BY CHRIS MCNULTY
1. Donegal haven’t gone away, you know
THE comments afterwards stung almost as much as the results in 2013.
Monaghan and Mayo gave Donegal a reality check of sorts last year inflicting damaging defeats in the Ulster final and All-Ireland quarter-final. The ‘one-season wonder’ barbs began to flow and Donegal found themselves with a long winter of soul-searching.
What a difference six months can make.
With his squad piecing together nicely, Jim McGuinness and company have approached this year with a renewed zip.
His squad has a much stronger look about it now, although the manager has cautioned that this could change at any time.
For the moment, they’re gaining that ‘traction’ McGuinness talked about in 2011, his first year in the job.
That they are operating in Division 2 – as they were in 2011 – has somewhat tempered the confident tones eminating from this corner of the country – but that’s no bad thing, either.
Given their recent history, coming under the radar will be impossible. The eyes are still nervously keeping a close watch on Tir Chonaill’s advancement. They haven’t gone away, you know.
2. MacNiallais, McHugh ready to run the gauntlet
THE big plays in games always give an indication of the importance of certain players to teams.
It was heartening, then, last Sunday, to see Odhrán MacNiallais and Ryan McHugh playing lead roles in the game against Monaghan.
With just seven minutes gone, the Monaghan defence parted at ease allowing MacNiallais a sight of Rory Beggan’s net. The Gaoth Dobhair man obliged with a blistering finish, crashing past the helpless Monaghan netminder.
MacNiallais hit an impressive 1-3 and has really come of age. McHugh was a more regular feature last season, but he too has been one of the real points of note in these early moments. His precision led to the move which set up the second Donegal goal for Colm McFadden and all day his boundless energy was evident, as was his willingness to muck in when the going got tough.
They’re ready for the pressure cooker.
3. Defence takes shape again
THE 1-31 conceded by Donegal in their opening three games is, jointly with Down, the best defensive record in either of the top two Divisions.
The 0-10 leaked on Sunday was Donegal’s best yet and there are clear signs that Donegal’s rearguard is starting a return back to the watertight levels of 2011 and 2012.
The beatings by Monaghan and Mayo in last year’s Championship clearly battered a side whose defensive record had been the rock on which they were built.
But there was something quite familiar about Donegal’s waving attacks, streaming forward, almost rugby-esque in make-up, from deep. And, as Monaghan found out, Donegal are quite hard to get around. Even when Dermot Malone had Paul Durcan beaten, Martin O’Reilly and Karl Lacey were on hand to block on the line, with another two having funnelled back to cover the grounded ‘keeper.
In attack, their patience is really becoming a virtue – and at the back they’ve got a solid base these days, which isn’t a bad starting point at all.
4. Encouraging numbers
WHEN Donegal burst from the dressing rooms in the League opener at O’Moore Park, Portlaoise, they were greeted by a huge cheer from the Donegal supporters, the size of which was remarked upon by the management and players that afternoon. It was noted, too, by Laois officials who were taken by the volume of folk who’d made the long journey.
It was a similiar story in Salthill as Donegal fans flocked to Galway, a city flooded with Donegal faces anyway.
They were heartening and surely inspiring for the squad, but there was a real show of strength from the stand and terrace on Sunday, in the first home League game of the campaign.
The full-house sign was posted on the stand at 1pm, an hour before throw-in, and close to 7,000 had wedged in by the time the ball went up.
“It’s been absolutely brilliant the way the supporters have stood by us and stuck with us, we really appreciate it – they were brilliant in the two away games and now they’ve come out in the numbers for the home game to get behind the boys,” Jim McGuinness said, urging the fans to again give their backing this Sunday in Ballybofey.
5. Keep an eye on ‘Jigger’
THESE are exciting times for Darach O’Connor. Busy times, too.
The 18-year old Buncrana man made his League debut on Sunday, coming in as a 42nd minute replacement for Dermot Molloy. O’Connor was at ease with his surroundings. The captain of last year’s minor team, the Scoil Mhuire student had been impressive during the McKenna Cup campaign before a minor hamstring injury kept him out of the trips to Laois and Galway.
However, his League bow came on Sunday and it was a fearless display by the diminutive and dynamic attacker, better known as ‘Jigger’, the same moniker as his father, John, who scored a goal for Roscommon against Kerry just 35 seconds into the All-Ireland final of 1980 (a game won by the Kingdom).
O’Connor the younger has a keen eye for goal and this is a player of whom a lot is asked, given that he’s looking forward to the St Patrick’s Day MacLarnon Cup final with Colaisti Inis Eoghain, playing with the Donegal Under-21s and has the small matter of his Leaving Cert to juggle.
His pass to tee up a goal chance for Leo McLoone was a joy.
Keep an eye on this boy; his talent is an all-too rare one.