Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Donegal's new tier of ambition

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness is happy for Donegal to be in Division Two

It depends on who you listen to. Note the remarks of Jim McGuinness in the wake of Donegal's draw with Dublin and subsequent relegation, when he said: "Relegation does not mean that much to us. We don't really like the league and Division Two will be a bit easier to rebuild in.

"It's always about the summer for us and it always will be."

If you like, you could invoke the spirit of Aesop's Fable about 'The Fox and the Grapes'. It refers to pretending not to care for something one wants, but does not or cannot have. More commonly known as sour grapes.

Back in November, however, McGuinness was talking about May 26; the date they meet Tyrone in Ballybofey in the first round of the Ulster Championship, a match that will be labelled the unofficial Ulster final given how far they are ahead of the rest.

All throughout winter and spring, the league was an utter irrelevance to Donegal.

When they beat Down in round two, McGuinness said: "Even if we lost all our league games, it doesn't matter. Even if we end up in Division Two, it doesn't matter ... If we get enough points to stay in the Division we will be delighted but we want to try other things out in terms of the way we play."

You have to say he was utterly consistent in that regard. Last week, Donegal "pushed the button" on their Championship training. On Saturday they put down a gruelling training session – not the actions typical of a team looking to peak just over 24 hours later.

Just over 52 miles away from Ballybofey, Kerry's Tomás ÓSé was asked if it would have been a disaster if his side had been relegated.

"Ah, it probably would have," he said, as he stood outside the away team dressing rooms of Healy Par.

"When I started out playing, the level of games in the league – there is no comparison to what there is now. That (game) is as good as Championship as you'll get. That's the way it's always been. If the pitches were dry in February and March we'd have some level of National League games."

So there you have it. While one man feels the league was as restorative as a good Sunday lunch, another felt it was akin to a mediocre Chinese meal – easily digested, instantly forgotten. But the Donegal indifference has created another bracket for Division One teams to be filed under.

As the league has developed, it has appeared to outsiders that a gentleman's agreement was in place, comprising three levels of ambition.

Tier one would be those who may have gained promotion and wished to settle down and make a home for themselves, let their supporters become weary yet comforted at the sight of Dublin coming up the road, or making the bi-annual trip down to Killarney.

Tier two were teams happy to be in exalted company, would fire in youngsters to see what they were made of in full experimentation mode, as long as they could win their home games and stay up.

Then, there were the enterprising sorts. Upwardly mobile bright young things who didn't see ambition as a dirty word.

The Donegal 2007 edition and Derry in 2008 were sides that just wanted to win a National title, and they were delighted with their league success.

Cork's own 2010 title inspired them to land the big one a few months later.

Rubbishing the league can be seen as placing more pressure upon yourself for the Championship, but Donegal have seen this one coming.

They have kept things largely from the view of the footballing cognoscenti; for instance why was Neil Gallagher stationed at full-forward for large periods of the Tyrone game?

Does it not strike people as odd that Frank McGlynn scored more than Michael Murphy from play in last year's Ulster Championship, yet scored nothing from six starts in this years' league, rarely venturing into the opponent's scoring zone?

The Dr McKenna Cup has been described as a pre-season competition but now that phrase is redundant. This Donegal team have been in pre-season mode for the last four months.

Last Saturday within the framework of a radio panel discussion show, Oisín McConville talked about how important it was for the Armagh team to pick up a National League with their handsome win over Wexford in 2005 – how it gave some balance to their haul of silverware.

In time, that view will become patronised as innocent and naive.