
It was great to see Buncrana’s Darach O’Connor back in the colours after a long absence. All of Donegal’s new faces can be satisfied with their performances given that we were so understrength on the day. It was to Donegal’s credit that only a score separated the teams at the end. It’s hard to know if Kerry took the foot off the pedal or that Donegal raised their performance in the second half. The damage was already done in the first half though. Nobody can be too hard on our players especially those fellas who made their senior inter-county debuts. Donegal suffered a few beatings from Kerry down the years and last Sunday’s will only serve to add resolve to this new-look group. We are going to take the odd hit here and there which is to be expected as our debutants getup to speed with senior inter-county football.
There are many positives from last Sunday. Our lads never gave up chasing and working as a unit. Donegal could have collapsed during the tide of Kerry pressure but the players have to be given credit for a spirited comeback. We scored 1-17 which would be enough most days to get a team over the line. Although we dallied a bit in the first half, Donegal played a slicker and pacier brand of football in the second period. Even though our full-back line came under serious pressure when Kerry attacked I thought that our three lads marshalled one of the best full-forward lines in the country very well.
As the National League progresses there will be plenty of positive competition for places. Rory Gallagher can be well pleased with his players. There wasn’t a negative word from anyone as we shuffled out of O’Donnell Park. There was only enthusiasm and praise for the lads. We have to respect the Kerry team who put in a great performance and as a Gaelic supporter I had to admire their skill and efficiency. I thought that the referee Maurice Deegan did not give us the proper calls at times but this is not an excuse for losing. We were simply second best.
After finishing so strongly against Kerry, Donegal will relish this Sunday’s game against Roscommon in Dr. Hyde Park. Tyrone easily beat the Rossies last Sunday which will give Donegal great hope for our first away game. Roscommon fell away badly last season after a promising start. Their form doesn’t seem to have improved which is good news for us. Having a game so soon is good, so I hope that Donegal will carry on from where they left off last Sunday.
Let’s be patient and as always keep the faith!