BY CHRIS MCNULTY
FIVE weeks and counting.
Tyrone looms ever closer, but Rory Gallagher can’t exactly complain about a spring time date in Croke Park. This Sunday, Gallagher’s Donegal face Cork in the Allianz League Division 1 semi-final.
In just five weeks time, those in the claustrophobic surrounds of Sean MacCumhaill Park will march to the drumbeat of summer but, for now, they make what is their second trip to Gaelic Games’ Temple under Gallagher’s watch, having lost to Dublin back in February.
After drawing with Mayo last Sunday, a result secured via Stephen Griffin’s late intervention in Castlebar, Gallagher said his side would have to ‘embrace’ a competitive game at headquarters, a ground with which Donegal have been quite familiar in recent years. Sunday will be their fifteenth time playing at Croke Park since 2011, winning seven and losing seven of the other fourteen.
The minds have been turned to May 17th for some time now, but that is not to suggest that Donegal aren’t bothered about Sunday’s game against the Rebels.
“We see this as a good, competitive game that will hopefully bring us on for the Championship,” Gallagher told the Donegal News this week.
“The reality is that once you’re safe in Division 1 you’re quite likely to be in the semi-final. Every player should be looking forward to playing in Croke Park. We’ll also use the overnight as part of a bonding exercise so they’re all good things that we’ll do over the weekend.
“We’ll just take it one week at a time now. We have a structured plan in place for our training anyway – that won’t change and one potential game would send us off that course of action. Over the last number of weeks we have significantly stepped up training anyway and I think you can see that during games at times.
“From a period around March, we really upped the intensity of our training, but that’s something that all teams are doing. It does add to tiredness but hopefully it’ll stand to us in the long run.”
The Donegal manager, who has described himself as ‘reasonably happy’ with his lot from the League so far, has confirmed that his captain, Michael Murphy will go straight back in from the start against Cork, the Glenswilly man available again after serving a suspension in Mayo last weekend.
Anthony Thompson will make a first start of the campaign, Michael Boyle seems set to continue in goal, while Colm McFadden will retain his berth in the full-forward line and Neil Gallagher, won’t be risked this weekend.
The Donegal boss said: “Colm will start again. We’re delighted with Colm’s attitude in training. He’s the first there and last away every single night and he’s putting in the hard yards. He didn’t get a whole lot of quality ball into him last week, but when he came out the field he put in a brilliant shift and this is all about getting Colm more game time now.
“I thought that, considering we did take a fair hammering at times in the middle of the field without two of our more experienced players in Michael and Neil – two top-quality men – that we played well bar that. I thought that we showed good discipline and we looked very dangerous at times.
“Unfortunately we had a second goal from Patrick (McBrearty) ruled out that might have won the game for us. We showed some very good passages of play during the game.”
Between them, McBrearty and Odhrán MacNiallais kicked 1-6, with McBrearty scoring a magnificent 19th-minute goal and having a second disallowed. This is perhaps the Kilcar man’s best spell in the county jersey, while MacNiallais has upped his ante from last year. His languid style gives off an effortless vibe, but the Gaoth Dobhair man had a real effective outing in Castlebar, three first-half points capping a fine display.
Gallagher said: “In Michael’s absence, Patrick and Odhrán showed good quality. Odhrán makes it all look so easy at times. Patrick, I felt, showed great leadership at a time when the game was going against us. None of this surprises us. We know what the two boys are capable of – we have very high expectations for both of them and we feel that they can make big contributions to our season.”
Gallagher will certainly tweak his line-up for Sunday’s fixture and has suggested that he remains keen for Darach O’Connor and Eoin McHugh – who suffered defeat in the Ulster U-21 final against Tyrone on Wednesday night – to be re-integrated. Neither has featured much for the senior side so far, but are two who Gallagher believes can have an impact on his squad,
He said: “We are keen to get them back in and playing with the team.”
It remains likely that Griffin will get another slice of action at some stage, for what would be the St Naul’s man’s first outing at Croke Park since the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final, when he scored a goal as Donegal were on the wrong end of a hiding by Cork. On Griffin’s return to the fold – he was back in training with Donegal in late February having spent three months in Australia – Gallagher said: “It was very pleasing that Stephen came in and made an impact like he did. It was made clear to Stephen that there was no point in him coming back in saying: ‘I need to get fit’. We needed Stephen to come in fit and, in fairness, he kept up his side of the bargain. He has been impressive in training. It was good to see him coming into the game and making an impact by scoring a crucial point.”
For Cork, Patrick Kelly will miss Sunday’s game because of a calf injury, while Tom Clancy is a doubt, owing to a hamstring straing, but otherwise Brian Cuthbert has a full panel from which to choose.
In Ballyshannon last month, Donegal held on to claim a 0-12 to 1-8 win. After Murphy was black carded, Cork stormed back and when Tomás Clancy goaled Donegal were on the ropes, but they managed to do enough against the Rebels, who finished top of the Division.
Gallagher said: “Cork have won a number of games that have gone to the wire. They’ve come from behind a couple of times to win games which shows that they’re a team that is really pulling together. They have great spirit. They saved their best for Kerry, which was understandable. With the nature of the Munster Championship, Cork will be very keen for the extra game, so this will be a great test for us.”