By Frank Craig
Hugh McFadden says that the quick turnaround between games makes for a much more exciting Ulster Championship.
Donegal spent the best part of seven months waiting on their provincial opener with Fermanagh to come around. With that tricky hurdle safely cleared Tyrone – undoubtedly their biggest foe – now stand immediately between them and a place back in the Ulster final.
That’s the way Championship should be, every training session and tactical sit down now has to be made count. There is absolutely no danger of any paralysis by analysis for the players in the build-up to Saturday’s huge clash at Kingspan Breffni Park.
The squad’s complete and undivided attention will have immediately shifted to Mickey Harte’s side as they regrouped back inside the dressing rooms in Enniskillen.
“I really enjoyed the quick turnaround between Championship fixtures last season,” McFadden said. “It just allows for greater momentum. There isn’t as much slogging in between – the need simply isn’t there to do that.
“You’ve a clear picture in your head. It’s all laid out. Every session counts now in the lead up, every talk. It’s exciting, intense. But all in a good way. Tyrone comes around pretty quickly. It’ll be hyped up. For supporters and players it’s a huge game to look forward to.”
Donegal and Tyrone was the Ulster SFC semi-final that everyone wanted, expected even. But Killybegs club man McFadden is adamant that neither he nor a single one of his teammates could contemplate entertaining that thought until after they’d disposed of a stubborn Fermanagh.
He explained: “We always knew it was going to be a very tough game. You have to give credit to the level of performance they produced.
“They ran Division 1 promotion very close this year. We knew we were in for a tough Championship encounter. We knew the style of football they’d bring. It was a tough game, a subdued kind of game, particularly in the first-half, given the nature of the way it was being played out.
“It was one of the more quieter Ulster Championship games I’ve been involved in. But we’ve learned a lot from it. And hopefully now it’s used as part of building for Tyrone.”
The big plus for Donegal is the return from injury of Patrick McBrearty. The ace attacker looked to be moving freely and well against the Erne men and you could his confidence grow the longer the contest went on.
“Paddy is one of, if not the best inside forward in the country,” McFadden said on the precocious Kilcar man. “For us to have him back on the field is a serious boost. The way he’s gone about his business since the operation, the rehab, it’s been seriously impressive.
“The physical condition he’s come back in is unbelievable. Giving the fact he’s up and down the road from Dublin with work makes that all the more remarkable.
“I thought when we needed him, in that second-half, he really stood up and was counted. That bouncing ball he managed to get on the end of and flick over was huge. There was no holding back.
“He’s a class act. I read somewhere this week that he’s into his ninth Championship season. That’s remarkable for a man of his age.”
McBrearty’s presence, the attention trained on his first appearance back for Donegal since his ACL rupture, had the ability to eclipse everything and everyone else.
However, it became fairly obvious from early on that Jamie Brennan wasn’t content to stand in the shadows. His four points from play rightly earned the Bundoran flier the man-of-the-match award against Fermanagh.
And you can bet the provisions Tyrone are now making for the Donegal attack centre on Brennan just as much as they do on McBrearty.
“I think we have a nice spread of score-takers in the panel,” McFaddan said on the Donegal front line. “Most lads are comfortable at taking the shot on. Niall O’Donnell came off the bench against Fermanagh. He knows where the posts are.
“Oisin Gallen has shown in the League he’s already a serious option. Jamie came in at a young age. I think that’s three seasons he now has under the belt. This is his fourth.
“His speed and reaction against Fermanagh was impressive. He kicked some great points. He’s one of the most agile and quickest players I’ve ever come across. He’s added a lot of power too.
“It’s exciting now playing with lads like that.”
There is a gravity-defying photograph currently doing the rounds on social media of McFadden’s midfield partner Jason McGee hanging higher than should be humanly possible during that win over Fermanagh.
The Cloughaneely man’s spring somehow manages to elevate his knees higher than all the perplexed heads left behind back on earth. It’s a serious image. But McFadden says Jason is a “serious” player.
“Jason is a really good lad. He’s a phenomenal athlete. He was with the Under 20s last year but has come back in and has really stepped it up. He’s a serious player.
“The size and stature is there but his skill levels are incredibly high. He’s a great reader of the game. He drifts into really good positions and I thought the point he kicked in the first-half was an excellent example of that.
“He’s got the potential to be right up there with the best midfielders in the country. And he’s got his whole career ahead of him. He can be the very best. That’s the exciting part for Donegal supporters.”
It can’t be easy for McFadden and McGee attempting to fill the void left by the legendary pairing of Neil Gallagher and Rory Kavanagh.
But like Big Neil explained in this paper a number of weeks ago, their status amongst the Tir Chonaill faithful took some time to earn. And it wasn’t until 2012 under Jim McGuinness, at 29 and 30 years of age, that pair really came of age.
Midfield is the loneliest of intercounty outposts. But McFadden has never shied away from the expectations or level demanded of him.
“I’ve never hid away from the fact that I did find it hard to break into the side for a while. My main priority now it to always put in a performance that gets me back on the field the next day.
“Trying to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Neil Gallagher, Rory Kavanagh, Martin McElhinney, Christy Toye… these lads out around the middle of the field; it’s not always easy.
“There have been a lot of days that have provided a lot of learning. Without a doubt. We’ve all had tough days. Jason seems to have come in and hit the ground running.
“It’s still early days for us as a pair. There are bigger days and much bigger tests to come. But that is the level we’re striving to reach.”
McFadden has a very affable personality. It’s no surprise that he’s one of the new Cúl Camp ambassadors for the Donegal board this summer.
But there is a steel to him. Clubmates will tell you he’s driven and a tough taskmaster if he feels things aren’t pointing in the right direction.
It should raise no eyebrows that he was the one that Declan Bonner handed the captain’s armband to when Michael Murphy rested up in the early parts of both the last two campaigns.
“There was never any doubt that Michael was going to be the captain,” said McFadden. “He’s a phenomenal captain and leader for Donegal. Declan gave me the armband for the McKenna Cup in 2018.
“Off the back of a difficult 2017 it was a confidence lift. The main motivation is for the team to win. That’s the way we are all approaching this.”