Another win recorded for Donegal tonight in Ballybofey against Queens University and whatever about the epitaphs of this year’s McKenna Cup as regards qualification and the blooding of players, Jim McGuinness can look back on a tournament where he’s trebled his win rate. He again picked a strong side for this encounter with the Belfast students; the Neils, McGee and Gallagher, in from the start after seeing second half action in Armagh on Sunday.
Being stationed in Dublin and not being able to make the game tonight meant relying on Highland Radio and Twitter for updates – and they were coming thick and fast on a night where Donegal were on the front foot from the word go. The team knew a big score was essential if they were to have any chance of a semi-final spot and Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden didn’t waste time in getting scores on the board.
Donegal ran incessantly at the Queens defence and drew plenty of frees in the process. It can be taken for granted at times but it is such a huge advantage the team possesses in having two of the games deadliest free-takers; and better again having one on either side of the field.
The hosts registered 1-7 in the first half including another thunderbolt of a goal from Murphy, this time from even further out than his effort against Tyrone in O’Donnell Park. The students managed to net two goals in the opening period and that is something that won’t please McGuinness or indeed Damian Diver, who was brought on board this year for his expertise in defence. Moments into the second half Ryan Rafferty bagged his third goal of the night for the visitors.
The auld radio and twitter updates are particular useful on nights like this when scores in other games have a direct effect on your own team; it became fairly clear early on that Monaghan were going to have things much their own way against Fermanagh and in turn pip Donegal to the best runner-up spot - Tyrone, Derry and Cavan all qualified safely as group winners.
Jim again used his bench at half time with Rory Kavanagh, David Walsh and the returning Christy Toye entering the fray; Christy hadn’t pulled on a Donegal jersey since that wonderful day sixteen months ago in the All-Ireland Final. He also endured a long spell away from the action from 2009 to 2011 with an Achilles problem so unfortunately the St Michael’s man is no stranger to long injury lay-offs; hopefully he’ll get a good run at training over the next few months as he always does a job for his side and is a key member of the squad.
Murphy got things going again for his team after the resumption, this time a point off his ‘weaker’ left foot - that is if there is anything weak in his repertoire. This of course was Michael’s first McKenna Cup campaign for Donegal in a number of years having previously been tied to playing with his college, DCU. He looks as sharp as ever and if he can keep this form and fitness up it should be another big year for the maestro.
Stephen McLaughlin saw some more action tonight after making a brief cameo at the Atheltic Grounds at the weekend and he got his name on the score sheet with a point midway through the second period. That just leaves Kilybegs’ Hugh McFadden as the last of newcomers to the panel who has yet to see some action so expect him to be given a run at some stage in league.
The black card was much talked about prior to the McKenna Cup but it didn’t have as big an impact as many had anticipated; it did rear its head more conspicuously in tonight’s game though with three of the students receiving their marching orders and having to be replaced.
Donegal made a good fist of things in the second half as regards racking up a high score, finishing with 3-17; with Monaghan though posting 2-20 in Brewster Park and having a superior points difference coming into tonight, they were always in the driving seat and they go on to meet Cavan this weekend; Tyrone and Derry make up the semi-final quartet.
The one worry on the night was a knock picked up by Rory Kavanagh; we don’t have the strongest of panels but this is especially true around midfield – Kavanagh and Gallagher fully fit are a must for Donegal so that will certainly be a headache for the management team if it turns out to be anything more than just a knock.
So pre-season is done with and next up its National League and O’Moore Park in Portlaoise is the first port of call for green and gold supporters. In theory at least the players should hit the ground running in the league and be well in contention having got some game time into the legs in the last ten days. While undoubtedly Division One is a higher standard, once you go beneath the top three or four teams the rest are on a par with those in the second tier so there’s no such thing as easy games.
Winning the league is a realistic target for McGuinness but it will be anything but straight forward. It worked well in 2011, when we last played in Division Two, losing just one game out of eight and getting better and better as the Championship went on after that. There’ll be no such luxuries available this year – Derry in Celtic Park in our Ulster Championship opener will be a huge challenge and the team must be firing on all cylinders for that.
That tough fixture makes the league even more important; despite getting relegated with the draw against eventual All-Ireland winners Dublin in the last game last season, McGuinness’ men played well that day and it set them up for the battle against Tyrone a few weeks later; and no doubt Jim will be hoping that an appearance on league final day in Croke Park in April could set the boys up nicely for Derry.