Sunday 18 March 2018

Less is more as Donegal's tight band of warriors gear up for title tilt

Odhran MacNiallais believes that Donegal will reap rewards by playing some promising youngsters in their league campaign. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Odhran MacNiallais believes that Donegal will reap rewards by playing some promising youngsters in their league campaign. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Two years ago when Donegal were seeking to rebound back into Division 1, having been condemned to the tier below by Paul Mannion's late equaliser in Ballybofey the previous April, then manager Jim McGuinness kept faith in the same starting personnel for the first three rounds.

Victories over Laois, Galway and Monaghan set them up for a quick return to the top flight but it was a rare feat of consistency of selection to turn out the same 15 players three games running.

Two years on, Rory Gallagher's approach to starting opportunities may be a little looser. But not much.

Eighteen different players have filled the starting berths for the opening three games which, like 2014, have produced three wins in a much more competitive environment.

Such economy of resources has been Donegal's way in the League for some time now, certainly since McGuinness took charge in 2011.

Consistently, Donegal will draw from much smaller pool of players to see them through the seven rounds of League football than all of their major rivals. The temptation to run in players from the start is more often than not resisted in preference to results, especially at home.

Since McGuinness took over, Donegal have remained unbeaten in 14 games between League and Championship in Ballybofey's MacCumhaill Park.

To date, Gallagher has given game-time to 25 players, with much emphasis on the addition of former minor stars Micheal Carroll, Stephen McBrearty, Eoin Gallagher and Ciaran McGonagle.

Contrast that with Kerry, who routinely use the most players of all the top-tier teams. The return of Peter Crowley in Newry last Sunday meant that Eamonn Fitzmaurice has worked his way through 32 in the opening three rounds, 23 of them starters.

The average number used by managers of Division 1 teams is around 29. Invariably Donegal fall short of that mark. Essentially their core of mainstream players is always tighter.


While the limited exposure of those 2014 minors has given a timely shot in the arm and created the perception of freshness, it is the preservation of the 'old guard' that has driven Donegal to the top of the division with Dublin.

It's barely March yet the start ensures that they already have one foot in Division 1 again for 2017.

Calibrating the integration of young players into such an established squad as Donegal's is an ongoing challenge but the retention of the vast majority of their 2012 All-Ireland winning team and the key substitutes is perhaps the broadest statement they have made. No one has retired or, in the case of Rory Kavanagh, stayed retired (Ryan Bradley emigrated while Paul Durcan is based in Qatar until summer) and that signals a circling of wagons and strong intent.

A potentially less treacherous Ulster Championship campaign has had to have been a strong incentive to put the shoulder to the wheel once more.

The priority is clearly winning games and developing a style that has seen them attack in greater numbers and at even greater pace.

Their 57th minute goal against Mayo provides the best example, a kick-out turned over and urgency through the hands of three of their elder statesmen Anthony Thompson, Christy Toye and Rory Kavanagh putting Leo McLoone in for one of his trademark goals.

Elsewhere Paddy McGrath was a constant driving force on Sunday while Eoin McHugh's electrifying pace has really given them an added dimension. But it is Ryan McHugh's incisive pressing forward that has now become their most potent weapon. In such a tight, physical encounter as last Sunday was, a half-back getting four shots off, from which he scored two, underlined that.

Odhran MacNiallais, himself a veteran of three seasons now, believes impetus has been gained from the introduction of so many 19-20-year-olds.

"These young players - Micheál Carroll, Stephen McBrearty and Ciaran Thompson - they're only going to improve," said MacNiallais.

"They mightn't make a push and become great players this year, but in the next couple of years they'll be big players for Donegal.

"I just see it as building blocks. I'm getting plenty of game time and training with the likes of Michael Murphy and these boys, it is just going to improve you."

With Karl Lacey, Colm McFadden and Mark McHugh close to coming back it will only serve to strengthen their hand.

Irish Independent

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