‘Donegal supporters will need to be patient’ – McEniff
Gallagher will lead a period of transition for squad that has lost several big names
Brian McEniff has urged Donegal supporters to be patient as the county heads into a transition phase following the departure of so many big names.
The retirements of Rory Kavanagh, Christy Toye and David Walsh this week brings to seven the number of players from last year's squad who will not be around this year.
That may increase to eight if Anthony Thompson, who is currently taking a break, decides not to return for the championship.
Eamonn McGee and Colm McFadden retired after last year's championship while Leo McLoone and Odhrán MacNiallais have opted out for this season.
Manager Rory Gallagher has 16 U-21s on his pre-league panel, with several of them likely to see regular senior action later on. It's a whole new world of change for Donegal, who reached the last six Ulster finals, winning three of them in 2011-'12-'14.
"People will need to be patient now. It's easy to take things for granted when a county is going well for a long time but nothing lasts forever.
"Donegal is still very strong and will be into the future but you don't lose as many players of the calibre that we've lost without noticing it. Rory (Gallagher) has a big job on his hands and needs support from everyone. Most of all, people need to be patient. Change happens in every county - it's Donegal's turn now," said McEniff.
As a successful Donegal player, manager and senior administrator over many decades, he has seen the county go through peaks and troughs and while he is convinced there will be no return to the bad days, he believes the transition will be testing.
"We've lost a lot of experience over a relatively short space of time, really top-class players who did it all. You can't replace that in a hurry. You'd know who was going to be in most of the positions for many years but it won't be like that now.
"There's a lot of fine young talent in Donegal and it will come through but there's no way of knowing how soon it will happen and how quickly they will make top senior players," said McEniff, who managed Donegal to their first All-Ireland win in 1992.
Donegal haven't lost an Ulster first round game since 2010 (v Down) and will be favourites to maintain the good run when they take on Antrim in the quarter-final in Ballybofey on May 21 but it could get tricky from there on as Tyrone or Derry await the winners.
Defending champions Tyrone are favourites to retain the title with a squad that Mickey Harte assembled carefully over recent seasons, a process that won't have gone unnoticed in Donegal.
They beat Tyrone four times between 2011 and 2015, before losing narrowly in last year's Ulster final.
McEniff points to Tyrone as an example of how difficult transitions can be in a county that has grown accustomed to success.
"It took Mickey a good while to put a squad together that was strong enough to win the Ulster title. Donegal beat Tyrone four times in a row but Mickey and the lads just kept at it and eventually they came through last year.
"I have no doubt that Donegal will remain very competitive but coping without so much experience will be difficult in the short term at least.
"I was at the McKenna Cup game last Sunday and while Donegal lost to UUJ, I liked the look of some of our U-21 lads. They're going to get their chance on the senior team earlier than what would have been case when we had a strong, settled team," said McEniff.
While McEniff points to Tyrone as an example of a county that worked its way successfully through the transition phase, more pessimistic Donegal supporters might reflect on what happened in Armagh.
They won seven Ulster senior titles (plus one All-Ireland and one NFL) between 1999 and 2008 but things have taken a dramatic downturn since then.
They have, in fact, won only three of 12 Ulster Championship games in the last eight seasons and also find themselves in Division 3 for this season. Such a slump would have been unthinkable at the end of 2008.
McEniff is confident that Donegal won't suffer a similar fate, a view supported by the strength of their underage teams in recent seasons.
The minors won Ulster titles in 2014 and 2016 and while provincial glory has eluded the U-21s since 2010, Donegal reached the final in 2013-'14-'16, losing twice to Cavan and once to Tyrone.
McEniff believes that with most of the top Donegal clubs playing a similar system to the county team, players will find it relatively easy to adapt to life in Gallagher's squad.
"The big thing now is that everyone stays patient and don't start comparing newcomers with the great players that won so much over the last number of years. Lads have to be given a chance to mature and work their way into the senior team. You can't rush that," he said.
Donegal begin their Division 1 campaign at home to Kerry on February 5, followed by a trip to Roscommon a week later.