Championship Sunday in May. First day out of the summer. Nothing like it.
Every county feels expectation and optimism at this time of year and there’s a sense that anything is possible. Reality kicks in for many teams pretty quickly of course but while that sentiment lasts it’s a level playing field for all.
Travelling from the North of the county to Donegal’s footballing Mecca by the banks of the Finn, the length of the tailback at the T-junction a couple of miles out from town tells you the significance of the match you’re about to attend. Half an hour before the curtain raiser's 2pm throw-in time, the sizeable row of cars ahead and behind made it clear that the Championship had arrived.
The minor match added to the atmosphere as a cracking tussle broke out amongst the mistakes and nerves on show from the young lads playing in the last ever minor championship.
Once the ball was thrown up for the senior game however the buzz died somewhat. Mac Cumhaill Park was as quiet as it’s been for some time; the primal, box office jousts against Dublin and Tyrone in the league a distant memory. There were plenty of scores early on but there was an inescapable mood that Donegal were simply going through the motions.
That particular phrase isn’t in the lexicon of one Michael Murphy though. Murphy continued his superb league form, putting in a man of the match display.
For the entire afternoon he had Sean McVeigh by his side and while the big Antrim man was game and did his best to nullify Donegal’s leader, it was an impossible task. It will be a different story of course if Donegal end up facing Tyrone next time out – that will give Michael and Justin McMahon a chance to renew their rancorous friendship.
From the off The Maestro bulldozed his way through the Antrim defence, winning frees and creating gaps from which others could profit.
Murphy's ability to break tackles around midfield is especially crucial in the opening stages of a game; when an opponent’s blanket screen is at its most stubborn and defenders’ minds are at their sharpest. As the game goes on more space appears, tiredness infests the limbs and runs aren’t tracked as they were. So early on is the most difficult time to breach a defence and the captain consistently leads the charge.
As we saw in second half yesterday, Donegal had the run of the place at the river end goal and picked off points and goals at their leisure. In this light, Donegal's porousness in their own backline in the first half was all the more unusual.
Paddy McGrath and Neil McGee were a wee bit more lackadaisical than normal, letting Antrim forwards get goal chances that, judging by their attempted finishes, they seemed shocked to have got. The inside duo of Tomas McCann and CJ McGourty caused problems with their movement but once Frank McGlynn got the call from Maxi Curran to drop back in front of the full back line, things tightened up considerably.
Jamie Brennan’s goal before half-time ended the contest and it was a great finish from a man making his debut at this level. His point soon after displayed his best characteristics – quick feet to get around his man in order to create space for a composed shot at the posts. There were other times when the Bundoran sharp shooter had chances to take his man on but opted to turn back and look for support. If he can add a bit more directness to his game not many corner backs will relish pitting their wits against his raw speed.
Six others joined Brennan in making full Championship debuts and all acquitted themselves well. Granted the nature of the game, with the hosts pulling away comfortably after half-time, made things easier and didn’t give a true measure of the white heat of Ulster fare.
Jason McGee made a welcome return after missing several weeks of training due to concussion picked up in the U21 match with Dublin but he showed no ill-effects and produced an accomplished performance in the engine room alongside Murphy.
With that duo stationed at centrefield, there’s big men aplenty around the middle, which allows Hugh McFadden to provide the bulk in front of goal. McFadden spent most of his time in a county jersey up until this year in a defensive role but looking lean and fit he is relishing the chance to show what he can do in attack. He is much more inclined to take his shots on nowadays rather than pass on responsibility and his booming score in first half illustrated his ability in front of the posts.
There was plenty of other fine marksmen on show with the second half turning into shooting practice for the likes of substitutes Michael Langan and Karl Lacey.
When corner back McGrath pops up for his first ever goal, you know things are going your way. Paddy has been making that run for many years now yet he still seemed surprised to arrive in front of goal with ball in hand. A typical defender, the first instinct was to look for contact with the goalkeeper; after he bounced off Chris Kerr he had the wherewithal to get his foot to the ball before running straight through the goal line.
McGrath’s hit prior to his goal was one of the few incidences of physicality we saw in the closing stages such was the lack of intensity in the match by then. Things will definitely be different the next day – an expected Tyrone win over Derry at the weekend will lead to an Ulster Final rematch in Clones on June 18th.
If that comes to pass, we'll see more hefty belts in the opening five minutes than we saw over the entire 70 yesterday. Throughout the league, the displays of Rory's young guns have suggested that they have what it takes to represent the green and gold jersey - in four weeks we'll know for sure.