BY CHRIS MCNULTY
WHEN Donegal headed for Killarney for a National League outing last March, you wouldn’t have thought that there’d be a pointer to September that afternoon under the Macgillycuddys.
Kerry smashed past Donegal that afternoon, winning 2-16 to 1-8. Michael Murphy’s 1-5 was one of the few positives for Donegal.
In Killarney that afternoon, McGuinness jotted down the names of the same 15 players on his starting list as would take to the field six months later to face Mayo in the All-Ireland final.
When the swords of Donegal and Kerry crossed in the All-Ireland quarter-final, only the injured Neil Gallagher was absent, but the Glenswilly man appeared as a sub at half-time.
Jim McGuinness says that the League doesn’t matter much, but nevertheless it serves its purpose.
In Killarney, Christy Toye, David Walsh and Martin O’Reilly were the subs used. Injury curbed O’Reilly’s involvement in the business end of the season, but Toye and Walsh were regularly used as replacements throughout the summer.
Maintaining a consistent team sheet was one of the reasons for Donegal’s success.
In that League outing at Fitzgerald Stadium, Anthony Thompson began in the forwards – and scored an early point – with Leo McLoone stationed in the half-back line. Come the bigger stages, their roles reversed. They were notable alterations when the sun was at its highest.
McGuinness has a saying that he has stated quite a bit in recent times: “Nothing is neutral – you’re either going backwards or forwards.”
His mantra is basically that every day’s a school day; and he urges his team to learn consistently. It was clear come August and their All-Ireland quarter-final that Donegal had taken lessons from the pain inflicted by Kerry in March.
Jack O’Connor thought he’d solved the rubix cube when his side came through Donegal with such ease.
“No matter how much you get bodies back, with a bit of clever rotation of the ball you can always get men free,” he said.
“We worked very hard and spoke a lot about that this week, about being clever on the ball and shipping the ball to the support runner. I think that worked well for us.”
Donegal have continued to experiment in this year’s League as the blueprint evolves. Last Sunday, even in a high-octane heavyweight clash against Tyrone in Healy Park, Donegal concocted some potions that had not been tried previously. Neil Gallagher’s stationing at the edge of the square was the notable one.
“It was something that had been in the backs of our minds for some time,” Rory Gallagher, the team’s assistant manager said yesterday afternoon.
“The year (2011) his club won the championship, he went in there quite a bit and was excellent any time he did. The evidence of Sunday maybe suggests it won’t work out for us that way, but we have a few things that we tried out like having Ross Wherity at half-forward and Mark McHugh at wing-back.
Although success in the League, in terms of sports big currency – results – is not high on Donegal’s priority list right now, there are certain things you might note as being peculiar in the way a team is lined out or is playing at this time of year. It’s with the bigger blueprint in mind.
And in the spring, a tactic that doesn’t work out may well be seen as being a positive. As McGuinness observed last weekend: “Sometimes bad data is good data in that you know that you mightn’t use it in the summer time. Last year there were some things that the answer was: ‘no, that’s definitely not going to work’ and that was good in terms of what’s on the mind.”
For McGuinness, the defeat of Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final – the first ever Championship clash of these counties – was a defining moment for his squad.
“A lot of people felt that we couldn’t beat Kerry – beating Kerry grew another sense of belief in us,” said McGuinness.
“It grew towards Cork in the semi and the final was probably our most disappointing performance.
“It was a good performance, but it wasn’t potentially what we were looking for. We’ll learn from that match because of the enormity of it.”
Both Donegal and Kerry know that Sunday’s game will be long forgotten when the Sunday Game theme tune is reverberating for their jousts that matter later in the year, but neither Eamon Fitzmaurice or Jim McGuinness will welcome a defeat on Sunday. Donegal have won one from three; Kerry none from three.
When assessing last Sunday’s defeat to Tyrone, Gallagher delivered an honest assessment: “It’s maybe easy to hide behind the sending off of Michael Murphy, although in any team sport – as we saw in the Man United-Real Madrid game on Tuesday night (when United winger Nani was sent off with his team leading 1-0 and his side then lost 2-1), losing a man in any team sport makes it a tough challenge.
“The reality for us is that Tyrone were the better team in the first half and they were scoring easier. We looked laboured at times.”
It may be a little dramatic to term this Sunday’s meeting in Ballybofey as that of the ‘must win’ variety, but with points at a premium and with just the three games remaining after this weekend it’s coming near the time when points must be bagged.
“It would be fairly pressurised if we lost on Sunday,” mused Gallagher.
“One win won’t be enough to keep us up and certainly you don’t want to be going into a Championship game agains Tyrone on the negative of relegation. We’ll be out for a win on Sunday, although we know that Kerry will present a challenge. We want to stay up in Division 1.”
Colm Cooper won’t come out of hibernation until the Championship, but Kerry’s new manager Eamon Fitzmaurice will be looking to several other returning stars to do the business. Having lost their previous three League games, Kerry come to Ballybofey with no points on the board.
“Six points would probably keep you up, but we’re on zero. I think all the teams are going to take points off each other, so it’s going to be very competitive,” said Fitzmaurice.
“We have to start getting points on the board or else it is going to be a foregone conclusion that we’re going down. We don’t want to go that direction.”
Last week’s defeat to Kildare provided encouraging signs, even if the kicking of 16 wides is something that left them disgruntled in The Kingdom. Still, there were enough for Fitzmaurice and his crew to take – and now they’re targeting a first win of the League when they roll into Ballybofey.
“At this stage, you’re looking for the curve to go upwards and with this game it’s gone up a notch,” as their goalkeeper, Brendan Kealy, says.
“The last two games, there wasn’t much of an increase but hopefully if we can kick on from the Kildare game we’ll turn the corner.
“We were looking for a bit of reaction after how the first two games went.
“There’s still a lot to work on but we got a bit of a reaction which was encouraging. We were making some basic errors. There was no rocket science whit what we were doing and what we weren’t doing.
“It was just trying to minimise the mistakes and working on our fitness.”
DONEGAL v KERRY
Sunday March 10th 2013
Venue: Sean MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey
Referee: Derek Fahy (Longford)
Verdict: Donegal to pick up a precious pair of points that will be invaluable in the race for safety.