Michael Murphy will lead out Donegal in next Sunday’s opening round of the Ulster championship in Ballybofey. These are the games as a player you look forward to most. This is what you put in all that hard work for; living like a monk, eating all the things that will make you stronger, leaner, faster, and you just hope that you will give a good account of yourself on the day.
All the talk about the National League is just a distant memory. The loss to Mayo in Ballybofey and relegation to Division Two is something that can be put right in 2019. Sunday is the start of what will hopefully be a long journey to the Ulster final, Super Eights, All-Ireland semi-final. This is where the dream starts and this is where the questions have to be answered.
Much of what has been talked about in the last five to six weeks has been extremely negative. What would relegation mean going forward in the championship? The truth is while some supporters might not believe it, the league is just the league; it’s the warm up to the championship. If you play club or county, the championship is what it is all about. That’s the way it has always been and I don’t see it changing for many years to come.
Another negative has been the emphasis placed on county players playing for their clubs throughout the month of April. I am sure it went on in every other county as well, but this constant reporting of whether a county player played is bordering on harassment. These are amateur players who are supposed to be free to do as they feel. Nobody, neither club or county, has any hold on them. Yet when they do go out and play for their club or Donegal we expect them to put their bodies on the line.
Last week in the Sunday Independent, Joe Brolly talked about the security firm making sure that nobody got to see Donegal senior team training in Belfast; it bordered on sarcastic. As if everyone knows how Donegal were going to play. Donegal again the butt of the joke. Did he mention he could go and watch Dublin, Kerry or Mayo at the drop of a hat? Not likely. And if we are brutally honest, every county in the country playing football employ the same tactics; whether they originated in Ulster or Munster is neither here nor there, every manager, trainer and coach follow the crowd because they know it is what works at the present moment.
Any way, back to the game. What can we expect? Cavan come to Ballybofey after a successful league campaign, winning promotion to Division One and only losing narrowly to Roscommon in the Division Two final. They will come with confidence and will have an idea that Donegal, in transition, could be there for the taking.
Mattie McGleenan has been around the game long enough to know how to deal with coming to Ballybofey for a championship match. He will have his players well tutored in knowing what to expect and he will know Donegal’s strengths and weaknesses just as Declan Bonner and his management team will know what Cavan are about.
Many of the experts will tell you that you need to have your homework done on the opposition and to a fair degree that is important but for me the most important thing for Declan Bonner and his players are they get themselves in the right place.
I have no doubt the players have worked extremely hard both on fitness and on their game plan since the end of the National League. The dent in confidence of relegation will I have, no doubt, being long extinguished since the Mayo game. The niggling injuries that players would have carried through the National League would have cleared up by now and the players will have looked forward to this day since the draw was made.
They will be nervous; so will the Cavan players. Donegal will rely again on Michael Murphy, Leo McLoone, Ryan McHugh and Paddy McBrearty for not only in terms of what they take to the game as players but the experience they have built up over the years. They will know when to slow the game down; they will keep the younger lads on their toes and tell them what to expect And when they need to step up they will sense it.
Discipline will be extremely important. As it will be televised the referee and his officials will be under extreme pressure not to miss anything that might appear on the Sunday Game that night. Players have to be committed to the tackle but at the same time know when to hold back. Just as players, managers and supporters are tense, so are officials.
Last year’s defeat by Tyrone has left a brave scar on Donegal football, but I have no doubt this group of players will want to put that wrong right; they will want another go at Tyrone in this year’s Ulster championship and the only way they can do that is by taking care of business come Sunday.
It’s time for the summer to begin.