by John O’Hara
Last July, Donegal manager, Rory Gallagher looked on helplessly from the sideline as his side were beaten by the red hand of Tyrone, in what was a particularly dour affair in the Ulster Championship Final.
This year, his side will face Mickey Harte’s men in the semi-final on June 18th in what is probably the most anticipated clash of the 2017 all-Ireland series to date. The team that will line out for Donegal this summer is much different to the fifteen that took to the field last summer. Gone are Colm McFadden, Christy Toye, Eamonn McGee, Rory Kavanagh, Leo McLoone, Anthony Thompson, Neil Gallagher and David Walsh. Putting all those players in one sentence just highlights what Rory Gallagher has faced in 2017 and it also highlights the depth of talent that has just left the Donegal team.
Most pundits were quick to write a temporary obituary for this Donegal squad, saying that it would take five years for them to be moulded into contenders. The league campaign, while not perfect, did illustrate what the Donegal young guns have to offer and they are not buying into the ‘five year plan’ that pundits were talking about.
Ciaran Thompson is one player who definitely caught the eye during the league outings, with some outstanding performances and some audacious scores from all sorts of angles. Eoghan Ban Gallagher is another to have made a seamless transition into the senior set-up, while the McHugh cousins, Eoin and Ryan continue to put their blistering pace to use in a quick counter-attacking game plan. Last year’s county minor, Caolan McGee has also proved his worth and is a big player for the future.
All of these players will be needed, if Donegal are to mount a challenge to dethrone Mickey Harte’s men, but it will surely take the might of Donegal talisman, Michael Murphy to see of the red hand threat. Murphy has been in scintillating form this year at midfield and his consistently brilliant performances have marked him as one of the top players in the country at this moment in time. It is hard to believe that the Glenswilly general is still only twenty-seven years old, given what he has done with the county since his debut a decade ago. He was substituted last weekend in a club game but it is assumed that this was precautionary. Donegal fans will be praying that Murphy is at full fitness because he will be central to Gallagher’s plan to unlock the veritable vault that is the Tyrone defence.
Another man who has injury doubts hanging over him is Neil McGee. The Gweedore man came off with a back injury in the same game as Murphy and he is another player that Gallagher needs at full fitness to counter the attacking threat of Tyrone. His club team-mate and successor in waiting, Ciaran Gillespie is also a doubt for the game and he is a player that is seen as a central figure in the Donegal teams of the future.
Stephen McBrearty’s decision to leave the panel to travel to the US is a blow for Donegal, as he offered an option from the bench, something that is imperative in the modern game. Donegal fans will remember both Rory Kavanagh and Anthony Thompson coming back into the final after being substituted earlier in the game, which highlighted the lack of depth in last year’s panel.
This year, Rory Gallagher will be able to call on the likes of Karl Lacey and Martin McElhinney, along with Eamonn Doherty and other senior players, which will make Donegal a team to be reckoned with.
An all-Ireland challenge may be beyond this group of highly talented, but relatively inexperienced young lads, but there is definitely enough about them to mount a strong challenge to win an Ulster Championship, which would be viewed in the county as a massive success. Tyrone will do all that they can to get the better of their neighbours for the second year running, but my money is on a Donegal win.
First goal-scorer: Paddy McBrearty