Time for Donegal new crop to step up as old guard step aside
Near the end of their last match in 2016, Donegal put on Colm McFadden, with the game in injury-time and Dublin on their way to the All-Ireland semi-finals. It had the look of a final salute. Sure enough, McFadden announced his retirement in the immediate aftermath, signing off on a distinguished career crowned by the All-Ireland win in 2012. McFadden played 64 times in the Championship for Donegal and made 170 senior appearances, an unrivalled service.
There were several candidates to follow his example, and while the more senior players had resisted the temptation in recent years, this time the ranks of those departing began to swell. Eamon McGee, there since Brian McEniff's time as manager, went. Rory Kavanagh, who started playing for Donegal under Mickey Moran in 2002 and was a contemporary of McFadden, jumped. Christy Toye, another of that vintage, joined the evacuation. For Kavanagh it was a second take, having retired initially after the 2014 All-Ireland final defeat by Kerry.
Leo McLoone caused more of a stir being still relatively young, in his late 20s and not citing a clear reason for leaving. Anthony Thompson declared that he was taking a break and Odhran MacNiallais decided on a year out at just 24, the biggest surprise of all. David Walsh also bowed out. You couldn't say most of those decisions were a surprise, but it is now that the reality is starting to bite, as Donegal begin their National League campaign with today's visit of Kerry to Letterkenny.
Of those missing from today's dressing-room, McGee, Kavanagh, MacNiallais and Thompson all started last August's All-Ireland quarter final against Dublin. McLoone, Toye and McFadden came off the bench. With Karl Lacey, Frank McGlynn and Neil Gallagher on the injury list, Donegal find themselves in full transition mode. Five of today's team are making their first starts in the competition, with three completely new to this environment. Jason McGee and Michael Langan were county minors last year. This is a big step up.
Manager Rory Gallagher hinted at what was to come after the Dublin match last year. "There's no doubt we have a lot of players with a lot of mileage. One thing that would stand out in the game is the phenomenal athleticism of Dublin. They have a number of players who are not as old as our players. That can be difficult. That can determine your tactics when you come down to play them. We'd have a lot of lads there a long time.
"A lot of our lads won a National League in 2007 - that's a long time ago. We've got to rebuild: Donegal as a county has got to rebuild. They've had reasonable success at under 21, they've had good minor teams and they've got to keep bringing those players through to replace the older lads."
Donegal have won two of the last three Ulster minor titles and reached their first ever All-Ireland final at the grade in 2014. Their last win in Ulster at under 21 was in 2010 but they have good prospects this year of winning that provincial title as well. Those achievements are not in the same league as Kerry, who have won the last three All-Ireland minor titles, but they represent a ray of hope for Donegal knowing that they need to find replacements for an array of senior players over the next few years.
In the meantime, the county has had to make the most of what has been at its disposal, to make their resources stretch as much as humanly possible. Even some of the younger generation look like they've been around a long time. Paddy McBrearty is only 23 but has already made 76 appearances.
But the mainstays who remain, the likes of Frank McGlynn, Lacey, Neil McGee and Michael Murphy, have put serious mileage on the clock, and in the Jim McGuinness years they went through a gruelling training workload. The success of that period involved a radical transformation in fitness levels and in their levels of devotion. It has been difficult for Gallagher to take on that level of raised expectation left behind when McGuinness stepped down after the 2014 All-Ireland final. At the end of last year he placed himself on firmer ground when agreeing a three-year term, with the option of a one-year extension, which would keep him as county manager until the end of the 2020 season if it were to run the full distance.
By then it is likely virtually all of the key figures from the 2012 All-Ireland win will have stopped playing. McGlynn is 30 this year. Murphy started playing for the Donegal senior team ten years ago and will turn 28 in August. McGee is 31. Lacey is 32. Neil Gallagher is a couple of years older still. For now they remain vital figures in helping Donegal manage that transition over the next few year.
