THE curtain comes down on the 2016 National Football League season for Donegal with two big games over the next fortnight.
First up is a meeting with All-Ireland champions Dublin in Croke Park tomorrow night, Saturday, followed by a clash against reigning Ulster champions Monaghan in Castleblayney on Sunday, April 3.
They’re two big games for Rory Gallagher and his players who know that a victory in either game will probably earn Donegal a place in this year’s semi-finals – games which take place the following Sunday, April 10.
With Donegal not in Ulster Championship action for another two months after the conclusion of this year’s NFL, a league semi-final (and indeed final!) would fit nicely into their schedule.
It’s a point not lost on Gallagher.
“We want to win games and to play against the top teams and a win over Dublin would probably secure a semi final spot which would be a good thing this year.
“Last year it was impossible as we were out again (Ulster Championship) five weeks after the league ended. To add to that we were late starting back (having reached the 2014 All-Ireland final) but this year is different as we’re not out again until nine weeks after the league finishes. We would be delighted to play in a league semi-final this time around,” Gallagher said.
To achieve that goal they will have to beat Dublin who have reached their first target for the season with two rounds of the Allianz Football League still to be played.
They’ve qualified for the semi-finals for a fourth successive year while there’s quite a battle for the other three places, with Roscommon (8pts), Kerry (6pts), Donegal (6pts), Cork (4pts), Monaghan (4 pts) in the chasing pack.
“We’re really looking forward to this weekend’s game. It’s one game that you’re never too unhappy to be playing away from home. Getting to Croke Park is a massive deal and to be playing Dublin – the All-Ireland champions and best team in the country for the past four or five years – is always a good test. It’s a bench mark of where you’re at as a team at any given point in time,” he said.
It’s been a mixed bag for Donegal to date. They made a good start to the Allianz League, beating Down, Cork and Mayo but have since lost to both Kerry and Roscommon. So, is the glass half-full or half empty?
“Definitely half-full. We’re very pleased with where we’re at. Had we been given six points at the start of the year we would have been delighted. We’ve always had our eyes fixed on the Championship. The games in between are obviously important but that’s what we’re ultimately working towards.
“We were delighted to get points on board early on as it allowed us to try out a couple of different styles of play and to change things around a bit. We’ve a fair idea where we want to be in the summer and the league has helped us to do that. Overall I’m pleased with the performance levels,” he said.
“We had a very bad start the last day against Roscommon but I thought they we recovered well. They played some excellent football and we went seven one down but got it back to 15-13 when we lost a man which had a big impact on things. Overall though I’m pleased. We’ve been moving up through the gears and gradually raising the intensity levels over the last number of weeks and the young lads are integrating well,” he added.
Donegal scored seventeen points at home to Roscommon but conceded 1-19 two weeks ago in Letterkenny.
“We didn’t set up in any way defensively – a wee bit like the way we set up down in Kerry – and we paid a high price for that, particularly early on when we were fortunate to be only five points down at half-time.
“We tightened things up a bit in the second half until the sending off but, don’t get me wrong, we don’t like conceding big scores,” Gallagher said.
Does that mean Donegal will go back into their shell and adopt an ultra defensive formation this weekend?
“As a group, we said that we would try out a couple of things at the start of the year and that we would look an each game on its own merits. Dublin will present a different challenge to Roscommon but it’s one that we’re more familiar with as well so we’ll amend things slightly,” he said.
A lot will depend on what players Gallagher has at his disposal this weekend with full-back Neil McGee suffering from a slight hip problem to go with the nose injury sustained in Kerry a number of weeks back.
“We’re not overly concerned with his hip problem and we’ll make a late call on his availability.
“We don’t expect to have Frank McGlynn (hamstring). Had it been a Championship game he may have played but there’s it not worth the risk. Karl Lacey is pushing hard at training while Big Neil (Gallagher) has a twinge in his back. Ciaran Thompson took a knock to his knee and we’re leaving him off for the U21s,” he said.
Although Thompson is being rested ahead of Donegal’s U21 Ulster semi final meeting with Tyrone on Wednesday night next, the Donegal manager indicated that he may include other members of the U21 team in the match day panel for Croke Park.
“Traditionally, over the last number of years the U21s have been part of the senior squad and that hasn’t changed. I won’t know until closer to the weekend whether any of them will start or not but the team, and squad, will be along similar lines to when we’ve had to date,” he said.
With his squad all free to play league games for their clubs on Easter Monday, Gallagher will be hoping that no one picks up an injury as we edge ever closer to this year’s ultimate goal – bringing another Ulster Senior title back to Donegal.
Allianz Football League Roinn 1
Saturday, March 26, Round 6
Páirc an Chrócaigh 19:00 Áth Cliath v Dún na nGall (Setanta)
Referee: Conor Lane (Corcaigh)
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