A is for Aim Secured. Donegal’s priority during the league was to retain their Division 1 status for 2017, and they managed to do that. The team did lose five league games on the trot after making a promising start, but that slump had no effect on the championship. It’s important that Donegal are facing the strongest teams in the top tier of the league as they go through a few years of transition.
B is for Big Neil. The loss of Neil Gallagher during the Roscommon league game in mid-March was a huge blow to Donegal. The Glenswilly man was slowly introduced during the league, and was handed his first start against the Rossies. However, he only lasted one half, and didn’t feature again for the rest of the campaign. Donegal really missed his presence in midfield, and his leadership.
C is for Courageous effort. It was never going to be easy against Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Jim Gavin has moulded together a tremendous team, who haven’t lost a championship game in nearly two years. Donegal were five points in arrears at half-time, but they never caved in and showed great resolve to push the Dubs all the way. Moral victories are no good to this Donegal side, but they gave it everything they had, and no-one can question their commitment to the cause.
D is for Debutants. Rory Gallagher introduced a number of younger players into the squad this season and gave out eleven debuts in total. Ciaran Thompson, Michael Carroll, Stephen McBrearty, Caolan McGonagle, Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher, Caolan Ward, Cillian Morrison, Danny Rodgers, Kieran Gillespie, Mark Anthony McGinley, and Jack O’Brien were the men to make their bows. Some of those players left the set-up, while others were not used in the championship, but the experience of training with the squad should bring them on considerably.
E is for Eleven points. Patrick McBrearty supplied one of the great performances in Croke Park as he struck eleven points in Donegal’s victory over Cork. Rory Gallagher’s team were slow out of the blocks, and McBrearty almost single-handedly kept them in the game with a remarkable display of accurate shooting. The Cork defence simply couldn’t handle him, and it was a timely reminder of the talent the Kilcar man possesses.
F is for Familiarity with the Farney Army. Donegal have developed a feisty rivalry with Monaghan in recent years, and we were treated to two more titanic tussles this season. It took some brilliant free-taking from Conor McManus to rescue a replay for the Farney county, but Donegal edged through in the second game by a single point, after conceding two sloppy goals.
G is for Gamesmanship. Fermanagh manager Pete McGrath accused Donegal of gamesmanship after his team lost in the Ulster quarter-final in MacCumhaill Park. “Donegal had a lot of gamesmanship out there today whether you like it or not. Let’s call a spade a spade. I mean, the number of times Donegal players went down, in some instances feigning injury, just to stop the clock, to break the play up. And the referee fell for it,” said McGrath. Of course, McGrath’s players were not alien to a bit of gamesmanship themselves during their game with Mayo, but the former Down manager didn’t have as much to say about that.
H is for Home Comforts. Donegal’s league win over Mayo and their championship triumph over Fermanagh on June 12 extended their unbeaten run in League and Championship football at MacCumhaill Park to 15 games. The Ballybofey ground has become a real fortress since 2011 and Donegal have perfected the knack of winning games there. One thing for sure is that no county will want to be drawn away to Donegal in next year’s Ulster Championship.
I is for Injury-time. The GAA’s decision to properly allocate sufficient injury-time this season is a much fairer system, and leads to a dramatic conclusion in tight games. However, the extra minutes didn’t do Donegal any favours this year. Monaghan were able to come back and claim a draw at the death, and in the Ulster Final, Tyrone struck three points in the six minutes of additional time to come from behind and land the Anglo Celt Cup.
J is for the Joke that is the Championship Structure. Donegal played six games this season – five against Division 1 opposition – and only reached the All-Ireland quarter-final. Kerry have played three games, all against Division 3 teams and are through to the last four. Yes, the luck of the draw has been favourable to the men from the Kingdom, but their passage through to Croke Park is so much easier. The GAA’s Director General Paraic Duffy released a championship restructure proposal last week that would make it even harder for Ulster teams to reach the All-Ireland Final, as if their route wasn’t tough enough as things stand.
K is for KN Group. Last January, Donegal GAA announced that the KN Group would be the county’s Tier 1 sponsor for the next three years, while the MCR Group were announced as the new Tier 2 sponsors. With financial backers now hugely important for teams as they try to compete at the top level, the link-up with two successful companies is a fine bit of business. The KN Group has also employed some of the Donegal’s senior stars, which ensures that they are able to continue living in the county.
L is for Lack of inside forwards. Of the 26 players in Donegal’s panel last week, only three – Patrick McBrearty, Michael Murphy, and Colm McFadden – are recognised inside forwards. In contrast, Dublin had seven in their matchday squad on Saturday, Mayo had six, while Tyrone had five. A lack of options leads to a lack of variety in attack. Granted, Donegal have been unlucky with the injury to Darach O’Connor, but they do need to work at uncovering more scoring potential in next year’s league. Stephen McBrearty, Jamie Brennan and joint-minor captain Niall O’Donnell are all players that should be given a chance in competitive football in 2017.
M is for Michael Murphy. Despite protestations from Murphy and his manager, the Donegal captain didn’t look himself during the championship. He only scored two points from play in six matches, while his conversion rate from frees was well down. The Glenswilly man still led by example and was still very influential in the side, but he wasn’t the same threat that he was in previous years. Murphy has now played ten championship seasons for Donegal and an extended break this winter would do him no harm.
