Here we go then - Championship! Regardless of expectations or form, the first Summer day out is always a bit special. There’s a tingle of excitement in the air and the large crowd milling around Ballybofey long before throw-in illustrated this.
As you get parked up, make your way down through the busy main street and hear the grate of the turnstiles upon entering the ground, plenty of memories come to mind of big knockout days gone by. Not long after getting settled in your seat, you hear familiar voices; you may or may not know these people by name, you may or may not know from what club they hail but it doesn't matter - you've sat with them at previous games, heard them roar criticism and dispense encouragement. You’ve been through it all with them before and now you’re ready for another shot at glory.
As is now the norm, the obligatory pre-match changes were announced as the teams warmed up. There was never really any doubt that Eoin McHugh would start after his fantastic league campaign. He and cousin Ryan play a central role in one of Donegal’s prime scoring plans, namely hitting teams on the counter attack.
Some other norms came to pass at the throw-in as well including Michael Murphy heading straight for midfield as is now customary in Ulster jousts. He was quick to demonstrate the benefits of this with a beautifully played pass into Paddy McBrearty, who fired over the game’s opening score. Murphy has a wonderful range of passing and while his presence in front of goal is missed when he plays deeper, it does allow him to use other weapons in his considerable arsenal.
The main advantage for a manager in preparing for the season’s first game is that the opponents are known since the previous October. That gave Rory Gallagher plenty of time to devise a plan to overcome his native county which primarily centred on pushing up on the Fermanagh kickout, stationing Anthony Thompson as a sweeper in front of the twin scoring threat of Tomas Corrigan and Sean Quigley and finally to be patient with the ball in hand.
It can still be a little bewildering to hear the Donegal support’s indifferent reaction to the team holding possession when faced with a blanket defence. Like it or not Donegal, more than any other team, have played a part in developing this style of play so they know exactly what the other team are doing.
Fermanagh had a green and white cordon across their 45m line but Donegal didn’t try to play risky long passes or attempt difficult long range scores. That is exactly what the defending team wants you to do because even if a few long range scores go over, that tactic alone will never win a match.
So instead the hosts were quite happy to keep the ball moving and put into practice what they have rehearsed over and over on the training field – players running at different angles to receive passes, taking on a man when one on one with a defender and playing little one twos around static defenders in order to break that defensive barricade.
The opening goal came from this, a delicious give and go instigated by the ever impressive Frank McGlynn created the crack in the defensive line and Odhran MacNiallais made no mistake when presented with the opportunity.
Fermanagh had no joy in breaking down Donegal and were forced into going for some long range efforts. A couple of exceptional points got them back into the mix but when the big chance came their way after Neil McGee’s red card they were unable to take it.
McGee was trying to burst out of defence and shrug off any would-be tacklers after claiming a ball from Quigley but in doing so raised his arm; once that happens it is an easy decision for a referee to make.
Quigley’s penalty wasn’t particularly well placed but Mark Anthony McGinley in goal did brilliantly to not only save but crucially palm it well away from goal and not leave any chance for onrushing Fermanagh men to tap home a rebound.
Despite his penalty miss, Quigley seemed to enjoy his afternoon in the company of Eamon McGee. The two were engaging in plenty of chat as soon as the contest started and in a modern game where the line between harmless mick-taking and disgusting sledging is a thin one, it was nice to see two lads who looked to be genuinely having a bit of craic with each other.
The McGee brothers were part of the cohort of Donegal players who were traditional in their choice of footwear but as for the rest, the multi-coloured offerings on display shows that it is all about the look these days. The eclectic mixes of pink, yellow and orange boots certainly didn’t do MacNiallais or the McHughs any harm – the trio were amongst the standout players on show (literally!).
Goalkeeper McGinley, equally as standout with his resplendant tights, had a few erratic kickouts throughout the game but made amends with not only the penalty save but another point blank stop earlier in the half.
With the incentive of playing with an extra man, Fermanagh had a decision to make at half-time – stick with the plan or change tack and go for it. They chose the latter, pushing much further forward in the second half, defending with a higher line but all it did was leave space in behind which Donegal were able to exploit. The Ernemen would have been better off keeping the game tight, wearing down the team with fourteen men and making their numerical advantage count in the closing stages.
Donegal’s re-jig on the other hand worked a treat. Thompson was released from sweeper duty, a move that invigorated the team. Hugh McFadden took Thompson’s place and for the most part kept the Donegal goal under lock and key, allowing Thompson to charge forward in that unfussy manner of his.
Once the first couple of white flags were raised at the town end of MacCumhaill Park after the change of ends, Donegal smelt blood. MacNiallais was again on the end of a composed, poised passage of keep-ball and he had the simplest of tasks to finish to the net.
Plenty more keep-ball followed in the last strecth of the game, Donegal never really looking troubled thereafter.
All in all it was the ideal performance for a Championship opener – a good test provided by the opposition, an excellent riposte by Donegal but still plenty to work on ahead of tougher tests.
The main dampener of course will be the sending off of McGee as Monaghan lie in wait. One of the enduring images of last year’s championship was Conor McManus’ tap on McGee’s chest after scoring a point in the provincial showpiece. There’ll now be no duel between those two in the semi final in a fortnight and its an unwanted tactical headache for Rory as he plots his first win as Donegal supremo over the Farney county.