Donegal are a Division One team - that’s the outcome of today and that’s where we belong. 2013 will see the country’s top eight sides plying their trade in the league’s top tier, something which in truth hasn’t happened for quite a number of years.
The players showed great heart and determination in the second half in Ballybofey and like our other 'must win' games this year against Cork and Mayo you just got the feeling we wouldn’t be beaten. Armagh had their chances of course and will maybe feel that they could have come away with the win but overall the home side looked the better when it mattered most.
Plenty of rain early in the day left conditions fairly treacherous and indeed the referee didn’t seem to take this into account for much of his decision making in the first half. Both teams won some handy frees and with Michael Stevenson finding his range a lot quicker than Colm McFadden, Paddy O'Rourke's men built up a neat cushion.
Two of McFadden’s club mates were taken off before half time although Daniel McLoughlin and Martin McElhinney had been doing as well as anyone in the home attack. Jim McGuinness was looking to bring a bit of structure to his forward unit and the introductions of Dermot Molloy and Patrick McBrearty did add a bit of impetus to his side. McBrearty’s appearance brought to an end a busy week for the Kilcar youngster, as he had attended AFL trials in London organised by former Sydney Swans star Tadhg Kennelly. Neither Brick nor McBrearty had a huge impact on the game but they played their part in the overall team effort.
An inspirational score from Leo McLoone got things going in earnest for Donegal, the Naomh Conaill man had another stormer today before being replaced after shipping a heavy knock late in the game. McFadden pointed a free just before the half time whistle and being two points down at half time wasn’t the worst situation to be in as the teams headed for the dressing rooms.
After a decent match appeared to be breaking out in the first half, the intensity and the hitting was upped considerably in the second and we were treated to a cracking Ulster contest. It was as close as you’ll get to Championship fare at this time of year and the crowd responded in kind with the noise levels going up a few notches.
Armagh stretched their lead to four points at one stage but after that they would add only one more while Donegal would score eight. When we get in the mood our running game is incessant and teams simply cannot cope with our pace and power.
Brian McEniff famously told his charges in 1992 to run at the opposition like the waves hitting Tory and a similar ploy was adopted today. Leading the charge were Rory Kavanagh and Ryan Bradley, who constantly ran at the Armagh defence, prepared to take the hits and put their body on the line. The scores didn’t come immediately, over-elaboration in attack leading to turnovers and poor decision making; the players weren’t deterred though and kept running at the Orchard.
Of course you need possession to do anything and there was only one go-to man to win the ball and that was Big Neil Gallagher. Armagh had no answer to the Glenswilly midfielder as he caught numerous kickouts and was in the mix for any breaks that were going as well. He has really taken his game to another level over the course of this league campaign and is one of the major positives the management team will take out of it.
Another huge plus today was the outstanding performance of Malin’s Declan Walsh. He’s been in and around the panel for a few years now but today he really came of age putting in a great corner back display in place of the absent Paddy McGrath. On a couple of occasions in the second half he showed great maturity and composure by batting down high balls aimed in towards him rather than chancing a risky take over his head.
As Donegal struggled to show their superiority on the score board, Armagh remained dangerous on the break but thankfully the game’s pivotal moment swung in the home side’s favour. A misplaced pass from Rory Kavanagh led to a goal chance for Jamie Clarke (who had been well marshalled throughout by Karl Lacey and the afore mentioned Walsh) who skipped past Paul Durcan but could only find the post with his goal effort from a tight angle.
Mac Cumhaill Park was rocking at this stage and as the ball was scrambled clear the crowd urged the boys on another surge up the field. Its been quite a while since I can remember an atmosphere like it along the River Finn; the old pitch lost a bit of its allure somewhat after three successive Ulster championship exits from 2008-2010 but it had its mojo back today and it was great to hear the Tír Conaill faithful in full voice.
The story had a fitting finale with local lad Martin Reilly knocking over a point that made the game safe; Adrian Hanlon made extra sure with a fisted effort in the dying seconds to make it a three point win.
So overall a good league campaign; the primary aims were to blood new players and tweak the formations and systems and to do this while still keeping our Division One status intact will please everyone concerned.
All minds switch firmly to Breffni Park in six weeks time when national eyes will again fall on Donegal. Jim was asked about this, and the inevitable focus that will be on his players, in his post match interview with Charlie Collins today and was typically honest in his response regarding the media, “some people can give their opinions with dignity and respect, others cant.” It was a wonderfully measured statement and shows that whatever everyone else thinks about him and his team, all Jim cares about is doing the best he can for his county - and beating Cavan on May 20th.