Donegal gave their best display of the season so far last Saturday evening in a rain soaked and wind swept MacCumhaill Park. A large expectant crowd from across the border made the short journey to the market town hoping for a Tyrone victory to maintain their top standing in Division 1 of the National Football League. There was more than just points at stake in this game. Besides the bragging rights, there is the probability that Donegal and Tyrone will meet in the Ulster championship semi-final in the summer.
The final score line and performances of both teams would suggest that Donegal are in a great place while Tyrone are in a bit of bother. June 18th, the date when these two sides should meet again, gives Tyrone 12 weeks to make up a deficit of six points, the margin of victory the Donegal team had over them in Ballybofey last weekend. Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors but the Tyrone team looked lethargic and were simply unable to keep up with the pace of Donegal’s passing and fluency. The conditions were appalling for football. However, our lads adapted and coped magnificently. Rory Gallagher and his players will be delighted with the team’s application and fitness against the favourites for the Ulster championship and muted contenders for a challenge at the All-Ireland this season. It is still early to be speculating but we can only comment on what is put before us.
I like the balance in the Donegal team. We were all a bit concerned at the retirement of Neil Gallagher and the absence of Odhran Mac Niallais, both vital mid-field players. Ciaran Thompson has slotted into that area with ease. His scoring from distance has been one of the outstanding features of his play.
There seems to be a great understanding between the Donegal players in respect of their roles on the pitch. Our full-back line has solidified since Neil McGee’s return. Paddy McGrath even got on the scoring sheet at a vital stage in the game. Frank ‘the tank’ McGlynn was superb in the first half at centre-half back but retired at half-time with a hamstring strain. Ryan McHugh is even better than he was last season and will become one the ‘greats’ in Donegal football if he already isn’t at such a young age. Marty O’Reilly has come of age and is excelling in the Donegal outfit these days. It’s great to see Hugh McFadden and Eamonn Doherty get their chance because I believe you won’t see two more honest players than Hugh and Eamonn.
What can one say about Michael Murphy that hasn’t already been said? Murphy is in the shape of his life and his enthusiasm for the game is commendable. He is a great ambassador for Donegal and for our youngsters. His displays to date have been of the highest standard. Tyrone had to withdraw Justin McMahon last Saturday evening after getting dizzy shadowing Murphy.
The other Donegal players, mostly the newcomers, are adapting well to the cut and thrust of senior inter-county football. Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Eoin McHugh are the real deal and playing really well in the league. Michael Carroll, Jamie Brennan, Paul Brennan and Cian Mulligan are finding their feet at this level but they, too, will come through. Two players who were introduced into the fray were Martin McElhinney and Mark McHugh. They are both very experienced and have plenty of years ahead of them yet. They will play vital roles for us when the business end of the season arrives. It does look as though they will have to fight for their places though which is a great headache for team manager Rory Gallagher. Had Patrick McBrearty been playing last Saturday, Donegal in all probability would have won by more.
We have great pace in the team with players like the Eoin and Ryan McHugh and Marty O’Reilly. The energy provided by the fresh faces has revitalised the more mature players. All credit must be given Rory Gallagher for his foresight and trust in his system. For the neutral, it may not be pretty to watch at times but as I’ve stated here often that the game has evolved and we must accept that. Nobody will be getting carried away just yet especially Rory Gallagher but the future looks bright.
At the time of writing the result of the U-21 replay isn’t known but I expect Declan Bonner’s young charges to beat Tyrone in Ballybofey. There is a crop of players there too which will be fighting for their senior places in the not too distant future. There is every chance now that Donegal will contest the League final. Monaghan come to Ballyshannon this Sunday hoping on the back of a strong win against Roscommon last weekend. They always seem to cause problems for Donegal but we have a great chance to put this hoodoo to bed once and for all on Sunday. There’s no love lost between these two teams and I expect Monaghan to play on the edge as they always do. Tyrone easily disposed of the Farney men a few weeks ago and there’s no reason why we cannot do the same given the current form of this Donegal team.
The three best teams in Ulster are Donegal, Tyrone and Monaghan and that was before even a ball was kicked this year. At the moment, Donegal are showing the best form of the three and I expect that our form will continue on Sunday. This will put us in great shape for our visit to Mayo on Sunday week. We are riding on the crest of a wave just now and I feel that things will only get better.
Dun na nGall Abu!