A is for A new era: There was a different feel to the Donegal team this year, as many of the old heroes moved on. Nine members of last year’s squad were unavailable, and that was a huge void to fill. The season started promisingly and ended disastrously, but there is no designated blueprint for rebuilding. It will take time before Donegal are back at the elite level of Gaelic Football.
B is for Boldness: There was no boldness or devilment to Donegal this year. In previous seasons, you’d hardly have gotten through a half of football without a skirmish, or if a team got a run on them, they would start to slow the game down. But when the championship came around this term, it was Donegal who were being bullied. They have become a soft touch and need to find that hard edge again next season.
C is for Champions held: One of the highlights of the year was holding the reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin to a draw in MacCumhaill Park. The Dubs weren’t at full tilt, and the conditions helped, but it was still an impressive display, and while it was only a draw, the supporters went home happy that day.
D is for Down the Hatch: On the night before Donegal played in Dr Hyde Park, a delegation of sports reporters frequented a public house in Roscommon town called ‘Down the Hatch’ and were surprised to see the Rossies manager Kevin McStay present. ‘He should have been at home preparing’ it was said wisely the following day as Eoin McHugh’s late point gave Donegal victory. As it turned out, Kevin wasn’t too bothered about the league, and instead landed a provincial crown. He who laughs last and all that.
E is for Emptying the bench: Last year, Rory Gallagher was criticised for not making enough subs when Donegal went out of the championship. In 2017, it was the opposite, as he has been slammed for making too many replacements against Galway. He gambled last week by emptying his bench by the 42nd minute and it backfired considerably. With the threat of black cards and injuries, he should have held at least one player in reserve.
F is for Free-scoring McGrath: Paddy McGrath has developed a reputation as one of the tightest marking corner-backs in the land, but he’s not renowned for his scoring prowess. However, he stunned the MacCumhaill Park crowd by curling over from an acute angle against Tyrone in the league, and then he scored his first ever goal for the county against Antrim in the Championship. Another fine campaign for the Ardara man.
G is for Galway: Donegal were expected to edge past Galway in Markievicz Park last week, but instead were hammered out the gate. That defeat means for the first time since 2011, Donegal have failed to qualify for the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
H is for Home comforts: Victories over Tyrone, Antrim, and Longford, along with a draw against Dublin mean it’s now 18 games since Donegal lost a game in MacCumhaill Park. The Ballybofey venue has been turned into a fortress that no county likes to visit.
I is Impending Retirements: From the very first time Rory Gallagher met with the press this year, he said that he was expecting even more retirements at the end of the campaign. Those are likely to be Frank McGlynn and Karl Lacey, and it would be sad if they were to go out on the back of a hammering like the one received last week. Most supporters would like to see the duo stay on for one more year, but if they do decide to hang up the boots, they will do so as two of the most decorated players in Donegal’s history, and two of the classiest players to ever pull on the green and gold jersey.
J is for January: Remember back in January when Donegal opted to enter their Under 21 team in the Dr McKenna Cup? Declan Bonner’s team battled well against Jordanstown, but were well beaten by Cavan and Tyrone. Traditionalists may say it wasn’t the right approach to the pre-season competition, but Rory Gallagher’s team stayed in Division 1, while the Under 21s won the provincial title, so the experiment was a success.
K is for Kerry: The Kingdom tore Donegal to shreds in the first league game in Letterkenny. Gallagher’s young side battled back with a late flurry, but most of Kerry’s heavy hitters were off the pitch by then. Had Donegal won last week, they may have run into Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s team, and it’s probably for the best that they won’t see them again this season.
L is for Late changes: Donegal played seven league games and five championship matches, and made late changes to the starting fifteen every time, which makes you wonder why they bother naming it at all. On top of that, Ciaran Thompson wore the number nine jersey despite never playing in midfield, while Michael Murphy wore 14 yet was domiciled in the middle. Perhaps they should just go with squad numbers next season.
M is for Missing stars: When Donegal were going out of the championship last week, Odhrán MacNiallais and Leo McLoone were playing a challenge game in New York. They are two players who are in the prime of their careers, and Donegal simply can’t do withoutthem. An SOS should be sent to Malin as well to try and persuade Declan Walsh to get involved again, while Dermot ‘Brick’ Molloy is still one of the top forwards in the county. Stephen McBrearty left the panel to go to Boston this summer, and he is also a player that should return to the fold next term. The Kilcar man has the talent, but it’s getting it out of him that’s the key.
