So here we go again - after the shadow boxing of the McKenna Cup, the football fare moved up a notch this weekend with competitive action getting underway beneath the lights of MacCumhaill Park. A local derby led to a bumper crowd coming through the turnstiles and the cracking atmosphere made for a fantastic’s night entertainment.
It'’s certainly a great boost getting off to a winning start and Rory Gallagher will be fairly pleased with how his new charges performed. Donegal’s recent Division One campaigns have been stop-start by their nature, culminating in two final day shoot outs – one going our way in 2012, the other resulting in relegation from the top tier the following year. A more consistent run this time around with no demotion threat would be on the new manager's wishlist.
There was a feeling of new era about last night with Rory donning his florescent Bainisiteoir bib although we were all transported into the past and back to last September after only a few minutes with Paul Durcan’s very first kick-out going straight to the opposition full forward. Thankfully there was no resulting goal but the collective intake of breath around the ground was one we could have done without. Durcan tried another short kick to Mark McHugh and both Rory and his assistant Jack Cooney went onto the field to speak to the big Four Masters netminder – we’re going long.
Gallagher could be heard shouting ‘tight field’ to his wing backs and wing forwards as Durcan stood over his restarts; the idea being that they are to stay narrow and leave space on the wings before making what they will hope will be an unopposed run towards the ball.
That wasn’t the only shout coming from the Donegal touchline and anyone who hadn’t seen the Belleek native’s management style in action up until now were given the full treatment last night. He is constantly onto his players, both encouraging and chastising but always wanting more. Gallagher has a presence about him on the sideline and appears to be totally focused on whats in front of him and very confident in his own abilities – a fascinating character to observe.
Donegal’s performance initially was patchy to say the least, looking sluggish and lethargic in the second quarter. Whether there was a method to the madness it’s hard to know but Donegal were setup very conservatively in the first half and didn’t run at the Oakleaf defence too often. Patrick McBrearty was the lone attacker with Michael Murphy stationed at midfield. Hugh McFadden was a late change to the named line-up and he was perched between the full back line and midfield and carried a huge amount of ball in the opening period. A comfortable footballer with plenty of ability, the Kilybegs man doesn’t yet have the raw power in his legs and with Odhran MacNiallais struggling somewhat to get into the game in the first half, Donegal were stuck in second gear for spells.
Derry on the other hand ran incessantly at their opponents’ rearguard and got plenty of joy in taking scores and drawing frees, with Mark Lynch punishing any misdemeanours. The visitors were deservedly in front at the change of ends and it was going to need a response from Donegal after the break to turn around a three-point deficit.
The response duly came and the catalyst was Martin McElhinney; on his introduction he reduced the deficit almost immediately with a well taken point but it was his overall directness and the injection of pace he provided, in contrast to McFadden’s calm and languid style that turned the tide his team’s way. His Creeslough colleague in midfield, Christy Toye, came into the game much more and with MacNiallais and Neil Gallagher getting through trojan work around the middle, Donegal moved through the gears.
Perhaps, similarly to last year’s championship, that will be the template; get parity or close to it around the middle sector to begin with before unleashing fresh runners in the second half and consequently redeploying Murphy to the edge of the square. Derry’s first half performance helped the script as they put so much effort in they appeared to have little left in the tank for the final quarter.
With Derry on the rack and Donegal hitting the front, a goal would have ended the contest; the opportunity arrived with Murphy being tugged back by Niall Holly in the box. We were again brought back to a past All Ireland disappointment as Michael’s kick thundered off the crossbar, just like in Breffni Park almost five years ago. He followed that misfortune up with another a minute later, as an attempt at a point came back off the upright and you started to wonder if it was going to be one of those nights. The penalty was soft to a certain extent so maybe it was poetic justice although any logical thinking regards referring decisions has to be tempered with the fact that the man in the middle was our old friend from Sligo, Mr Marty Duffy.
It was time for MacNiallais to put his mark on proceedings and when he was put in the clear by Toye he fired the ball low into the net, a strike that had a fair bit of frustration behind it. That made up for the spot kick miss and from then on Donegal hit for home. Despite an opening or two for Brian McIver’s side, they were unable to get within striking distance and scores from Martin Reilly and McBrearty put a seal on a hugely impressive second half display.
McBrearty took home the man of the match award from Setanta television and it could, indeed should, be the start of a big year for the Kilcar man. Having been a teenage prodigy for so long, the time has come for Patrick to become one of Donegal’s main men. He has all the ability and while he is already a highly rated inter-county performer, he can get to another level. Some of his finishing last night was out of the top drawer while his ball-winning was excellent.
The fine scores from distance that McBrearty, Reilly and Toye registered showed that Donegal are well able to score from distance but it is still a source of frustration for many that the team remains a bit shot-shy at times and this has been the case for a number of years. We’re used to seeing patient build-up with an emphasis on waiting for the right opportunity but at times last night players just had a go when they found a yard of space and the results was some wonderful point taking – let’s hope we see more of that.
Whenever a new manager comes in, those players that were previously on the fringes often stake a claim for a more central role. Martin Reilly is a case in point and he did his chances no harm with an excellent shift of work last night and capped his display with two points from play. Reilly and late substitute Darach O’Connor are fast, nippy alternatives in the full forward line compared to the brute ball-winning power of McBrearty, Murphy and Colm McFadden; it will be interesting to see how Rory assimilates his forward line over the coming league games.
Next up its The Dubs and a first return to Headquarters since that day of devastation in September. Our last meeting with the cosmopolitans of course brings to mind much more joyous memories and despite a defeat to Cork today, expect a tough battle this coming Saturday night. Dublin will surely include some more of their front line players than what took the field at Pairc Ui Rinn this afternoon and it has all the makings of another exciting encounter.