Ulster Title has to be Donegal’s aim
The dust has hardly settled on the 2016 GAA season and already the Donegal panel are plotting their path to Ulster glory for 2017. The winter months of November and December were once viewed as ‘rest-time’ in the world of the GAA, but they now represent a chance for teams to ‘get-ahead’ to get fitter and stronger than the opposition.
Donegal have added nine players to their panel from last year and are boosted by the news that Karl Lacey has decided to stay on. A number of the nine players are coming straight from minor level and will do well to break into the senior team this year. Rory Gallagher has also added Richard Thornton to his backroom team, with Tyrone man hoping that he can topple his native county in Donegal’s quest for Ulster glory.
Gallagher has stated that Ulster is the aim this year and it is becoming clear that he needs an Ulster title to assuage the growing dissatisfaction at the style of Donegal play over the past two years, in particular the performance in last year’s ulster final, where Mickey Harte got the better of him in terms of on-field tactics. Gallagher’s initial team selection does not seem to be the problem, but rather his decision making on the side-line. Bringing Anthony Thompson back into the game, when he clearly looked fatigued is one thing that critics keep focusing on and it will be in this department where Rory will be scrutinised more than ever this year.
With a number of younger players like Ciaran Thompson, Stephen McBrearty and Ciaran Gillespie on the fringes of the senior team, it will be interesting to see if Gallagher continues with the tried and tested or decides to give youth a chance. Thompson, in particular, was a point of contention for some fans, as the young Glenties man was proving quite a handful in the all-county league, yet was ignored largely throughout the 2016 championship campaign. McBrearty is another that didn’t get the time that many had envisaged, while Gillespie forced his way in through necessity, as injuries mounted in the defence.
Karl Lacey’s announcement that he is staying for another year will give Rory Gallagher food for thought. Lacey no longer has the pace and stamina that made him indispensable in 2012, where he was the focal point of both our defence and attack. However, he is still a quality footballer, who could be absolutely invaluable in trying to close out a game in around the half-forward line. But, will Gallagher be able to name him on the bench or will he be tempted to start him and hope that he has another year in him? Sticking with the old guard won’t win us ulster, so I think that Gallagher needs a new plan and if he can use Lacey in this way, I think he could offer us a lot from the bench. Christy Toye has shown how useful he is from the bench, so imagine a double substitution with Toye and Lacey coming on to settle things down, with their experience and class.
Mark McHugh’s role in the team needs to be re-evaluated. An all-star in 2012, he was a pivotal member of Jim’s team, but Donegal fans are all aware that his star has definitely fallen and fallen dramatically since that year. There are almost certainly better players on the club scene who could do the job he is currently doing and Rory’s continued faith in him as a squad player could prove costly for the Fermanagh man. This is in stark contrast to his brother, Ryan, who is now Donegal’s main man, with his first all-star under his belt and hopefully many more to come. 2017 is a big year for the Kilcar man and it will him and Murphy that Rory will look to, to provide the spark for a tilt at an Ulster title.
With Antrim in the first round, few would bet against the Tirconaill men getting through the first hurdle, but the same can’t be said for the second obstacle in our path. Tyrone will undoubtedly put Derry to the sword and it will set up a replay of last year’s final, where the O’Neill men came out on top in a tactical battle in Clones. I have no doubt that that is the game that Rory is preparing for. He needs to get past Tyrone and Mickey Harte to prove that he is a good manager in his own right and not ‘Jim’s number two’ which will haunt him until he adds silverware to his CV.
Beating Tyrone will more than likely give Donegal another ulster final against Monaghan who will still be smarting over their loss to Donegal in last year’s semi-final. Whatever happens, it is clear that winning Ulster is not going to be easy, but that it is the only thing that will silence the critics in the county. While we won’t expect a change in the style of play, a change in personnel is badly needed and a more analytical approach to in-game tactics is a must. 2017 is a big year for Rory Gallagher and here’s hoping that it’s a big year for Donegal.