N is for Number one. Barely a week passed during the league without Gallagher being asked if Paul Durcan would be returning to the fold after moving to Qatar. It was confirmed in May, that the Donegal Town man would not be back in the summer and Mark Anthony McGinley was handed the number one jersey. The St Michael’s clubman did not look out of place, keeping three clean sheets in the six championship games. While Durcan’s kick-outs were missed, McGinley still had a fine campaign and looked solid. Michael Boyle should be back fully fit to compete for the goalkeeping jersey next term, as will Peter Boyle, while Durcan hasn’t officially retired yet. The goalkeeping position is one where Donegal do appear to be strong.
O is for O’Donnell Park woes. Donegal played two games at O’Donnell Park this season and performed poorly on both occasions. A super late cameo from Ryan Johnston saw St Mary’s College get the better of them in the McKenna Cup, before Roscommon blew Donegal away in Letterkenny in the league. Donegal have only won two of the 13 games they have played in O’Donnell Park, and that is a statistic that should be improved on next year.
P is for Pitch incursions. Maxi Curran drew the ire of the Monaghan players and management team for his incursions onto the pitch during their two games, with Tyrone manager Mickey Harte also taking issue with the amount of times he was on the field. Curran isn’t the only ‘maor foirne’ to test the boundaries at times, but he certainly was highlighted more than anyone else. The Downings man appeared to enjoy the attention, and waved to the Dublin fans on Hill 16 during last week’s match.
Q is for Quality defending. The Donegal full-back line had a good year with the McGee brothers doing well, while Kieran Gillespie showed good promise. However, Paddy McGrath outshone them all with a magnificent season. Right from the start of the McKenna Cup, the Ardara man was in top form and his standards never dropped. His performances against Conor McManus were impressive and no forward got the better of him this year. The fact that All Stars are normally decided from the semi-final stage on could rule McGrath out of the individual honours, but there hasn’t been a better corner-back in the country this season.
R is for Red mist. Donegal picked up seven red cards during their 17 games this season. Paddy McGrath received two yellows against St Mary’s, while Odhran MacNiallais (Roscommon), Michael Murphy (Dublin in the league), Martin McElhinney (Monaghan championship first match), Rory Kavanagh (Monaghan championship replay) all got their marching orders for picking up two bookings. Leo McLoone received a straight red card against Kerry after clashing with Aidan O’Mahony, while Neil McGee was dismissed against Fermanagh for a forearm smash on Ruairi Corrigan.
S is for Substitutions. The use of the bench was a very contentious matter for Donegal supporters during the Championship. On three occasions, Gallagher brought back on players who had already been replaced, while his decision not to introduce Leo McLoone in three successive games drew criticism. Interestingly, after being slow to turn to his bench in each of the two matches with Monaghan, the Donegal manager then used his full quota of subs in the games against Tyrone, Cork, and Dublin.
T is for Tralee. Donegal’s league clash with Kerry in Austin Stack Park was a ferocious affair, dubbed the ‘Melee in Tralee’. There were a number of flashpoints in the match with Alan Fitzgerald and Leo McLoone both getting red cards. Neil McGee was handed with a one-game ban for pulling Fitzgerald’s fingers. Both counties were also hit with €7, 500 fines for their involvement in the fracas, but this was reduced to €5,000 on appeal.
U is for Ulster Final heartache. The defeat to Tyrone on the third Sunday in July was a hard one to stomach. Donegal were rated as heavy underdogs coming into their sixth provincial final in-a-row, but dominated the first half and led by three. Tyrone gradually clawed back their deficit and fantastic late points from Peter Harte and Kieran McGeary saw them claim the Anglo Celt Cup. It was Donegal’s second Ulster Final defeat in-a-row and disappointment was etched all over the players faces at the end of the match.
V is for Victories. Donegal only recorded seven wins from the 17 games they played in 2016, which equates to just over 41%. They got the better of Down in the Dr McKenna Cup, but lost their other two games. Gallagher’s men started their league campaign with wins over Down, Cork, and Mayo, but were defeated in their five other matches. Donegal then saw off Fermanagh, Monaghan after a replay and Cork in the qualifiers.
W is for Warriors retiring. Colm McFadden and Eamon McGee have already called it a day, while Rory Kavanagh has also strongly hinted that he has played his last game for Donegal. Other elder statesmen will bow out, and they will do so after fantastic careers. The likes of McFadden and McGee have soldiered brilliantly throughout their years on the panel, but particularly since 2011. They have provided many great days and memories for Donegal supporters, and the county wishes them well.
X is for X-Factor. Ryan McHugh provided the X-Factor for Donegal this year with a series of stunning performances. The Kilcar man started off the season by scoring two goals against Down in the league and he carried that form through the season. He was superb in the Ulster Final against Tyrone, notching three points from play, and followed up with decent displays against Cork and Dublin. McHugh has developed into one of the finest players in Ireland.
Y is for Young Stars. Rory Gallagher says it’s time to rebuild but that process has already begun. Young players like Eoin McHugh, Kieran Gillespie, Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher and Ciaran Thompson have all now played senior football and they are all going to improve next season as they get bigger and stronger. While the inevitable retirements will leave a hole in the panel, the fact that Donegal have won two of the last three Ulster minor titles bodes well, and the county are producing exciting youngsters.
Z is for Zone out. The players and supporters will now zone out of the senior intercounty game for a couple of months, and focus on club action. However, it won’t be long until January comes around and it’s time to get the jersey out for the McKenna Cup again. 2017 is sure to be another interesting year.
DECLAN BONNER will look to collect the first piece of silverware from his second tenure in charge of Donegal.