The euphoria of Ulster titles, epic last minute championship wins and packed houses in Croke Park seem a long way away when your sitting in O’Donnell Park on a cold, blustery January day like today. But that’s where it starts every year – the glory must wait for later in the summer (or maybe Autumn!).
The off season is meant to be quiet time for the inter-county scene but as we know from past events, that’s not how things necessarily pan out in Donegal. The furore surrounding Kevin Cassidy’s removal from the squad has died down somewhat now but once again during the depths of winter we were the focus of national attention over a disciplinary issue.
No doubt if a half back has a bad game in the league or someone misses a 50-yard kick the shouts from the stands will be ‘Cass would have won that ball’ or ‘Cass would have nailed that score’ – all in all though Jim McGuinness has simply been true to his team and to his beliefs.
At the start of the year he asked for total commitment and total confidentiality – Kevin Cassidy gave the first of these in bucket loads. He’s a dream player for any team because as well as his talent he’s got that unbounded drive and passion that is so hard to find. He failed on the second count though by taking part in Declan Bogue’s book. The book itself is a great read - brilliant for a supporter in gaining an insight into a team’s preparation, their mindset and habits, and Cassidy plays the leading role with his enthusiasm and insightfulness.
The book also divulges some of the goings on in the Donegal camp in previous years – mainly the drink and the craic. These types of stories have become legendary and used as a stick with which to beat Donegal football for many years. The yarns are exactly what you’ve heard before and worse.
It is against this background that Jim took over – there was a need to get rid of all kinds of indiscipline and to finally get the best out of the talented footballers we’ve always had. That’s why Jim wanted players signing confidentiality agreements and devoting themselves totally to the cause. The agreement itself probably didn’t mean an awful lot by itself but it was more the act of the entire squad making a commitment to each other and to their manager – this is not the type of mentality previously associated with Donegal football.
So after all that its not surprising that Cassidy paid the price, just as Adrian Hanlon did last Summer – different offences but both seen as a breach of trust. Even though Cass had a super year and was deservedly awarded an All Star, the team and the trust must supersede all of that.
If this is the end of Cassidy’s Donegal career its sad to see it finish on a sour note but if achieving the over-riding aim of an All Ireland means releasing a star player from the panel then that’s the way it has to be.
The Messiah will have been glad to get back to business today and get back on the sideline. The team stuttered through last year’s McKenna Cup with only a skeleton of a panel available for the first two games. This year the panel is that bit stronger and despite the result not going for us today there were positives to take from the match.
None more so than the displays of Neil Gallagher and Dermot ‘Brick’ Molloy. It is encouraging this early in the year to see the lads who were just short of the starting fifteen putting down a marker to the management team. Brick was our impact sub in 2011 but you can be sure he has his eyes on becoming an automatic pick this time around. Playing today in a two man full forward line with Stephen Griffin he registered five points and had a handful of other chances as well. His left peg is devastatingly accurate and he slotted over some fine points today.
Big Neil was dogged by injury for the early part of last year and it was only really in the Ulster Final where we saw him approaching his best form. He was excellent at midfield today, demanding the ball and keeping his team mates around him focused and in tune. His performance was littered with some high fetches and good ball into the forwards - just what you’d expect from the Glenswilly man.
It was typical January fare in the opening quarter - shots dropping short, misplaced kick passes, heavy legs and a soft pitch. Its hard to believe that these same players who performed out of their skins on the big days last Summer can struggle to complete a simple kick pass now but that’s just how the GAA season works.
Its very rare you see a crisp kick pass into the chest this time of year; instead its usually a ball in front with a hop or two along the way before it reaches its target.
This time of year though as we know, is all about getting rid of any excess weight, getting the blood flowing in the legs and getting up to pace of inter county football again. This was the team’s second game in 48 hours having beaten Roscommon in a challenge game on Friday night so its been a testing weekend for them.
Some players though just seem to be able to pick up where they left off though and perform effortlessly even in the tough conditions at this time of year. Frank McGlynn, Anthony Thompson and Paddy McGrath to name but a few would fall into this bracket - they all looked comfortable in possession, eager to make things happen and looking fit and ready for what lies ahead. Indeed many of the UUJ contingent would be the same and Leo McLoone playing at centre back for the students looked in good shape and no doubt he will be a big player for his county this year. There’s every chance he will be stationed at No 6 for the Summer with Karl Lacey moving across to fill the void created by Kevin Cassidy’s departure.
Another man flourishing despite the tough conditions is Ryan Bradley who, only a week after tying the knot, had a good game playing at centre forward. He contributed two fine points including a great individual effort in the first half - taking possession in a crowd of players he took a hop, then soloed with his right turned onto his left and slotted it over the bar. Bradley has great ability in amongst bunched defences; he seems to weave and solo his way through bodies and around tackles, a great asset to possess in the modern game.
With a stop start first half ending at 0-5 points apiece, the second half was a much more keenly contested affair with CJ McGourty the main danger man for UUJ. He tagged on a couple of scores near the end and Donegal just couldn’t fine their way to the goal they needed. Paddy McBrearty appeared for the second half and popped over two scores to enhance his ever growing reputation. He’s only a young lad but he looks like he’s eager for more senior action and he’ll certainly have a big part to play in 2012.
UUJ finished up two points to the good at the whistle and they’ll be delighted as they continue their preparations for a tilt at Sigerson glory. Donegal head for Breffni Park next Sunday - that will probably be a welcome respite for the players as there’ll be a lot more hard work done during the week - it’s a long road ahead after all.