Doherty braced for final-day promotion battle
WITH promotion to Division 1 on offer to the winner of Donegal's clash with Armagh this weekend, league football will be about as intense as it gets at Ballybofey tomorrow.
It's already been a memorable week for Donegal, with the U-21 side capturing the county's first Ulster title at that level in 15 years.
Add to that back-to-back McKenna Cup wins (with largely shadow teams), an All-Ireland quarter-final appearance last year that saw them beat both Derry and Galway along the way and a National League Division 1 title in 2007 and it's clear that Donegal have been making steady progress.
As can be the case with Donegal football, there have been high-profile speed bumps along the way.
In '07, Brian McIver left as boss after securing a first national title since 1992 before being reinstated for the next season. Then, John Joe Doherty's appointment for last term was shrouded in controversy too, with Charlie Mulgrew and Declan Bonner bringing their case all the way to the DRA before Doherty could get down to work.
Relegation from the top flight followed last year, along with a shock reversal in Ballybofey at the hands of Antrim in the opening round of the Ulster championship. Somehow they turned their season around before bowing out to a trail-blazing Cork side in the last eight. Following the fortunes of Donegal football is a roller-coaster ride, but there's plenty to be cheerful about.
Last season, Karl Lacey missed much of the pre-season and league but produced enough starring performances to win an All Star.
And '09 Young Player of the Year Michael Murphy is cut from the old stone of burly full-forwards but sprinkled with more than a pinch of stardust and, along with Leo McLoone, was the only member of Wednesday's victorious U-21 side included in Doherty's panel.
Rory Kavanagh (who was away travelling and only recently returned to the squad) and Christy Toye (injury) are regaining full fitness, while hopes remain that veteran Barry Monaghan will return before the championship.
Of their four wins in the league so far, two of them have come against the relegated pair of Tipperary and Westmeath, while they also beat Laois and a 13-man Meath side. Already-promoted Down and Kildare have inflicted defeats and Armagh's visit will be a true test of their credentials.
"We haven't exactly set the world on fire," Doherty said of his side's performances to date. "The Kildare game (which they lost by eight points) was maybe the one really disappointing one. But we're happy enough with where we are at, to be playing for promotion to Division 1 in the last round of the league."
That they would face Down in the league final on April 25 should they win tomorrow and again in the Ulster championship on May 30 isn't ideal for Doherty, but promotion remains a priority.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he said. "You could say that we'll see enough of Down this year, but we wanted to have a good league after getting relegated last year and this is where we are and we're happy enough to be here heading into the summer."