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Rory's boys having to do their growing up in public

Galway v Donegal, All-Ireland Qualifiers 4a: Sligo, Today, 7.00pm

By Declan Bogue

The rain wasn't so much falling as crashing sideways into everything that moved on that stinking night of March 18 in Ballybofey.

As the bus ferrying the Tyrone players crept out of Pairc MacCumhaill, turned left and made for the safety of their own county, there wasn't a noise. Donegal hadn't just beaten the Red Hands 0-12 to 0-6, they had shown that, despite losing a serious chunk of their 2012 All-Ireland winners, a new generation of Under-21s had taken their place.

That victory took them top of Division One after five rounds.

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte was effusive in his praise for the young guns playing at home.

"They played with all the quality and all the guile that we've been accustomed to seeing them do. They've lost a number of their senior players but they haven't changed the way they play, they are a very efficient team and they very much know what they're doing," he said.

But it only went so far. Pressed on whether the result was a reality check for his players, he said: "Hmm… hopefully it was only you boys that thought that. We didn't think that!

"That's a reality check for you people that write these stories, we would never suggest that. We would suggest that Ulster is always as hard as it's ever been, and anyone that would suggest at this stage that somebody has a right to win it, they wouldn't be well aware of Ulster football."

It was against that backdrop that people in Donegal made judgments of the respective sides. In the Gaelic Life preview edition of the Championship meeting between the two on June 18 - a neat three months exactly from the clash at Ballybofey - former Donegal players Michael Hegarty and Kevin Cassidy emphatically stated that there was simply no way they could foresee a loss for Rory Gallagher's side.

And then Tyrone buried Donegal. And we don't know what is left of Donegal, really, ahead of their west coast meeting with Galway in tonight's Round 4A qualifier in Markievicz Park.

In his various roles as BBC and Highland Radio analyst, former Donegal attacker Brendan Devenney has had his head fried trying to make sense of it.

"I've never seen a transition like that before," he said of the departure of Rory Kavanagh, Eamonn McGee, Colm McFadden et al, to be replaced by the Jason McGees, Michael Langans and so on of Declan Bonner's Under-21 vintage.

"We were getting a false reading, thinking, 'These boys have been in very successful teams, they know the system, they are in now and all talented footballers, maybe they are ready'.

"And they did look ready for a time. What we didn't cop was that the preparation they did for the league put them on another level. They were going at Championship pace for the league campaign, 20 or 30 per cent more than some of the teams they were playing."

Dealing in hindsight, Devenney was absolutely right. On that night in Ballybofey, Justin McMahon gave Michael Murphy a terrible evening of wrestling masquerading as marking. It was a throwback to their Championship meeting in 2015 at the same venue.

But sharper observers felt it was a ruse. After all, Cathal McCarron had marked Murphy in the 2016 Ulster final and outscored him from play. So it was a few weeks prior, when Padraig Hampsey took on Murphy and outscored the Glenswilly man from play with two points.

Nobody could have known that better than Gallagher, who had been gaining so much praise for how he had handled the transition of the Donegal senior team. It's worth remembering that while the Under-21 team were still in their competition, they featured prominently for the seniors.

He would have known what level they were at, and perhaps sensed that all was not as rosy as it appeared. Hence, he looked extremely rattled, animated and tense on the sideline during the opening stages of their Championship meeting with Tyrone, giving way to a despondency as the Red Hands carved open their neighbours in the second quarter.

The recovery has been slow. They got past Longford without truly impressing.

Beating Meath in Navan was some feat for such a young team, but the narrative developed into one of Patrick McBrearty 'rescuing' Donegal with a point in the final play of the game, rather than that of a developing team proving itself away from home in front of a partisan crowd in a tight game.

Still, to get to Croke Park would represent significant progress for this young team. After being shellshocked that day in Clones, it would be a significant sign of their resilience.

"Donegal's young lads will look at that Tyrone game and say, 'Right, here's how far off we are from that level, never mind that nonsense in the league'," explained Devenney.

"This year there's hope of a game in Croke Park, and obviously you want to be able to compete, to give a good account of yourself, to get back there and get that buzz again.

"You don't want to be going there to get tanked. And that's the thing - have Donegal steadied the ship to be back competing?"

And by that, Devenney means really competing, at a level at which Donegal had become accustomed to in the Jim McGuinness era, before all the departed took with them any chance of Sam Maguire residing in the Hills this winter at least.

"That's the question, can they get back competing with the top three or four teams? I don't think this team is ready for it at Croke Park. But the experience of it, every team has to try to push themselves on," said Devenney. "If you asked any of those young lads on the team if they wanted to start a Championship game for Donegal in Croke Park, surely that is a massive push.

"I think that's the carrot of beating Galway, because Croke Park is the place where everybody wants to be."

On their best days, Donegal fans lined the motorways and owned Croke Park in the last five years. Those days aren't that far away.

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