N is for Noisy neighbours: Donegal’s bid to reach the Ulster Final was ended by Tyrone, who are undoubtedly the top team in the province now. The gap has widened between Donegal and their noisy neighbours and it won’t be easy to close, especially as the men from the far side of Lifford look like they could be All-Ireland contenders.
O is for Online Abuse: Nowadays every defeat seems to be accompanied by a knee-jerk reaction on social media. Players and management are all in the firing line, and derogatory comments are flung in the direction of amateurs. At least on Facebook, people use their own names so it’s easy to pinpoint the amadáns. Unfortunately it’s not so easy in the cowardly world of GAA forums, where anonymity reigns supreme.
P is for Peaked too early: Donegal had trained hard since before Christmas last year, and they were in excellent shape during the league, much like Roscommon were in 2016. However, there’s no doubt that some players looked jaded in the summer months when the championship heat started to rise.
Q is for Quandary: As usual the Michael Murphy quandary was one of the main talking points this season. The Donegal captain is one of the finest players in the game, and is equally as comfortable at full-forward or midfield. After the loss of Neil Gallagher, Donegal played Murphy solely in the middle sector this year, and while he was very effective, they didn’t carry the same threat in attack. While it’s understandable that 19-year-old Jason McGee needed support in midfield, surely Murphy could have alternated in and out of the full-forward line like he had done in previous years.
R is for Replacement jersey: There was a bizarre situation in the Longford game when their corner-forward Robbie Smyth came off as a blood sub and they couldn’t find a replacement jersey. So Smyth was given a shirt, with his number on it, that one of his fans in the stand was wearing and went back out onto the field. It was a noteworthy moment from an otherwise underwhelming game which should be filed under the ‘do not mention ever again’ category.
S is for Structure: For the majority of the season, Donegal brought bodies back into defence to set up a zonal strategy, where they would try to turn over the ball, run it down the field and find Patrick McBrearty on the loop.
However, teams were waltzing through the middle of their defence with ease. Gaelic Football has changed considerably in recent times, but the principle of a strong, powerful centre half-back to shield the defence remains true, as Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone have all shown. Ryan McHugh is a brilliant player but he is needed more as an attacking threat to be playing at number 6. Kieran Gillespie is strong and forceful, and he appears the perfect man to play that role next season, if he can stay injury-free.
T is for Top flight: Donegal were one of the favourites for relegation from Division 1, but managed to stay up comfortably. There’s a big difference between league and championship, but you still want to be in the top flight, and Donegal can look forward to facing Dublin, Kerry, and Mayo again next spring.
U is for Under 21 Championship: Donegal began their Ulster Under 21 Championship campaign on March 15, and it ended on April 15. They played five games during that period. The Donegal senior team were involved in three matches in the league at that time, and Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher, Cian Mulligan, Jamie Brennan, Michael Carroll, and Michael Langan featured in all of them. Donegal knew they would be staying in Division 1 before the Monaghan and Mayo games, so the Under 21s should have been rested for those encounters, with a view to keeping them fresh for later in the year.
V is for Vertically challenged: It’s hard to think of another county team that carries as many small players as Donegal. You need to have pace in the modern game but you also need players who can break through tackles, and with the exception of Michael Murphy and Martin McElhinney, they hadn’t too many of them. If you look at Galway’s half-back line last week – Gary O’Donnell, Gareth Bradshaw, and Liam Silke – they are all players near or touching six foot. Donegal need to find bigger players.
W is for Will he stay or will he go?: When asked last Saturday if he intended on being the manager again next season, Rory Gallagher said the following: “We’re after coming off a tough day. All we were thinking about was getting over the line and getting another week in the Championship. That’s all the thoughts coming into it.” He was given a new three-year term last September, with the option of a fourth, but could come under pressure after over-seeing two humiliating defeats this season.
X if for Xyresic: How did people do A-Z lists before google came around? Xyresic is another way of saying razor sharp, and that sums up Patrick McBrearty’s performances in the championship. The Kilcar man didn’t start the first match against Antrim, but was excellent in the remaining four games, and has become a real leader for the team.
Y is for Young guns: It’s been all doom and gloom this week, but Donegal do have talented footballers coming through, it will just take time for them to find their feet at senior level. Eighteen members of the squad were Under 21, which is too many. There’s no way that amount of players from the same age bracket could be of intercounty standard. However, there are a number of good prospects, and with patience and the right direction, they will start to fulfill their potential in the coming years.
Z if for Zip. Donegal just didn’t have that zip in the championship that is needed. However, one team that does appear to have that zip is our ladies side. They have been playing excellent football this year and have their eyes on an All-Ireland Final spot. Who knows, maybe we’ll get a big day out in Croke Park before the end of September yet.