In pure numeric terms, yesterday’s contest delivered a league point but in years to come the bounty may be priceless. Rory’s Rookies stood up to the All-Ireland champions and showed that they belong at this level and that they can be relied upon when the going gets tough.
The rain that had pummelled the Mac Cumhaill Park sod in the lead up to throw-in ensured that the contest would be scrappy and a dogfight; that the young guns survived in such an environment is all the more pleasing.
The soundbites emanating from the manager’s media briefings during the week intimidated that Donegal would be transformed into an all out, kamikaze attacking unit - fat chance of that against the mighty Dublin. The absence of Paddy McBrearty through injury meant an extremely inexperienced forward line so the plan had to be to sit deep and try to hit Dublin on the counter attack at lightning speed.
Eoin McHugh and Jamie Brennan were assigned the tough task of winning the little ball that came their way. Without McBrearty we had no-one to get their hands on dirty ball, hold onto it and wait for the cavalry to arrive.
The visitors had a similar plan themselves and the most anxious moments for the home support were when the ball was lost in opposition territory. Dublin broke forward, stretched the pitch as wide as they could and more often than not found a blue jersey in space.
The rate at which Donegal turned the ball over was somewhat alarming; time after time the ball was lost following a sloppy hand pass either played too far ahead or just behind the receiver.
Composure was lacking once Donegal crossed the halfway line and there was certainly a few
scores left behind through wastefulness.
Dublin’s goal, a wonderful flowing move from deep finished by the excellent Niall Scully, came about following a slack handpass played to a static Michael Murphy.
There is never a lack of composure when Ryan McHugh is around though and his goal (yet another against Dublin) smacked of it; a delightful finish pebble-stoned into the corner of the net. Seconds earlier he had displayed his dogged determined streak when keeping the ball in play, showing incredible skill with foot and hand in the process.
The anxiousness with the ball will of course be eradicated as the year goes on; hands will become softer, the ground firmer and accuracy will increase.
The determination to move the ball quickly is a specific and necessary tactic. This Donegal team has all of a sudden become quite small so attacking into space before opponents have a chance to get their defensive screen set is the best way to create scoring chances.
Over the last decade and a half we have had a plethora of big forwards – Colm McFadden, Adrian Sweeney, Ryan Bradley, Christy Toye et al. Now the physical make-up is different.
We have an abundance of small, nippy, highly-skilled footballers – similar to the glory days under Brian McEniff – and a dearth of big rugged lumps of men. When you are faced with a wall of defenders, you need big, powerful men to drive through tackles.
Martin McElhinney’s return will help matters in this regard but generally there aren’t too many like him around in green and gold and we lost one of the greatest during the week with the retirement of Neil Gallagher.
His clubmate Murphy’s simple tribute spoke volumes, “some man for one man.” Gallagher was some man for Donegal football and his like may never be seen again. There are however some striking similarities between him and the most likely heir to his throne, Ciaran Thompson.
Both have this unerring ability to play the game at their own pace. They never seem to be in a hurry yet you rarely see them getting caught by a challenge or dispossessed. Thompson has been flagged as a top class inter county player for a couple of years, particularly since his tour de force against Cavan in the U21 Championship, but even still the speed with how he has taken to a leading role this year is remarkable.
He rarely wastes possession, kicked a couple of frees yesterday in McBrearty’s absence, is wonderful in the air and got the better of his duel with Brian Fenton.
Jason McGee also put in a huge shift around the middle third, capping a memorable display with a return of 1-1. His opening skyscraper of a point set the tone for the day and sent a message that despite facing the best team in the land, Donegal’s future, and indeed it’s present, is in good hands.
Jason is a fine soccer player and when the ball eventually landed back to him following some
pinball around Stephen Cluxton’s goalmouth, between himself, Martin O’Reilly and Jamie Brennan, he slotted the ball home.
The two goal blitz from McGee and McHugh turned the game on its head, providing the hosts with a scarcely deserved lead.
A three point surplus at the short whistle brought a familiar challenge. The last time Donegal had such a lead in a big game was last year’s Ulster Final.
As on that day, the first score plundered after the restart pushed the lead out to four.
As on that day, the lead did not bring victory.
Have the team and management learnt their lessons? Is the team capable of defending a lead and turning it into a win?
In fairness, the team kept looking for scores yesterday and it was more their handling and decision making that let them down. So the signs were encouraging. Against Tyrone on that sweltering day in Clones, the team didn’t seem to know whether to attack or defend, to stick or twist and in the end they blinked first.
Caolán Ward was one of those who kept surging forward, kept bringing the game to Dublin. He has been impressive in all the games thus far and his clubmate, Eamonn Doherty, did likewise during his cameo late on. Both men are strong on the ball and against the wind in the second half, this was no easy task.
Most of the crowd would have taken a draw as 2pm approached and they were certainly glad of it as the clock ticked past 3.30pm.
Murphy’s brilliant free, which looked routine from the stand but was far from it considering the breeze he faced, secured a draw and kept a seven-year unbeaten run in Ballybofey intact.
Whatever about registering a third league point of 2017, the most important aspect of the day was that the team refused to wilt. Behind with a few minutes to go, it would have been easy to accept a narrow defeat and think ‘well we did grand, didn’t disgrace ourselves’; the players though collectively, young and not so young, refused to be beaten.
Next week will be a different type of test. In many ways it's easy to get revved up for a match in front of a big home crowd against the All-Ireland Champions. Now the players need to show that they can apply the same focus and attention to a Saturday night in Cavan - a bigger game in relation to Division One survival.
Two points next week and Donegal will be looking up rather than down.