Donegal have got their Division 1 campaign off to a mixed start, but show signs of evolving under Rory Gallagher
What threatened to be a disastrous league campaign for Donegal, continues to show signs of progress for Rory Gallagher's charges.
Ahead of their Division 1 opener, Donegal lost Rory Kavanagh, Christy Toye and David Walsh to retirement. Eamon McGee and Colm McFadden hung up their boots at inter-county level last August, while only last month, midfielder Neil Gallagher also drew the curtain on an illustrious inter-county career.
Many questioned how the 2012 All-Ireland winners would react to the departures and there were concerns that the Ulster side would struggle to retain their Division 1 status.
Their first league game against Kerry got off to a rocky start.
The Munster champions had 2-15 of their 2-17 total on the board by 45 minutes and the game looked all but beyond Donegal in the second half. But a late rally saw Gallagher's men notch six points in the final 11 minutes of the game to run the game a lot closer than it had once looked.
"They were 10 points down to Kerry in the first game in Letterkenny and I thought they were in for a couple of seriously tough years ahead," says former Donegal forward, Brendan Devenney.
"Maybe Kerry just stopped playing, but the attitude of those lads [...] they don’t give up. They came back and could have stolen a draw against Kerry because of the penalty shout. With a couple of minutes to go it there was four points in it and it was all Donegal."
The first game of the league, Devenney explains, can be deceptive and a defeat to last year's All-Ireland semi-finalists would not have been the worst the result.
"They were coming into this game very much from the cold. For some reason there’s some terrible hoodoo in Letterkenny and they enjoyed the opposite in Ballybofey, they haven’t been beaten there since 2010.
"It would have been a setback but I don’t think at this point any result would have been make or break a team like this because they’re certainly looking to find their feet. If the top one or two teams expose them early on, I don’t think that would have bothered them too much."
Having rallied from 10 points down, they bounced back to beat Roscommon and Devenney says that result is a better reflection of where they are at the moment.
"Both teams were evenly matched in terms of players that were missing. It was a real 50-50 game. The fact that Roscommon were at home, a lot of people would have backed them, but again Donegal showed a lot composure.
"Bringing Neil McGee back was a big factor. Donegal now have certain players they would find it hard to do without. That’s what amazed me so much during the Dublin performance. The likes of Michael Murphy, Neil McGee, Frank McGlynn and Patrick McBrearty have to play. They’re really the spine of the team. They can’t really do without them.
"So when McBrearty wasn’t playing against Dublin I really thought that frees from the right-hand side and his ball winning ability would be a massive loss. I felt we couldn’t outplay them but we did."
Donegal's Ciaran Thompson evades the challenge of Dublin's Brian Fenton. Image: ©INPHO/Presseye/Lorcan Doherty
The focus now for Gallagher will be on finding his strongest starting XV and tweaking his system to include a number of young talented players who have stepped into the void left by Donegal's retired stalwarts.
"He’ll want the players to bed in and get used to the new system. Their target would have been to avoid relegation, so I think if Rory Gallagher can achieve both of those he will look back on this as a positive league campaign.
"The pressure is sort of off him as a manager. When you have that many changes and that many players coming through [...] you have to be able to get the best off all those new faces. So far I think he’s done just that. There’s a great ‘never say die’ attitude with them and a great togetherness within the group. He deserves a lot of credit, alongside his backroom team, for blooding those lads.
"A lot of them have a future in that first team, but they’ll have to learn fast.
"The likes of Caolan Ward this year, he’s been unbelievable. He’s someone who is so suited to counter-attacking football. He’s fast, he reads the game, he’s tenacious. He had a great game against Dublin the last day.
"But again, they’ll have to learn fast if they want to compete with Monaghan and Tyrone."
He added: "Over the three games so far, there’s been a lot in the way of positivity despite the changing of the guard. Early on I thought it would be tough but already we’re seeing the basis of a decent team getting together."