Donegal’s rich potential must include ruthless ambition
FROM feast to famine. A week ago there were seven championship matches, with at least one in each province.
If Wicklow and Louth had not drawn there would only be one football game in the country today, Donegal v Armagh. Leitrim and London play the other match in Ruislip.
What this demonstrates clearly is the need for one overall authority to fix matches or, at the very least, much closer co-operation between the four provincial councils. Each Sunday around this time should have one really big game. On top of that there should be much greater use of Saturday evenings when there is a glut of fixtures.
A match at six o’clock on Saturday evening would attract a big crowd and the players would be delighted with a night on the town. It is also attractive for clubs, as they could have a Sunday without distraction and county panel members, if not players, could turn out with the clubs.
One of the worst things in the world is to be on a county panel and not to have any chance of a game. These players don’t get club or county football, many just rot on the bench and often need to send back their photo to the club just to let them know they have not run away and joined the circus. They are not seen or heard of for months in some cases and when they return to their clubs are often useless as they lack match practice.
One player I know who was a sub on the county team was then dropped by his club team because his form was so bad. In a fit of depression he decided to see a shrink and told him in general terms he was going through a crisis of confidence. The shrink advised him to take up some healthy pastime like football which would build up his self-worth. He took up drinking instead for a while but is now back playing very well at club level. So good, in fact, he was asked back on the county panel. He declined the invitation.
Today we will get a chance to see if league form has any significance for the championship when champions Donegal begin the long march. Last Sunday in Salthill, with a stiff Atlantic breeze, league finalists Mayo were blown away by Galway in a manner which surprised me and I suspect many of the Galway players too.
There was not much love lost between these old rivals either. Galway were more aggressive than for a long time and Mayo forgot that all is fair in love and war. And this was a right battle. Mayo surrendered tamely, whether to live to fight another day or merely an acceptance that rebuilding will take time remains to be seen.
Galway will be very pleased that their best players were Damian Burke and Cormac Bane, two men who would not be widely known. Joe Bergin and Derek Savage were also impressive, a nice blend of old and new. Burke’s shoulder on Ciarán McDonald when he arrived for active service set the tone for Galway’s second-half display. There is nothing like flattening the golden boy on the opposition side with a fair wallop to get a team and their supporters going.
Donegal will be wary now about their standing, having seen how Mayo collapsed. After all, it took Donegal all their time to beat Mayo in the league final. That was a win they celebrated — and proper order. There are enough bad days in football that the good ones should be enjoyed. A slight problem in the past was the suspicion that some Donegal players liked a drink or 20 and the truth should never stand in the way of a good story.
They needed a break after a tough spring, now the real giants of Ulster football are blocking the road.
Armagh are the nearly team. One All-Ireland is a poor return for a consistently good side for the last ten years. This time they set out on the road with only one thing of interest, Sam Maguire. They set their sights high in Armagh, no old bluster about a good campaign or winning Ulster, it is Sam or bust.
It probably will be bust too. The best players in the All-Ireland win are still the best players, McGee-ney, McGrane, McDonald and McConville. They are not getting younger or better, even if birth certs are no guide to a player’s value.
If people have different life expectancies then it is only reasonable that the same applies to a player’s career. Some get old quicker than others. The mid-30s should not be an impediment if a player listens to the old body clock and his manager trusts him. When a player passes 30, less training and plenty of rest is what is needed where a player takes his football seriously. Maldini and Nesta are prime examples from the Milan team of men who more than just survive at the highest level while getting close to 40.
Taking things seriously is exactly what Donegal are doing at the moment and if they can sup on water for the summer they have very real prospects of being involved in August. What they have is pace on the wings, power in the middle and height up front.
A bonus, too, is that they have a lot of very talented players, Devenney, Gallagher, Dunnion, McFadden to name just four, while Brian Roper has had a new lease of life. However, even if he kicked great points in the league final, he will probably realise himself that the next time none of them might go over. His bread and water job is supplying others and he is good at it too.
This week Joe Kernan was advising everyone not to write off Armagh. There is not much chance of that, particularly in Donegal — they have been stung too often over the last five years. Armagh are like Clint Eastwood in the westerns: they don’t say much but can out-shoot almost everyone. With the Crossmaglen players back in harness they are a threat to everyone in the country, not just Ulster.
Yet I have been impressed by Donegal this year. They are a team of rich potential who need to beat Armagh to demonstrate a ruthless side to their ambitions. I think Donegal will do that and win a match which should be a very rugged physical battle and probably a low scoring one too.