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Usual suspects keep foot to the floor for Donegal

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Rory Gallagher

Rory Gallagher

SPORTSFILE

Rory Gallagher

The transition so far has been pretty seamless. The baton has been handed over with little fuss.

With the size of Jim McGuinness' legacy, the vacant Donegal management job should have carried its own hazardous warning.

After four years of what McGuinness compared to an 'Olympic cycle' the wonder was, and maybe still is, what more could be extracted from the same group of players?

But Rory Gallagher, previously McGuinness' pillion passenger for three years of a remarkable journey, didn't recoil from that prospect. Familiarity has bred more familiarity, as much out of necessity as design.

Scope

Transformation for a squad coming off the back two All-Ireland final appearances and three Ulster titles is obviously not a priority. But the scope for such change is limited.

Gallagher is playing a weaker hand than McGuinness had 12 months ago, with Rory Kavanagh retired, Leo McLoone unlikely to return, Anthony Thompson now based in England and even Dermot Molloy's departure impacting further down the line. Offset against that is Mark McHugh's return.

Over the course of his four-year term McGuinness used just 33 players in 24 championship matches. Take out Michael Hegarty and Kevin Cassidy who lasted just one season and eight others who featured in two games or less and he effectively operated with a core of 23 players.

The signs are that Gallagher will also be limited by the same incapacity to expand. No other Division 1 team, with the possible exception of Tyrone, has played as close to its potential championship team as Donegal have in their opening three games. The need to be competitive requires most of their front-line players all of the time.

In Donegal, there remains little flexibility for extended rest periods and that brings an inevitable toll. Gallagher has given game- time to 25 players so far but four - Darach O'Connor, Anthony Thompson, Gary McFadden and Joe Gibbons - have played only 10 minutes or less.

Just 17 players have started, one more than the same stage 12 months ago with Eamonn Doherty replacing Ciaran McGinley for the Dublin match and Neil McGee coming in for brother Eamon the last day. Five players - Mark and Ryan McHugh, Frank McGlynn, Odhran MacNiallais and Neil Gallagher - have played every minute of every league game so far but that figure would probably be eight if it wasn't for injuries against Dublin to goalkeeper Paul Durcan and defender Paddy McGrath while Michael Murphy was black-carded and red-carded for two yellows in his last two matches. Marty O'Reilly has only missed a minute of injury-time.

Inevitability, injuries to any of their leading protagonists will prove costly.

The physical power generated by Murphy continues to be something of a conundrum for Donegal. Murphy hits hard and as a consequence of that aggressive and powerful edge he brings he has not finished either game against Dublin or Cork.

But when he is met with the same force and aggression from opponents, the same rules are not always being applied either. And cast in a more orthodox full-forward role he can expect those rules of engagement to be increasingly tough.

It has brought Patrick McBrearty more sharply into focus. Making him more of a focal point of the attack and unlocking some untapped potential was always going to happen on Gallagher's watch.

He's still only 21 but the signs are that he is thriving and bringing that consistency to his game. In the three games to date, he has scored eight points from play from Donegal's 1-38. With frees, that tally rises to 0-12.

The other great positive for Gallagher is the form of his namesake Neil at midfield. In another county there may be the temptation to taper his involvement at this time of year but the requirement to avoid relegation first and foremost demands others in a county where the main resources must be so thinly spread.

Yield

Donegal will continue to focus on a yield from home games with two from two already and two more to come against Monaghan this weekend and Tyrone later in the campaign.

On the road, their record has been dreadful - no away win under McGuinness in two Division 1 campaigns - a trend that wasn't reversed in Dublin last month.

To date, it's hard to see an Odhran MacNiallais springing from the pack as the Gaoth Dobhair man did last year and that stretches those resources even more.

Same story for Rory Gallagher, same story for Donegal. Odds they are quite accustomed to by now.

Irish Independent