Monday 18 November 2019

Donegal's 2012 legacy looks like it's in safe hands

Donegal manager Rory Gallagher. Photo: Sportsfile
Donegal manager Rory Gallagher. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Rory Gallagher takes his Donegal senior football squad to New York this weekend but, from a distance, his eyes will be just as fixed on Kingspan Breffni Park next Saturday afternoon where Donegal meet Dublin in an All-Ireland U-21 semi-final, just five days on from their first Ulster title in the grade since 2010.

When the counties last met at this level, it was the U-21 final itself at the same venue and it ended dramatically with Michael Murphy crashing an injury-time penalty off a crossbar as they lost by two points.

So many of the protagonists that would shape the future of both teams in the years after were involved that evening.

Rory O'Carroll and James McCarthy would win an All-Ireland senior medal within 16 months, Jonny Cooper and Dean Rock took until 2013 but made such significant impacts since.

Murphy had Mark McHugh, Paddy McGrath and Leo McLoone with him then and again when they landed their 2012 All-Ireland title just over two years later.

That U-21 team, managed by Jim McGuinness who was subsequently appointed senior manager without opposition two months later, was good to Donegal football, very good. But this one is potentially even better, even allowing for Murphy's immense presence seven years ago that has sculpted so much of what they have achieved since.

When Gallagher sought to change the terms of his agreement to manage Donegal last year, switching from an existing three-year term with one year left to a new three-year term with an option for a fourth in 2020, these players had to be foremost in his mind.

Murphy himself, as captain, gave his seal of approval, recognising the need for time and space to cultivate new ideas and develop new players in a period of potentially difficult transition.

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The exodus had already begun with Colm McFadden and Eamon McGee departing with the dust barely settled on their All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Dublin.

Bit by bit over the following few months the old squad began to fragment at a much quicker pace.

Leo McLoone, Anthony Thompson and Odhrán Mac Niallais left of their own accord, Christy Toye, Rory Kavanagh, Neil Gallagher and David Walsh retired.

But the replenishment over a spring league campaign has been quite spectacular.

Gallagher has been able to build a team on the move and still gain ground.

Caolan Ward and particularly Ciarán Thompson have stepped up while at different stages U-21s Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Michael Carroll, Stephen McBrearty, Jamie Brennan, Cian Mulligan, Michael Langan, Jason McGee, Brendan McCole and Ethan O'Donnell have featured in a seven-match campaign that failed to earn a league final place by a score difference of just three points behind Kerry.

Injury has prevented Ciarán Gillespie from featuring while also precluding him from the current U-21 run. On his day he has a formidable defensive presence and with him back to full fitness, you'd give them every chance of toppling Dublin this weekend.

McGee has been revelation. Only a minor last year, he wasn't part of Declan Bonner's minor team that reached an All-Ireland final against Kerry three years ago, a team that still provides a healthy backbone to Bonner's latest production now. The fall-off has been minimal. But at just 19 years of age, the resemblance with Dublin's Brian Fenton is striking.


Anyone who has witnessed Mulligan, especially against Mayo, and Brennan can't fail to have been impressed by their movement and accuracy.

Carroll and Langan were minors on another promising team in 2015 that lost their way against Derry when expected to put back-to-back Ulster titles together after a most impressive quarter-final win over Armagh but are at the core of this latest effort now.

Everything points to the current Dublin-Kerry axis of dominance - they've now won the last nine major national trophies between them - taking a stronger hold. Mayo and Tyrone will give chase but Donegal are quickly and efficiently putting themselves in a position of relevance over the next decade too.

Murphy, McGrath, Neil McGee, even Ryan McHugh and Patrick McBrearty will feel energised by the rapid onset of a golden generation that has won their last three games in the province by a cumulative total of 32 points, having drawn with Tyrone in their opening game.

The legacy of 2012 hasn't, it seems, been squandered.

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