Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Donegal can earn tag of true greats

Mark McHugh  helped to take Donegal over the line against Tyrone on Sunday
Mark McHugh helped to take Donegal over the line against Tyrone on Sunday

When Dublin ended a lengthy All-Ireland title famine by finally taking delivery of 'Sam' in 2011 the consensus appeared to be that Pat Gilroy's side would reign supreme for some years.

Such an assessment was understandable given the Dubs' huge playing resources, the fact that they get to play the vast majority of their championship matches at Croke Park and their sophisticated training methods.

But last year Mayo rained on their parade at the semi-final stage of the All Ireland series before they in turn were pipped by Donegal (2-11 to 0-13) in the decider.

Thus the formation patiently fashioned by Gilroy and honed to what many thought were superhuman levels of fitness following regular pre-dawn training sessions had to be content with the label of being a good team rather than a great team.

Now it is the turn of Donegal to prove that they can remain as the overlords of gaelic football for a second successive year and having glided through first base at Tyrone's expense last Sunday the odds on them achieving this significant feat have certainly shortened somewhat.

For a team that treated the McKenna Cup and Allianz League with virtual disdain, Donegal have suddenly recaptured the admiration and indeed awe of a cynical sporting public.

An All-Ireland win can cement self-belief, enhance individual performances, sustain the fervour of fans and provide a greater incentive for fringe players to make the grade.

And although Donegal did not necessarily tick all these boxes at a tension-laden Ballybofey on Sunday, they did more than enough to suggest that they are already out of the starting blocks in pursuit of that 'great' tag.

Indeed, Rory Kavanagh was subdued at midfield, Frank McGlynn was taken out of the action in the 21st minute, the entire half-forward line was replaced and both Karl Lacey and Mark McHugh, iconic figures in last year's success, were quietly introduced from the bench.

Yet Donegal had six points to spare at the finish and, perhaps equally important, manager McGuinness had been provided with confirmation that his resources on the bench were not quite as limited as had been perceived.

His emphatic declaration afterwards that "we have only won a match that takes us into the Ulster semi-final" offered an insight into someone whose feet are so rooted to the ground that they could be encased in concrete.

Any questions in relation to Donegal's hunger for more success were of course firmly answered via the intensity, structure and intelligence of their display.

McGuinness's in-depth knowledge of sports psychology may give him a head start on ordinary mortals in terms of analysing his side but great managers – and I use that adjective advisedly here – such as Billy Morgan, Sean Boylan and Eamon Coleman have maintained in the past that a team's level of hunger can only be fully assessed when the players cross the white line.

It was the late Eamon Coleman, the man who guided Derry to their 1993 All-Ireland triumph, who memorably said: "You will only know a team's appetite when they are eating grass."

In other words, if players take repeated hits and bounce back up again, a team can maintain its momentum – if players stay down with their faces on the ground, hunger has to be questioned.

Donegal's appetite for the fray on Sunday was palpable, their commitment nothing short of herculean.

But this is only a starting point in any bid to retain the Sam Maguire Cup.

Many other elements are required yet even after one championship match Donegal look well-equipped to replicate their achievement of last year.

It is worth bearing in mind that over the past two decades a number of teams have come to the All-Ireland table bearing impressive testimonials.

The Meath team of the mid-90's were perceived as a superpower yet winning back to back All-Ireland titles proved an elusive goal for Sean Boylan's side although his four All Ireland triumphs in a 23-year spell as boss has long since thrust him into the pantheon of great managers.

Similarly the Tyrone team of 2005 had established a firm template and looked set to extend their dominance until they were halted by Kerry who subsequently became the only side to win successive All-Ireland crowns since Cork did so in 1990 when they held onto 'Sam' in 2007.

This serves to underline the enormity of the challenge facing Jim McGuinness and his men.

History is not on their side but that of course will not worry the Donegal boss in the least. Indeed, as one who has cocked a snook at convention in some respects, it will merely serve as an additional spur to his team.

Under McGuinness's baton, Donegal have lost only one championship game and that was against Dublin in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final (0-8 to 0-6).

Indeed, had Colm McFadden's thunderbolt found the net in the early stages of the second-half the outcome of that game would surely have been much different.

The possibility of Donegal losing another championship match in the foreseeable future has now become rather more remote.

Jim McGuinness certainly aims to keep it that way.

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