RYAN FERRY takes a look at the season that has just been for the Donegal senior footballers.
A is for A season like no other: Who could have expected when Donegal played their first game on January 5, that they would still be playing in the depths of winter? The Coronavirus turned sport on its head and the intercounty season was stalled before returning in late October. Strangely no new championship draw was made despite the change of format, and Declan Bonner’s men like so many others found how unforgiving knock-out football can be.
B is for Breffni Blues: Full disclosure here, did anyone really see Donegal losing to Cavan in the Ulster Final? Declan Bonner’s team were 1/14 on to win but their opponents brought a savage intensity to the game and left Donegal with the blues. It’s hard to begrudge them their title when you saw how much it meant, and the country in general was delighted with their triumph. Not so much here in Donegal, where it feels like we left the party early, just before the real fun gets underway.
C is for Covid shutdown: Donegal were preparing for a league game with Tyrone when the season was brought to a halt. Speaking on the Tuesday beforehand, Declan Bonner was still confident that the game would go ahead. However, by the Thursday, all matches had been called off for a two-week period, which would go on to last much longer than that.
D is for Division 1 status retained: Donegal retained their Division 1 status with a fine 2-17 to 2-13 win over Tyrone in the first game after the intercounty season resumed. That is important for their younger players as they try to find their feet at the top level. However, there is uncertainty at the moment over what format the National Football League will take in 2021.
E is for (Centre of) Excellence: The Donegal Centre of Excellence at Convoy was completed this year, and it is a fantastic facility which will serve our intercounty teams for generations to come. In recent years, our teams had to prepare and tog out in portacabins, but now there is a state-of-the-art venue with all the mod-cods and that will help to maintain and better the high performance environment.
F is for Fundraiser: The Donegal team ran a very successful fundraiser in July for Olivia ‘Livie’ Mulhern, a baby who was diagnosed with a rare and serious genetic neuromuscular condition called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) and needed urgent surgery. The players and management took part in a charity cycle where they set off from nine different locations and cycled to Ballybofey. It proved to be a huge success, raising in excess of €30,000, and little Livie was able to receive her surgery in October.
G is for Gushing with praise: Pundits and commentators throughout the county were gushing with praise for Donegal’s fantastic Ulster semi-final win over Armagh. Donegal played some scintillating football and destroyed their opponents with their fast football. It looked like the county were genuine All-Ireland contenders. Of course, Dr Hindsight now reminds us that the Orchard county didn’t bring any sort of intensity, and that played into Donegal’s hands.
H is for the High ball: The high ball proved to be an issue for Donegal throughout the campaign. Shaun Patton dropped Brian Howard’s shot in the league against Dublin which allowed Paul Mannion in for a goal, while his poor punch saw Conor Madden grab the crucial three-pointer against Cavan. The goalkeeper doesn’t take all the blame however, as the full-back line looked uncomfortable at times when the ball was punted in long, particularly last week, and it’s something the team will have to work on going forward.
I is for injuries: Donegal don’t make excuses about injuries and we are told that they are part and parcel of the game. However, there’s no doubt that they did have an impact this year, and at no stage, did Bonner have a fully fit squad to choose from. Oisin Gallen, Stephen McMenamin, Paddy McGrath and Jason McGee didn’t play in the spring, while Conor Morrison did his cruciate in the club championship. Patrick McBrearty, McGrath, McMenamin, Gallen, and Ciaran Thompson all had injuries in recent weeks, and that stretched the strength of the panel.
J is for James Durcan: Everything seemed to be going to plan for Donegal in their opening league match against Mayo when Ciaran Thompson and Michael Murphy kicked injury-time points. However, they were then pegged back at the death when Donegal failed to bring down James Durcan, who rifled a shot into the top corner to secure a draw for his team. It demonstrated a lack of ruthlessness, which would go on to haunt Donegal against Galway and Dublin in the league, as well as in the Ulster Final when they were 0-9 to 0-6 ahead and should have pushed on.
K is for Kerry: The Donegal players travelled down to Kerry in their own cars for the final league game which was essentially a dead-rubber. It was a long trek and would have taken the likes of Conor O’Donnell (Carndonagh) and Daire Ó Baoill (Gaoth Dobhair) around 12 hours to make the round trip. Donegal opted to leave eight of their more experienced players at home, so the men that did travel knew they were like lambs to the slaughter against a Kerry side who were gunning for the league title.
L is for Lebanon: Odhran McFadden-Ferry was an important player for Donegal in the spring, and scored a brilliant goal against Meath in Navan. However, he didn’t play when football resumed in the winter as he headed to Lebanon with the Defence Forces on peacekeeping duty. McFadden-Ferry is in the early stages of his Donegal career, but his tenacity was certainly missed in the provincial decider.