Kerry, too, have been slow to discard their more experienced soldiers, but both counties have had to accept that since they last met in the Championship, in the 2014 All-Ireland final, their impact has been gradually ebbing. Kerry fell in the final a year after and the semi-finals the year after that. Donegal have not been past the quarter-finals.
Today's visitors have also had to widen their search for new players. Aidan O'Mahony and Marc Ó Sé extended their careers to 36 before heading into retirement along with other big names of recent years like Paul Galvin, Declan Sullivan, Tomás Ó Sé and Eoin Brosnan. Galvin retired twice, the second time conclusively at 36. This afternoon four players will make their League debuts and go on trial.
Two of Kerry's newcomers are drawn from the minor-winning teams of recent years. Jason Foley, a promising, pacy defender, won All-Ireland minor medals in 2014 and 2015. Dingle's Tom O'Sullivan won an All-Ireland minor title in 2014 and two Hogan Cup colleges medals. Jack Savage, named at right corner-forward, played in the recent McGrath Cup campaign and is a former Kerry minor and under 21 player. Tadhg Morley is the fourth player making his first League appearance, although he has already played in the Championship on four occasions. Eleven of the team featured in last year's All-Ireland semi-final loss to Dublin.
Kerry are also compromised by injuries and club-tied players, ruling out Colm Cooper, Johnny Buckley, Stephen O'Brien and Darran O'Sullivan. McGlynn, Lacey and Neil Gallagher are recuperating from injuries for Donegal. The home team include former Leitrim footballer Paul Brennan, who has transferred from his home club Melvin Gaels to Bundoran.
There was plenty of heat to last year's meeting in the Allianz League in Tralee, reprising Kerry's recent spiteful quarrels with teams schooled in the Ulster Championship. Alan Fitzgerald, sent off after an incident which earned Neil McGee a retrospective suspension, has left the Kerry panel. Kieran Donaghy has returned to training but not at full pelt and isn't expected to feature in the team until later in the League campaign.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice heads into his fifth season as Kerry manager. Defeats to Dublin in All-Ireland and League finals, and an All-Ireland semi-final, within the space of a year have altered the mood which followed their 2014 All-Ireland success. Invariably, opinion on Fitzmaurice has altered accordingly and this is a tough year for him. Kerry can, not unreasonably, expect that in a few years from now they will be a more formidable challenger, when the talent begins to make a mark from recent underage teams. But it may be after Fitzmaurice's time has gone. Of the three minor teams, last year's looks like yielding the greatest harvest, but it will take time.
The arrival of Maurice Fitzgerald to Fitzmaurice's backroom team has added as much interest as what has been happening on the panel. Fitzgerald's future in county management is still the subject of speculation and it is not known if he has designs on the top job at some stage. But the St Mary's team he has been involved with played a brand of football that would be to the purists' liking. Finding the players to play it, of course, is the trick. David Clifford, who thrilled audiences in last year's minor championship, captains the minors this year. He has excited interest from the AFL, which is naturally a concern for those who want to see Kerry retain their best players.
Kerry may look at Dublin's relatively modest track record at minor in recent years and the senior team's ageing profile as a sign of hope that their dominance will not last. In the meantime Fitzmaurice must begin the process of revitalising the team. Somewhere along the way they will meet Dublin again, which is ultimately where they have been found out. Donegal will still feel capable of winning an Ulster Championship, having featured in the last six finals. Beyond that their limitations will be more exposed and Gallagher's extremely cautious tactics bore the brunt of criticism last year.
Some good news. Darach O'Connor, who burst onto the team as a teenager in 2014, scoring a goal against Antrim a few days after completing his Leaving Cert, has recovered from a cruciate injury that sidelined him for over a year. His last appearance was in the 2015 Ulster final. O'Connor was six when McFadden, Toye and Kavanagh first played Championship for Donegal in 2002. Donegal, like Kerry, will miss their departed veterans but it is time for the next crop to make their mark now.
Sunday Indo Sport