By Frank Craig
Jamie Brennan insists there are no guarantees for anyone in the Donegal squad.
The Bundoran man was nominated for an All-Star in 2019 but he admits he remains a little frustrated with how the Super 8s went for both Donegal and himself.
The standout player in Ulster, a cagey championship where time and space are usually at a premium, Brennan nailed 2-11 in three provincial outings including 1-3 in a superb individual showing against Tyrone in the provincial semi-finals.
Things were expected to open up outside Ulster and that, we were told, would suit Brennan down to the ground.
He says confidence, individually and collectively, was high going into the All-Ireland series. And while they didn’t have things all their own way against Meath in Ballybofey, Donegal still managed to produce a storming finish to defeat the Royals by 2-19 to 1-13 in their first game in the Super 8s.
Declan Bonner’s side played out a spectacular 1-20 to 1-20 draw against Kerry in Croke Park which teed up a massive ‘winner takes all’ encounter with old foes Mayo in Castlebar. That buzzing spectacle seemed to heighten expectation as attention turned to McHale Park.
However, on a day when Donegal just didn’t fire, their All-Ireland interest once again came to a frustrating end at the quarter-final juncture.
Brennan said: “On a personal level, I was a bit disappointed in the Super 8s. It can be tricky. You analyse it, you look back over it. It could be just one ball that didn’t stick or a missed shot. Games turn for you on small things.”
The aim, without a shadow of a doubt, is to break through that Super 8s glass celling and get Donegal back into the All-Ireland semi-finals. However, Brennan warns that realising those ambitions is going to take a serious effort.
Donegal did hold onto their Anglo Celt crown last season and that achievement shouldn’t be dismissed or ever taken for granted.
“There is a serious amount of football to be played before anyone can think about the Super 8s. And I’ve said it before in other interviews, we can’t take what we did last year for granted either. And even your position in the team, you can’t take any of that for granted.
“I’m looking at Eoghan McGettigan and other lads putting their hands up. You have to be tuned in completely at this level or you’ll quickly be replaced. But it keeps you on your toes and that’s what I’m really enjoying too – the challenge of all of that.”
In the meantime, the player says he is just glad to be back out on the training field having spent the best part of the last three months tied to gym work and pre-season conditioning.
“Definitely” he says. “Training is fine but it’s the games that you be waiting for to come around. It’s been three or four months since I was properly at it and it’s just a matter of blowing those cobwebs now. We were back outside on the training field there recently and we’re slowly getting back into that routine.
“It’s just sort of ticking over. You have your conditioning and recovery work to get through. And it’s crucial work now. It’s all very important as it helps fend off those wee niggles and injuries that can be picked up at the beginning of pre-season.
“We’re straight into the McKenna Cup. The way the season is now, if you miss a week here or there it falls into league pretty quickly. And you don’t want to be playing catch up. It’s such a quick turnaround that you have to look after yourself.”
Donegal’s NFL opener is a massive home clash in Ballybofey with Mayo on Saturday, January 25. Brennan and his teammates know that they have to start plying their league trade in football’s top division on a more regular basis.
Slipping in and out of Division 1 doesn’t lend itself to an All-Ireland tilt. And the best teams, he says, are top tier mainstays.
“Yeah, I’m looking forward to it,” he adds. “We’ll be playing such high quality teams that you are extra determined to show you’re at that level. Division 1 is seriously competitive. Supporters now too, they love their league football.
“The exposure those games get on the TV, there is a really good edge to them. People love the cut and thrust of it and it’s week in, week out. You look through that list of sides and the fixtures and you can’t help but be excited.”
Before all of that, there is the McKenna Cup. It’ll be interesting to see who Bonner uses in that competition and who he holds off for Mayo.
“You want to play as much football as possible. Last year myself, Michael Langan and Niall (O’Donnell) probably played every game possible. When the games are there you want to play. Simple as that.
“You want to sharpen yourself and expose yourself to competition as quickly as possible. You want to get your touch going and get your shooting going as soon as possible.
“But listen, it’ll be Declan that decides all of that and the rest of us will just have to wait and see.”
Donegal had six All-Star nominations in 2019 – the third highest tally behind Dublin (13) and Kerry (9). Michael Murphy, Ryan McHugh, Patrick McBrearty, Shaun Patton, Stephen McMenamin and Brennan were all included on the end-of-season list.
And while in the end only Murphy would walk away with the coveted statuette, Brennan says it was still an honour to be nominated and that it adds further weight to the notion that Donegal are once again closing the gap at the very top.
“It was nice to be nominated and it was nice to go up and see what the whole thing is about. I suppose it means we’re not a million miles away and I mean that in a general term.
“There was our draw with Kerry and you seen where they eventually went. It’s not hard to start thinking if things had to have gone our way a little more who knows what could have happened.
“That’s why we’re itching to get back. We want to push on and bring it on further. It wasn’t an ideal way for us to end. And the way it finished for us last year is definitely a motivation now going into 2020. The way it ended for us you just feel there is unfinished business.”
Donegal, even at this early stage, will already have one eye trained on their Ulster SFC opener – a seriously exciting pairing with Tyrone in MacCumnhaill Park on May 17.
Brennan agrees that if Donegal are to make a dent on this season’s Ulster and All-Ireland championships, they’re going to have to do it the hard way and from the very off.
“If you look at Leinster… to be fair it’s a wee bit different in terms of preparation. Dublin can plan things a little differently. A lot of the sides in other provinces can build it up gradually.
“For us, if we’re not ready first day out we’ll be looking at the back door.
“It’s mad to think there is so much football to be played before then. But we have to be clued into that right away. It’s a massive opener. We’ve all this stuff in between and at the same time we’re eyeing up Tyrone down the line.”