M is for Man-handling: All the talk heading into the big Ulster Championship quarter-final with Tyrone was about Conor McKenna. However, Donegal were able to snuff him out in the championship with Neil McGee paying him some close attention. Mickey Harte refuted the suggestion that McKenna was well marshalled and said that he thought it was ‘man-handling’. After watching Ryan McMenamin, Conor Gormley, and Justin McMahon at close quarters down through the years, Harte probably knew what to look out for.
N is for No training permitted: Donegal’s preparations for the conclusion of the league and the championship were dealt a blow in mid-September when a member of the squad tested positive for Covid-19. That meant that no training was permitted for the best part of two weeks and the news served as a reminder of how serious the situation was for everyone involved.
O is for Offensive mark: The offensive mark was brought in on a permanent basis but it wasn’t a ploy that Donegal used often this season. They had offensive marks in just four of the 12 games that they played. Michael Murphy against Mayo, Murphy and Jamie Brennan in the Galway match, and the skipper again in the league encounter with Dublin. Caolan McGonagle, Hugh McFadden and Niall O’Donnell all scored marks in the championship clash with Armagh.
P is for Pacey Peadar: The breakthrough star of 2020 for Donegal was Peadar Mogan. The St Naul’s man has been highly-rated since he helped the county to the Ulster Minor title in 2016 when he was only 17. It took him some time to find his feet this year, but he used the lockdown very well and came back stronger and more explosive and that helped to establish himself in the team. Mogan was the only player to feature in every one of Donegal’s 12 games.
Q is for Quiet terraces: Intercounty matches just weren’t the same after the resumption with quiet terraces and no supporters in attendance. Yes there was still tension during matches, but there wasn’t the same anticipation beforehand, or the noise and colour that goes with big championship days. It was tough on supporters both young and old, who had to watch from the sofa, and particularly on the loyal band of fans, who go to all games in all competitions in all sorts of weather to cheer on their team.
R is for Rain: There was incessant rain for the big derby clash with Tyrone on November 1. The Sean MacCumhaill’s club did a great job to make the pitch playable, but the conditions were still very challenging, and errors were common place. Donegal delivered a hugely committed performance to prevail over their neighbours, and it gave people around the county a huge lift.
S is for Semi-final absence: There have been eight different semi-finalists in the All-Ireland Championship over the last three years, and yet Donegal have not been one of them. The county has not reached the last four since 2014 and given the talent over that spell, that is undoubtedly a disappointing return. This year was a big opportunity missed.
T is for Three in-a-row bid quashed: Donegal were aiming for their first ever three in-a-row in Ulster on Sunday and few saw them having any great difficulty. However, just like in 2013 when shocked by Monaghan, Bonner’s men found that it isn’t easy to claim a provincial treble.
U is for Unsung Hero: Caolan McGonagle has been on the Donegal panel for four seasons and has had to bide his time for opportunities. He was a regular in the league before the lockdown but really stepped up matters when the season restarted. The Buncrana man played in all five games and was probably Donegal’s most consistent player bringing great power and scores. He might not have the profile but an All Star nomination would be a reward for his endeavours.
V is for Vaccine: In recent weeks there has finally been some hope that we will get a vaccine to end this Covid crisis. Hopefully it arrives and is rolled out in early 2021 so that fans can return to the terraces, and teams can prepare as they would like to once again.
W is for Withdrawal: Donegal caused a stir back in January when they withdrew from the Dr McKenna Cup at the semi-final stage. Donegal were due to face Monaghan but with 13 of the squad in Sigerson and a number ruled out through illness and injuries, Bonner said his team couldn’t field. The Ulster GAA turned down requests for a new date for the semi-final and Donegal withdrew saying, it was “a decision not taken lightly and one which we regret having to reach”.
X is for XL: There’s no need for an XL shirt for Andrew McClean, who a lot of managers would probably class as too small for intercounty football. However, the Kilcar clubman made a fine impression in his debut season. Interestingly, he didn’t start any games for Donegal, but was brought on in eleven of their 12 matches and always brought energy to the side. The only match he didn’t feature in was the league game against Dublin in Croke Park.
Y is for Youthful panel: Donegal manager Declan Bonner used 37 players (some of whom have since left the panel) over the course of the season. Of that figure, five players – Neil McGee, Paul Brennan, Paddy McGrath, Michael Murphy, and Eamonn Doherty – are in their fourth decade. The rest of the players are all in their twenties, so it is a youthful panel that Donegal used this season.
Z is for Zoom: Zoom became an important tool for all GAA teams during the lockdown and Donegal used it to hold their meetings and do analysis. That demonstrated the challenges they faced when they couldn’t be in close contact with one another, and it was far from a simple year. The players and the management team deserve huge credit for the way they represented the county given the risks and fears that were present during the Covid-19 pandemic.