By Frank Craig
The fallout and demand for answers following Donegal’s shock Ulster final defeat to Cavan continues and will, most likely, be a hot sporting topic of debate right up until they once again kick a ball in anger in 2021.
Social media, even by name, is a terrible contradiction as there is nothing social about it. I’d imagine it currently makes for difficult reading for the Donegal players and any of their backroom staff that use its various platforms.
Hindsight is the foresight of a gobs**** but it seems everyone has an answer and opinion this week or so with some, just a few mind you, much more eloquently pinned than others.
For the players, there is a sort of safety in numbers aspect to stewing. They’ll be hurting no doubt but the blame game spreads thin there.
For Declan Bonner, it’s probably been a difficult number of days. They say success has many fathers but failure is always an orphan. And that reminds me a little of the Donegal managerial situation.
There were occasions in this Covid-19 hit campaign in both league and championship where Donegal looked awesome. The reason for that was, we were told, the Stephen Rochford effect.
But in the days after Donegal’s dismal efforts against Cavan, the blame suddenly rests solely on Declan Bonner’s shoulders.
There is no doubt that the Tir Chonaill management team is stacked. Bonner, Rochford, Karl Lacey and Paul McGonigle know their stuff. And Donegal is blessed to have such a broad think tank.
Sometimes, the simplest reason for a complete systems failure lies in the obvious. There is a tired and overused sporting quote that is stencilled onto many gyms and training centres (blame Jim McGuinness) and that is, ‘hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard’.
And looking back at the replay of Cavan’s huge upsetting of Donegal, that’s what this scribe believes happened. Very little of the armchair quarter-backing we’ve had to put up with since looks at that very simple logic.
An underdog, of the proportions that Cavan were, has only one choice and that is to empty absolutely everything they have into the task at hand – the one no one gives them a chance in. And it still more often than not won’t be good enough.
A favourite doesn’t have to reach and an overwhelming one certainly doesn’t. Apprehension and some trepidation existed in the lead up to both Donegal’s previous encounters with Tyrone and Armagh. They were primed. But there was an obvious distraction in the run in to Cavan.
The fact that Mickey Graham’s men had been so terribly unconvincing en route to the final, and with Donegal arriving upon a pedestal as the new pretenders to Dublin’s All-Ireland crown, the scene was perfectly set for an ambush.
And again, a favourite in Donegal’s position probably felt it didn’t have to spend the same kind of energy dismissing what was left in front of them to hold onto their Ulster crown. Their heads had already been turned.
Look at the manner in which Dublin pressed and pushed Meath, right up until the final whistle. Critics talk about money, perks and privilege, but that relentlessness had nothing to do with funding or playing all their games in Croke Park.
It is a simple high-performance attitude where they treat every opponent with the utmost respect. Unfortunately for Cavan, they’ll hold them in the same regard and that’s why they’ll also dish out another one-sided hammering to the new Ulster kingpins.
So lets draw a line. But where to now from here for Donegal? Objectively, we haven’t moved forward. In fact, by surrendering the Anglo Celt you could say we’ve taken a massive step back.
But push the Ulster final to one side for a moment. The level a number of Donegal players reached this term was still impressive and really encouraging.
Peadar Mogan, Caolan McGonagle, Niall O’Donnell and Michael Lagan have all now arrived on this stage. The likes of Ciaran Thompson and Hugh McFadden also moved their own games to a new and much more commanding height.
Part of Donegal’s issues, one that was always there in the background, is their current lack of defensive cover. But that was something we expected Dublin to eventually test or even expose.
The fact it was brought to light against Cavan means it’s an even bigger problem than some had previously thought or even cared to admit.
And the really frustrating thing for Declan Bonner is that in a different time and place, it needn’t be such a headache. Oisin McConville calls them ‘bad children’ but the dogged touch-tight aggressors Donegal need are there. For one reason or another, they just weren’t available this term.
Stephen McMemamin was a huge loss after limping off against Armagh just minutes in. But the absent Odhran McFadden-Ferry, recently deployed to Lebanon with the Defence Forces, was a massive miss.
Conor Morrison proved this season in the Donegal club SFC that he was also of a similar breed to the aforementioned pair. He was good enough and ready to be trusted from the off. But a horrible injury playing for St Eunan’s ended his year back in August. Paddy McGrath, who is still only 31, was chasing fitness and battling injury throughout and it left him off the mark.
And then there’s Kieran Gillespie. The Gaoth Dobhair man has had such a terrible run of luck and injury. He’s spent the best part of the last three seasons chasing fitness, ploughing through a number of rehabs and attempting to be ready for both club and county.
The fact that he decided to forget about this term and take a prolonged road back to competitive action was probably a difficult decision to make. But it was a calculated one and it could be one that finally pays off.
I’m told he’s already in fantastic condition and that building upon that good work will no doubt continue in the months ahead. But it won’t be at a careless or accelerated pace. Fingers crossed that makes all the difference this time out.
It’s time to take stock and it’s time to accept responsibility. Donegal will, without a doubt, face into that process in the coming weeks. They won’t and don’t need anyone else to do that for them. This squad of players were at a very low ebb when Declan Bonner came back on board.
Remember Galway and that 4-17 to 0-14 hammering at Markievicz Park? That was only 2017.
But there is no doubt now expectations go above and beyond Ulster SFC titles. No one is demanding All-Ireland wins but supporters at least want to see Donegal in the shake up for Sam Maguire.
It seems it’s going to be a very short turnaround with the NFL, possibly regionalised because of the Covid pandemic, throwing in once again in February.
We have a bag of reasons to park 2020. Truth be told we were very fortunate to even have some GAA to pass the time. Feet up and rest up. Things can only get better in 2021.