Time was when it was the hope that killed Donegal supporters.
From the halcyon days of 1992, when Sam first came to the Hills, until 2011, 19 years later, when Donegal would next grab hold of the Ulster title, Donegal lost in five provincial finals.
Picture caption: Donegal’s Eoghan Ban Gallagher breaks away from Cavan’s Fergal Reilly. Picture by Evan Logan
Hope sprang eternal in 1993, 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2006.
Each time, the well ran dry; each time, the hill in Clones appeared to get a little steeper.
At some point after Jim McGuinness’s appointment in 2010, hope became expectation.
Donegal hadn’t won an Ulster SFC game since 2007 when McGuinness was readying the troops for a joust with Antrim in 2011.
Memories were fresh of Antrim shocking Donegal in Ballybofey two years previously when the McGuinness Championship era was being thrown in.
By the time McGuinness stepped down from the Donegal post in the winter of 2014, the expected had evolved into the demanded.
It was a change that would, in time, haunt his successor, Rory Gallagher.
Consider that the height of Donegal’s ambition when McGuinness took over was to win a game in Ulster. Gallagher was expected to deliver the Anglo Celt.
He missed out on the prize in 2015 by a point against Monaghan and was denied by Tyrone, who had two points to spare, a year later.
The roof caved in on Donegal last year and the demands and expectations have perhaps receded into hope again as Declan Bonner – a man who knows all about slim margins after a late Joe Brolly goal robbed him of an Ulster title in ’98, his first year as Donegal manager – continues his summer odyssey, following an opening day win over Cavan on Sunday.
What, then, can Donegal hope, expect or demand from this bunch?
What would represent success?
Even in those years when Donegal lost Ulster finals between 1992 and 2011, Donegal supporters considered that they’d had ‘some sort of summer’. The advent of the qualifiers brought regular ventures to Croke Park for All-Ireland quarter-finals and even in 2003, a semi-final and one that got away from Brian McEniff.
Supporters didn’t expect too much, but they had a fair old ride on the rollercoaster in those years.
Now, though, they’re back into the unknown again.
From the get-go, Bonner was keen to outline that he was back in the hot-seat to be a winner.
“Our ambition is to be competitive and we have to aim for the Super 8,” Bonner said in September.
“The easiest way to get in there is by winning the Ulster Championship. Ulster will be a minefield again. It’s going to be a tough one.
“I hear the word transition mentioned. That is fair enough, but I would hope that we will be very competitive. A number of experienced players will come back into the fold and others who are performing well will get an opportunity. The future of Donegal is bright.”
Sunday in Ballybofey was, at least, a pointer in the right direction.
Shaun Patton and Stephen McMenamin made their Championship debuts for Donegal and Michael Langan was outstanding on the occasion of his first Senior Championship start. The big St Michael’s man posted three brilliant points and contributed so much to the game, with his fielding a particular feature.
Eoghan Ban Gallagher has developed seamlessly into a top-class defender, Caolan Ward has found consistency and former Leitrim player Paul Brennan has proved to be a really solid acquisition. From his aggression to his power, Brennan brings a lot to the party.
It was noteworthy that Donegal had only Neil McGee, Frank McGlynn, Leo McLoone, Patrick McBrearty and Michael Murphy from the 2012 All-Ireland final in the starting XV on Sunday.
None of the other ten were even on the senior panel six years ago, but Ryan McHugh has already established himself as one of the country’s top players, while Ciaran Thompson, Langan, Hugh McFadden have filled some big voids that have been left by the passing out of some Donegal greats.
The decisions of McGee and McGlynn to give it a last under Bonner should have been an indicator. Men of their stature and experience weren’t going to hang around just to babysit. Make no mistake about it, they came back for another go because they believed Donegal could win.
McGlynn purred on Sunday and McGee – who had played very little before Sunday – grew into the challenge as it wore on.
Murphy turned in one of his most influential performances in the Donegal shirt. The Donegal captain often has to labour in the trenches, but he did that and more against Cavan. The Glenswilly man top-scored for Donegal with six points and any debate as to his positioning should now be well and truly put to rest.
It would not be stretching the truth to suggest that this was maybe his best Championship performance for the county. A team with Murphy in this form, orchestrating everything – a 70-metre pass to Patrick McBrearty among the memorable moments – and taking the lead role again will always be in with a chance.
Paddy McGrath, Odhrán Mac Niallais, Martin O’Reilly, Mark Anthony McGinley and Martin McElhinney have still to return and it is maybe easy to see why Bonner has spoken confidently about his team’s chances.
The Na Rossa clubman was asked last week if Donegal could still challenge for Ulster.
“Why not?” came the response.
“We’ve done a lot of work and we have really stepped up in the last six weeks. We used 37 players in total in the League and a lot of young lads got serious game time. That will stand by them.
“We also have a number of more experienced players back, which is good.
“It’s all coming together at the right time.”
Later, he mentioned again winning Ulster and reaching the Super 8s as the objective.
Mattie McGleenan, the Cavan manager, saw enough on Sunday to suggest that Donegal could be on a long road this summer.
“Donegal are a good team,” he said.
“Donegal are moving very well there. They could take a bit of shifting. I would be happy we didn’t give up and played to the final whistle there. It is a huge learning curve. This is one of the top teams in Ulster Championship football, they are not one of the top teams by chance.”
It remains unclear just how competitive this Donegal can be or much can be expected of them.
We live in hope.Tags: