By John O’Hara
As the dust settles on the end of another year for clubs across Donegal, the focus will now shift to the 2017 GAA season, where Donegal fans will be hoping for another tilt at all-Ireland success.
A quarter-final defeat at the hands of Dublin would once have been described as a decent season, but the era of Jim McGuinness did not just change the attitude of the players, he also changed the mind-set of the supporters, who want their team to be challenging for honours every year.
With Rory Gallagher committing to another lengthy contract, the Tir Conaill men will at least have stability in the camp, with senior figures like Michael Murphy, who encouraged the county board to retain the services of the Fermangah native.
There was some disquiet regarding the manner of Donegal’s displays this year, with some citing an overly negative strategy as being the cause of Donegal’s ills, but now is the time for the county to get behind Gallagher as he attempts to regain the Ulster Championship.
With Ryan McHugh now considered one of the country’s marquee players, Gallagher has another player to build his team around, when you consider that Murphy, McBrearty and McGlynn are considered among the country’s elite. Eoin McHugh, Odhran MacNiallis, Ciaran Gillespie, Stephen McBrearty and Ciaran Thompson are all players that can force their way into the same bracket this year, if they are given the opportunity.
Indeed, that was one of the supporters’ main complaints last year, that younger players were not given enough game time, especially McBrearty and Thompson, who excelled with their clubs at senior level and have shone at underage in the county for some time.
Glenswilly’s recent success had all the hallmarks of a Michael Murphy show, but it was the resurgence of a fit-again Neil Gallagher that will have caught the attention of seasoned GAA fans. Gallagher is undoubtedly one of the best midfielders that this county has ever had and he rarely gets the praise that his performances deserve. Neil has got better and better as the years passed and the improvement in his kicking was a key factor in McGuinness’s success.
Who will partner the Glenswilly man is a question that needs to be answered, as it is in the engine room that we lost many of the key battles last year. The laboured transition from defence to attack was a thorn in our side and it contrasted wildly with the ferocious pace we brought to the 2012 campaign, when Karl Lacey was able to bomb out of defence with such dexterity. Replacing Lacey is another big call for Rory, but the Donegal Town man will still be a useful player from the bench.
Breaking down the mass defence of Tyrone will be something that the Erne man will be having sleepless nights about, as he ponders how he lost an ulster title that looked to be in the bag. More long range kicking from the likes of the McHugh’s and more aerial bombardment with Murphy and Gallagher in the box are two options, but one thing is certain, Donegal can’t adopt the same ‘pass around the ‘45’ approach that lost us the game last year.
The Leo McLoone conundrum is something that all Donegal fans want resolved, as he is a strong running ball carrier, something we are lacking. His ability to break the tackle would have been a much better option in some of the ulster battles, instead of using subs, who looked tired and jaded when they re-entered the fray. That is another piece of ammunition for the nay-sayers, that he is too reliant on those that he trusts and that it is hard to break into the circle. The game of Gaelic football has evolved so much that the need for fresh legs from the bench is essential in the modern game. With that in mind, the likes of Christy Toye and Karl Lacey could be useful in big matches.
The two who have left the squad, Colm McFadden and Eamon McGee have given so much to the jersey but it will be disappointing to see the squad assemble without the duo in January. McGee is probably the most interesting GAA player in the country. 99% are now robot like in their approach to the game and indeed to their lives but that is an accusation that was never levelled at the Gweedore man, who is one of the characters of Donegal GAA.
Colm McFadden reached the pinnacle in 2012, but we can’t forget all the scores and the joy he brought us prior to that and if any player deserved to lift Sam, it was Colm Anthony. They will both be sorely missed but I’m sure that they will still have roles to fulfil in not just their own club, but at county level, where their experience is needed.
So as the months of November and December pass away, we will be counting down the days until the lads are hitting the pitch again and we will all be dreaming of the third Sunday in September, even in the freezing cold of January.
Tir Conaill abu!