Transition is the buzz word around Donegal football as we embark on another league campaign and the its rare that a team are described in the positive when in this state.
Kerry were much too efficient and polished for Donegal yesterday but they’ve beaten us by an aggregate of seven points in the last two Spring meetings and that was with the older guard in tow.
Yes Rory Gallagher has lost some wily campaigners, some rightly lauded as county legends, from his squad but this happens to every side every year; the team goes on and the backside hasn’t fallen out of Donegal football just yet.
Another sobering perspective with which to view the weekend’s action was the venue – Donegal have a miserable record of late in Letterkenny and once Kerry surged ahead in the second quarter, there was no doubt that that wretched run would go on.
A huge crowd packed into Eunans’ home patch and were witnesses to a high scoring game and, despite the margin at times, saw some new faces acquit themselves well.
The Kerry contingent travelled in luxury on their way to the North West, a 171-reg Kennedy coach glistened in the blinding February sunshine parked up alongside the O’Donnell Park clubhouse. The luxuriousness continued on the field as the men from the deep South brushed aside a sluggish Donegal easily in the ten minutes before half-time.
Donegal's first score was a brilliant counter attack, started by Caolan Ward and finished by Patrick McBrearty. That's how we get most of our scores from play and it is a vital part of Rory Gallagher's plan.
In order to counter you first have to win the ball back and yesterday we saw an illustration of what happens when a counter-attacking side are starved of possession.
Donegal's defensive cordon usually lines up between the 45 and the edge of the D, the space in behind the pot of gold sought by the opposition. Kerry plundered plenty of it though, they seemed to be able to break into the space at will and pick off easy points. This wasn’t the fault of the defence though, the damage was being done further out the pitch by the Kerry midfield.
Paddy McGrath and Caolán Ward were excellent at the back, both marking All Star forwards in James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney. McGrath was at his tigerish best against O’Donoghue.
Donegal's defenders were perhaps a bit too honest - trying to mark diligently, get a hand in, doing the basics. Kerry on the other hand are adept at fouling smartly off the ball and can generally do this whilst escaping the referee's attention. Its an acceptable tactic these days but the frustration is that the referee appeared to have the ability to see every supposed off the ball misdemeanour going the other way in second half. The home support lost count of the number of times a Kerry wide was followed by a signal from Maurice Deegan that he was awarding a free-in.
Along with speedster Eoghan Ban Gallagher, removed from his natural half-back line habitat, the trio in the full back line contained the visitors’ inside line as best they could. Such was the platform, or lack of, around centrefield for Donegal, Kerry’s dominance was constant.
Kerry had a 100% record on their own restarts in the opening half and weren’t far off that mark on Mark Anthony McGinley’s. Donegal committed numbers to try and win breaks but as soon as Kerry mitts were on the O’Neills, the hosts were on the back foot.
With Kerrymen running towards them, the defenders were unsure as to whether they should stay with their own man or leave him to challenge the ball carrier. Either way, the scoreboard ticked constantly upwards for the visitors as the short whistle approached.
David Moran had an outstanding match, lording the skies. He was shackled somewhat in the second half with Hugh McFadden doing an admirable job when switched onto him.
Newcomer Jason McGee had the unenviable task of marking Moran early on and he couldn't have been handed a much tougher assignment. McGee stuck to his task and enjoyed being a bit freer after the break, showing his array of foot passing and seeing plenty of the ball. The Falcarrach man, along with the other debutants, can only learn from days like this.
What do the management learn? Unfortunately the same problem which beset Donegal last year is still very much evident - kick outs.
You can be sure that the coaching team have done a huge amount of work on the training ground in trying to get their strategy right so it is certainly not for lack of effort but it just doesn’t seem to transfer to matchday.
There’s plenty of talk about replacing the most recent crop of retirees but of more immediate importance is finding a way to replace the incredible platform that Paul Durcan used to provide.
Durcan’s arrow like restarts enabled smaller players to claim possession and start attacks, negating the need to challenge for 50-50 balls in the air.
Yesterday McGinley’s kicks, with their high, loopy trajectory suited Moran and even when a Donegal player was picked out, the shape on the kick enables an opposition player to come from behind with speed and break the ball.
There remains a hesitancy about restarts and while it’s easy to blame the goalkeeper, those out the field aren’t making the correct runs or aren’t doing them at the right time.
Something is amiss and deciphering the puzzle correctly will go a long way to determining what level of success Donegal can achieve in 2017.
Neil Gallagher would solve a lot of the current problems so here’s hoping the big Glenswilly man’s fitness concerns abate and we see him before the end of the league.
Gallagher would also be useful to have around for his distribution. Similar to the kick outs, a lot of slow, hanging ball was played into McBrearty and Jamie Brennan in the full forward line. The pair had to compete for balls over their head when a fast ball to the chest was what they wanted. The main man who could benefit from this type of service is Michael Murphy but frustratingly, with the captain playing around the middle, he was the one player who could consistently deliver the good quality, forward-friendly ball that the inside two required. Who’d be a manager eh?
Even in defeat, there were plenty of plus points to take from proceedings.
Martin O'Reilly thrived in a deep lying attacking role, the No 6 on his back indicated his offensive starting position rather than defensive responsibilities.
Despite the gulf in class in the opening half, Donegal dropped three scoreable efforts short and could have been closer at half time. Geaney’s second goal was the real killer blow and there was never much doubt about the outcome from then on. The boys battled on though and didn’t let the heads drop.
Donegal looked like a team who have trained hard over the last few weeks but who haven't seen a football in a while, evidenced by some of the sloppy handling and pick-up errors.
Kerry alternatively can often leave their heavy training until after the league due to the vastly inferior competitiveness of the Munster championship compared to Ulster. If the bookies are to be believed, the Kingdom will be playing on League Final day on April 9th; that would leave them 11 weeks until their first meaningful Championship test in a Munster Final in early July.
Whatever stage of his career or fitness regime Murphy is in, he is still the go-to man; he was Donegal's battering ram as they chased down the Kerry lead, exceptional in the closing stages. He was causing havoc running at the Kingdom rearguard and eventually the aristocrats were forced to simply haul him down when he bore down on goal late on (oddly enough, this incident of cynicism didn’t make the highlights reel on RTE's wrap-up show last night). In spite of their reputation, Fitzmaurice’s squad can puke it with the best.
What the young lads may have lacked yesterday in experience and speed of thought they made up for in attitude and endeavour. To a man, the team displayed great character and stayed going until the end.
Staying in Division One is Rory’s aim; six points will likely be enough for that and with twelve still on offer, there’s plenty to play for yet.