Time to encourage rather than criticise Donegal's young guns

THE SPORTING DIARY with Peter Campbell

Time to encourage rather than criticise Donegal's young guns

No need for doom and gloom

Looking at the line-ups ahead of Sunday’s game between Donegal and Kerry in O’Donnell Park, and especially after news filtered through that Neil McGee was out, the final scoreline of 2-17 to 1-17 in favour of Kerry would have been very acceptable.

The scoreline, however, was flattering to Donegal, but there is no need for doom and gloom. There has to be an acceptance that Donegal are going through the biggest transition since the break-up of the 1992 All-Ireland winning team towards the end of the 1990s.

There will be defeats along the way as the new brigade learn the ropes. Starting against Kerry at home would normally have been a preferred route, but Kerry 2017 seem intent on making the league final and with no semi-finals this year, they sent their best available team north to Letterkenny and they looked sharp.

It was a baptism of fire for some of Donegal’s young guns, especially around the middle of the field. Coupled with Rory Gallagher trying to introduce a new game plan of playing a more open, attacking brand of football, it was always going to be a difficult proposition.

Kerry play the ball forward with long foot passes; Donegal (mostly) tried to run the ball forward. They had considerable success at times, especially in the final quarter. Comparing the styles, Kerry were much more successful, especially in the first three quarters when the game was competitive.

It would be great to see Donegal adopt the Kerry style of long foot passes, but then possibly only Michael Murphy has that skill. It may well be necessary to play the captain at midfield for the remainder of the league in a mentoring role for the young recruits. The likes of Jason McGee and Michael Langan could really learn the game at this level playing close to the captain.

Hopefully, Neil McGee will be back on Sunday for the trip to Roscommon. Like Murphy, McGee could have a huge role this year in mentoring some of the new defenders. Eoghan Ban Gallagher had a really good game in Letterkenny, while Caolan Ward, even though thrown in at the deep end at full-back in place of McGee, came through it very well and was one of Donegal’s best performers. His pace and aggression in attacking the ball would be of even greater benefit from the half-back line.

Donegal will need a better kick-out strategy for Sunday next and if they are going to try and break ball at midfield, then they are going to have to get bodies in to win the breaks. That was the area where the game was won and lost on Sunday. David Moran and Co. were able to win possession easily and also had time to give the perfect supply to the front men.

I would be happy if Donegal could remain competitive for the remainder of the league. They have really tough home fixtures, and there will also be additional pressure on the panel when the U-21 championship begins in March. And then you have the club leagues beginning in March also. No wonder players are so annoyed at the way fixtures are laid out.

Sunday was a lovely day for the opening of the league and O’Donnell Park must have hosted its biggest ever crowd. The official attendance of 6,320 does not include U-16s, so you can estimate that there were 8,000 there at least. Indeed, with over 15,000 in Kingspan Breffni Park and around 10,000 at Healy Park, Omagh and McHale Park, Castlebar (on Saturday night), it must have been one of the biggest ever supported opening weekends in Division One.

Hopefully, many of that Donegal support will travel to the revamped Hyde Park on Sunday next because these young Donegal players need support. If anyone wants to criticise the efforts of any of these young guns, have a quiet word in their ear. What they need at this very early stage in their careers is encouragement. Just remember, most of these young lads were back in the gym on Monday evening and out on the pitch in Convoy on Tuesday evening - all wanting to give their best for Donegal on Sunday next. It is a huge commitment, and we should acknowledge that.