By Frank Craig
Barry Dunnion is excited about Donegal’s potential ahead of the Super 8s.
Like the rest of the county, the Four Masters clubman has been thoroughly impressed with how Declan Bonner’s side has retained its Ulster crown.
He errs on the side of caution though and warns the Tir Chonaill faithful that the real acid tests are still in front of them.
But he says you cannot ignore the manner in which Donegal have gone about their business so far.
He told the Donegal News: “You can’t be anything but impressed with them. The manner in which they’ve put away Fermanagh, Tyrone and Cavan has been so convincing.
“They will know there are bigger tests ahead. They’ll be knuckling down again this week. They’ll go at it hard. They certainly won’t be getting carried away. But the early signs have been so good.
“From (Shaun) Patton out, all over the field, they look a really cohesive unit. You couldn’t pick out anyone and say they’re struggling or vulnerable.
“Even the lads coming in off the bench, they are making crucial contributions.”
In off the sideline is one thing but in from the cold is another matter entirely. Dunnion admitted he was really taken with how Odhrán McFadden Ferry acquitted himself on his senior debut.
“He came in, in an Ulster final, and it didn’t faze him one bit. He was given one of the main jobs and he marked Martin Reilly out of it. He did a complete job on him. And he was at ease doing it.
“But that goes for all of them. It’s all very encouraging. (Stephen) McMenamin is another young lad that’s impressed me. He is almost like another Eamon McGee. He has that cut. He’s tough but he’s a really good footballer. He can mix it and he has that edge you need. Again, he’s still only a young lad and the encouraging part is that he can get even better.”
Donegal are in the exact same position they were this time last season. But the mindset has to be much more positive.
Dunnion says the loss of Paddy McBrearty last summer, given the form he was in, would have been a serious blow for the side. He’s now back. And with Jamie Brennan not content to remain in his shadow, Donegal now have two of the most dangerous inside forwards in the country.
The other big plus to that, he believes, is that it relieves some of the burden on Michael Murphy.
“The threat those two offer, it takes some of the pressure and even attention away from Murphy. He can drift where ever he wants. The opposition really have to think about this Donegal side. Jamie has really stepped up. He is a year older, a year wiser.
“He’s also put so much work into his conditioning. All of them, they have that power and compactness. Confidence wise, it’s all there.
“I know it’s early days, and there are bigger tests ahead. They’ll know that better than anyone. But that’s what they’ve been gearing up for all year.
“It’s very exciting. As a supporter, I can’t wait for the Super 8s now. Ballybofey will really be a sight in two weeks time.”
When Jim McGuinness first laid out his strength and conditioning plans for Donegal back in 2011, it was an alien concept to the overwhelming majority of the panel.
Rory Kavanagh, in his excellent book ‘Winning’, revealed that players, many in their late 20s, were being asked to lift weights for the very first time.
But the legacy of all of that is that it’s now the basic requisite for any young lad wanting to play county football.
“These lads start off now at 15 or 16,” he added. “It’s second nature. They know it’s work that has to be done. To be competitive and to have any hope of challenging the top teams or a Dublin, you have to tick all those boxes.”
Complementing all of that youthful exuberance is a core of experienced campaigners like Neil McGee, Paddy McGrath, Michael Murphy, Leo McLoone, Frank McGlynn and Paul Durcan. They’re already Donegal legends but they’re not content to rest on reputation.
They’re not ready to step aside either.
“It’s great,” said Dunnion on his former team mates. “And they’re more than holding their own. It’s such an important part of it – experience.
“You hear wee bits and pieces of interviews and all those young lads are saying how much those more experienced fellas mean to them. They grew up looking up to them and now they’re in there with them and being successful.
“I’m sure those lads are feeding off that energy. The likes of Paddy (McGrath), Neil McGee and Frank (McGlynn), believe me, they are fiercely competitive.
“And Michael (Murphy) is Michael. He’s still got a good few years left in him yet. But he’s a special player. All those lads are still there because they want to achieve, get back to that next level. The impressive thing for me is that they are still all playing so well.”
Another that has stepped back on that green and gold carousel is Paul Durcan. No one expected to ever see ‘Pappa’ back in a Donegal senior squad.
And even though he hasn’t stepped straight back into the No. 1 jersey, Dunnion is in no doubt that his influence is being felt.
“Paul is a great goalkeeper obviously, but he’s a great lad too. If he thinks he can help or improve (Shaun) Patton… he’s the type of person that will be delighted to see how Patton is playing at the minute.
“I honestly believe he has made a difference to Shaun Patton this year. He’s also a good fella to have around the set-up. I’m sure the younger lads get good craic out of him too.
“He’s another that knows what it takes to be the best at what he does. I’m sure he’s been a massive help to the set-up.”
Much talk and attention has centred on the Donegal management team. It’s high-profile. But Dunnion believes it’s a potent and intelligent mix.
He says boss Declan Bonner deserves massive credit for the shrewd acquisition of Stephen Rochford to bounce off the likes of Paul McGonigle and, of course, Karl Lacey.
Lacey and Dunnion are best friends, brother in laws as well. He labels the four-time All-Star and former Footballer of the Year as a “perfectionist”.
He’s someone that Dunnion felt would always make the move into coaching.
“The way he played the game, the way he read the game, it was the obvious next step. He was second to none when he played. Putting all that into a coaching aspect now, it has to be a big part of it.
“I’d say, just like playing, it’s probably coming easy to him. Karl was another one of those players, like Michael, that you’d have no problem labelling special.
“Those young lads are probably hanging on his every word. He’ll have that respect. Credit to Declan Bonner, he seems to have got a great balance and a seriously good back room team together.
“There aren’t too many set-ups in the country with the experience Donegal now has. Stephen Rochford has come in. You hear very little which is also a good sign.
“But from what I do hear, he’s fitted in really well. It was a shrewd move by Declan. And I’m sure all four of them, Declan, Stephen, Paul McGonigle and Karl are leaving no stone unturned in terms of preparation.
“I was at the Ulster final and you could just see the level of coaching. And you just get that feeling they’re a really gelled group. They’re very much together.
“The Super 8s are going to be really interesting. Donegal, at the minute, are capable of putting it up to anyone in the country. But you have to be very cautious.
“There are some serious tests in front of them now over the next number of weeks. But they’re going in as Ulster champions. They’ll have home advantage first day out.
“Whoever comes their way there, getting off the mark in a positive fashion will be the big aim.”