Donegal happy to shoulder burden of expectancy
By John Harrington
With Kerry out of the championship, the big question on most Gaelic Games fans lips is, "can anyone stop a Dublin six-in-a-row?"
The bookies, at least, think Donegal are the best bet of the remaining horses in the race to beat Dublin to the line.
You can see where they’re coming from. Donegal have quality footballers all over the pitch and they’ve won the last two Ulster titles so they have a convincing enough body of work behind them.
There’s definitely an expectancy out there that they should be ready to peak in year three of Declan Bonner’s reign as manager.
Defender Paul Brennan is aware of that external expectancy, but he says it doesn’t weigh heavily on the shoulders of the players.
“We set our own standards, not only in what we want to achieve but also in training,” he says. “We strive to get the best out of ourselves so we always set the mark high for ourselves, even if it is a training, gym or recovery session, we always want to get the best out of ourselves.
“Bearing that on our shoulders? I suppose it is a way of life now for a Gaelic footballer to be at your best, to achieve the best.”
The condensed nature of this year’s championship will exact a considerable physical toll on the players so strength in depth will be a crucial factor.
Donegal certainly look like they have it, because in their Ulster quarter-final victory over Tyrone they had the luxury of introducing quality players like Eoin McHugh, Oisin Gallen, Paddy McGrath, and Jason McGee from the bench.
“It is our third year with Declan and this group…and last weekend the likes of Oisin (Gallen) and Eoin (McHugh) off the bench, it just seems to be coming together nicely over the year, training together, getting the guys up to the right physique, fitness levels back right, a good mix between old and young, training is good and strong, everyone is putting their hand up to carry that flag for Donegal,” says Brennan.
“We had a core of players in previous years that still got us over the line but now we also have the likes of all these younger guys now and they are as good as any footballer in the country. Niall O’Donnell, Langan…they are sticking their hand up too to carry it.”
Donegal have won the last two Ulster titles but they found out the hard way that they were still some way off challenging for the Sam Maguire Cup in 2018 and 2019.
Nicely poised going in to the final match of the quarter-finals round-robin series, a defeat to Tyrone in 2018 and another to Mayo in 2019 ended their chances of qualifying for the All-Ireland semi-finals.
As satisfying as the last two Ulster title wins were, Brennan admits the good was taken from them by those quarter-final defeats.
Our first nights back those times, we didn't talk about the (Ulster) finals, we talked about the defeats to both Tyrone and Mayo,” he says.
“For me personally, and it's the same for all of us, it was the defeats that were the sickener.
“They far outweighed the win. We know what this group is capable of on their day. We were under par in both those games. That's what keeps pushing us to get the best out of ourselves as we feel we're capable of competing with any team in the country on our day. But you have to be good every single day.
“That's the challenge this year – to put it back to back. You're into training on the Tuesday and the focus is on what's in front of us. You look to go even harder that night to squeeze those extra wee margins out of yourself.”
Donegal are fancied to beat Armagh in Saturday’s Ulster SFC semi-final, but Brennan knows it’s a very dangerous match.
Armagh were promoted from Division 2 of the Allianz Football League this year and have serious firepower in attack.
“They are back up to Division 1,” says Brennan. “We've always had close games. I have yet to play them where we've got it handy. McGeeney is there now six years and he's got them to a place where he has really stamped his authority on them and the way they play.
“They are a physical side but there is no doubt they have good footballers and they can play. I think they are at a stage now where they really can compete with the top teams.”
Kerry’s defeat to Cork might have improved Donegal’s championship odds, but for Brennan it also serves as a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted in this year’s championship.
“Yeah, of course,” he says. “We are well aware up here what it means to us if we were to take a defeat. This was highlighted again at the weekend with the defeat of Kerry.
“I suppose they had bigger expectations themselves this year but it just brings you back down to earth to see that it can be anyone.
“It can be Dublin, Mayo, Galway if you don’t bring that edge to try and get over the line you can wake up on a Sunday or Monday morning in a completely different place.”