Gerry McLaughlin email@example.com @dgldemocrat
Rory Gallagher takes Donegal into Ulster Championship battle for the third time as manager on Sunday last and that elusive Ulster crown under his stewardship is likely to be his only focus.
But any talk of an Ulster final will be kept to private conversations. The total focus is on the visit of Antrim to MacCumhaill Park on Sunday next.
Because of the introduction of so many U-21 players at the start of this year, there are comparisons being made with the new beginning in 2011 under Jim McGuinness.
Gallagher is happy that the newcomers have made a good start.
“We have had a reasonably successful league campaign from the point of view of producing good performances, didn’t win all the games.
“But the performance level was reasonably good and this is a totally different Donegal climate in the county than there was in 2011.
“There is a confidence with the younger fellows, there has been reasonable success and there is a winning mentality and that wasn’t there in 2011”.
And this new group of Donegal skyscrapers like Jason McGee, Michael Langan, Michael Carroll, Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Kieran Gillespie and Rory Carr (when the latter two recover from long term injury) has the benefit of a very good NFL campaign where they came within an ace of reaching a League final.
“We went into the League wondering a bit about whether we could mix it at this level with so many young players.
"There is a very big difference between delivering at minor and U-21 level and at senior football.
“It is a massive leap from league to championship also.
“And when we re-grouped before Christmas, it was for the championship we were focused on.
“The league can be very exciting.
“Dublin lost the league final but I don’t think they will go home all that worried about it.
“Kerry won it, they won’t be that excited about it, they will move on and take 'the learnings' from it just like ourselves”.
And Gallagher is blessed with some considerable physique to boost the county’s challenge for honours.
“We struggled in in the middle of the park for a number of years and it has been stop start for Big Neil (Gallagher) for a number of years.
“And with Rory Kavanagh retiring and Ryan Bradley going away, those were three terrific players and terrific battlers.
“We have taken a number of big players and are fortunate that they have been very good at underage over the past few years.
“We feel that physically we had lost out in the air and were not getting enough possession of the ball and we are trying to change that.
“I think these lads acquitted themselves very well in the league.
“I think that any of the games we lost, it was not because we did not have enough of the ball, it might have been that we did not use it well enough.
“But there is no doubt, that to be able to play the top teams, you need that physical presence in the middle of the field.
“Jason McGee is a huge man and is not a player that we have had in Donegal for many years.
“Michael Langan has played in the middle of the field as well and I feel we are well equipped in the physical stakes.
“We also have Ciaran Thompson and Michael Carroll may not be quite as tall but are very capable in the air.
“I think we are fairly well off in that department.
“These lads have an awful lot of natural development to do”.
Another bonus for Gallagher around midfield is the return to form after sustained niggling injuries of Martin McElhinney.
“He is a huge asset and is a very exciting player.
“When he gets the ball he is very direct and he makes things happen.
“That is a big thing for us and Martin has been in Dublin for the past five to seven years.
“But he got transferred in mid March to Buncrana and over the last five weeks you can see a massive improvement in his fitness.
“He is not as stiff from being in the car for three and a half hours, he is fully integrated and we are looking forward to a good summer from him”.
NEW CHAMPIONSHIP ERA
According to Gallagher next Sunday will mark the dawn of a new championship era for Donegal.
For, a new team with a “new style” will be taking the field in a very different situation from the nervy side that squeezed past Antrim under Jim McGuinness six years ago.
“It is a new team and there is going to be a lot of championship debutants”, Rory Gallagher revealed.
That infamous tedious affair on a muggy Sunday in 2011, drew the wrath of the usual suspects like Pat Spillane and caused McGuinness to publicly defend the then man of the match Ryan Bradley following a torrent of criticism.
“I remember the game and it was an unbelievably dour game and any criticism that came in was justified.
“It was a terrible game, we did not perform, we were riddled with nerves, and I remember that well.
“Antrim did not play well, Mark McHugh scored a goal and we won by six points”.
But, for Gallagher, that is all in the past and Sunday is the start of another exciting championship journey.
“Since the start of the year there has been a different approach from ourselves,
“There has been a different approach as a group, as management, as players to the way things were done a few years ago.
“We had an ageing team, a team with a few miles on the clock, a team with a lot of knock and with a lot of boys with other commitments.
“But we are now back to square one to before Christmas and we now have 38 players who have all worked equally as hard.
“There has been nobody with a late start and feel we have worked very hard as a group”, he said.
‘There has been a lot of time and effort put into it and I feel we have done an awful lot of quality work.
“It is a new team, there’s going to be a lot of championship debutants.
“There is going to be a lot of players with not a lot of caps as such under their belts as such and thus it is going to be a relatively new start”.
So will next Sunday give Donegal a chance to show that they are no longer the dour team that overcame Antrim six years ago?
“With the amount of Kerry men on the Sunday Game we could get a lot of criticism”, he quipped.
“I would like to think that six years on we would perform a lot better, that we won’t be as nervous.
“I would like to think that we could put our best foot forward," said Gallagher.