Somewhere in the back of his mind, Rory Gallagher had prepared himself for the eventuality.
Donegal have not been to the qualifiers this early since the dark days before 2011 when silverware was a spec in a future so distant many believed they’d never see it.
But tomorrow evening, Gallagher marches his troops for a second Championship visit in 2017 to Sean MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey.
Longford, who have had the carcasses of Monaghan, Down and Derry on their sword since 2014, await.
It was not in the masterplan, but Gallagher knew deep down that, armed with a fledgling squad finding its feet in the toughest battle ground of all – Ulster – he may have had to go to Plan B.
The Donegal boss has spoken before about the bus journey back from the 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Dublin and how he sensed the guard would be changing once they bid Francie Marley, the bus driver, their farewells that night.
So it proved.
Nine men who were on that bus didn’t board it again this year and Gallagher, given a new four-year contact for this term, knew that replicating the six successive Ulster senior finals would be a big ask.
“When we set out last October, I knew the qualifiers were a real possibility,” Gallagher says ahead of the Ballybofey joust (throw-in 5pm) with Longford.
“I was aware of that. It is possibly a wee bit harder for us to make peace with the fact that we’re in the qualifiers. The League went better than most people expected. We were very pleased with the level of performances that we reached in the qualifiers.
“To be frank, though, the qualifiers were likely. We had a plan that they were a possibility. But I see no reason why we won’t get a run in the qualifiers.
“We got a rude awakening against Kerry in the first League game, but we responded. If we get ourselves well enough positioned, I don’t see why we couldn’t go on a run now – but in the qualifiers, it’s one game at a time and very much that is the case.”
That does not make the pain of a nine-point defeat to Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final a fortnight ago any easier to take.
The manner of it stung hard.
At five-apiece, the day was as finely poised as might have been expected. Eoin McHugh shot wide with a goal chance at one end – and then the cards collapsed.
From nowhere, Tyrone pulled off a Royal Flush. 0-12 to 0-5 they led at the interval and when Tiernan McCann drilled in a goal early in the second half, the curtain could be draw. Michael Carroll goaled for Donegal later but the 1-21 to 1-12 final score tasted bitter.
“There is no doubt the first couple of days back were difficult,” Gallagher says.
“It took a few days to digest where it went wrong. We knew that it would be exceptionally difficult against Tyrone, but we played well below the standard that was expected of us – that was the biggest disappointment.
“We cannot forget the quality of the performance against Tyrone. We had to analyse it. We knew that we’d played poorly but what we had to do was find out why we were so poor. We have comfort now in knowing that.
“There is a wild, instinctive feeling after a defeat like that where you’d love a game the next week to get going, but it’s better to digest it. Until you get a win again, the mood doesn’t really lift.”
Gallagher mentioned a lack of ‘intensity and hunger’ his defensive unit had in large swathes of the Tyrone game as a big contributing factor and the other was, ‘with all due respect to Antrim’, he adds, the amount of Ulster SFC rookies he had in his ranks.
He says: “That is difficult to overcome in the heat of Championship and it left us well below the standard we saw in the League.
“It felt crazy what some people were saying about Tyrone in the latter stages of the League. They are second or third favourites for the All-Ireland for a reason and are the benchmark in Ulster at this point. That is difficult for us because we had been the front-runners for a while, but that’s how it is.”
Donegal have not lost in Ballybofey in League or Championship since 2010, a run of 18 games now with loss by the Finn and Gallagher has a full panel from which to choose with Kieran Gillespie said to be close to being handed a starting berth.
Gallagher says he will ‘change it up’ and has hinted at a few changes.
He says: “We seem good. We have a tremendous record in Ballybofey and we love playing in front of our own supporters. We’ve spoken all year about putting the head down and working hard. We did that but unfortunately we have to face into the qualifiers. We have to get the heads down, work hard again and hope for a reaction.”Tags: