PAIRC ESLER IN Newry will play host to Donegal’s opening fixture of the 2016 Allianz League Division 1 on Saturday against Down.
Here’s what might be on the wishlist of Rory Gallagher, the Donegal manager, over the coming months.
1 – Above all – survival
At the launch of the new Donegal kit on Monday, Gallagher suggested that survival in Division 1 is his immediate priority. It’s a cliché to suggest that a good start is paramount, although in 2012 Donegal opened their campaign with two losses – 1-10 to 1-9 in Newry in their opener and then when Laois came to Letterkenny and left with a 2-9 to 2-6 victory.
That particular season certainly ended on a high, with Jim McGuinness’s side going on to win Sam Maguire. In the league, Donegal defeated Armagh on Easter Sunday to maintain their top flight status.
Much has been made of the fact Donegal haven’t won on the road in Division 1 since 2009, when they triumphed against Westmeath. However, with his second season about to start, Gallagher can’t be held wholly accountable for that particular stat.
He suggested that six points might be enough, so with an impressive home record in recent years, Donegal have to be looking at Cork in Ballyshannon on February 7, when Mayo come to Ballybofey on February 28 and then when Letterkenny plays host to Roscommon on March 13.
Away trips to Kerry and then the last two fixtures – at Croke Park against Dublin and in Clones to face Monaghan – aren’t places to go scrambling for points. Down, on Saturday, might put an end that away-day run and also, more importantly, provides a decent opportunity to get two points on the board early.
2 – An increase in experience
Gallagher stayed true to his word in the Dr McKenna Cup and fielded a spate of youngsters. In all, there were 10 Donegal debutantes and although Donegal lost in two out of their three outings, the exercise of experience will prove more worthwhile in the long run.
Danny Rodgers, Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Stephen McMenamin, Michael Carroll, Stephen McBrearty, Kieran Gillespie, Cillian Morrison, Caolan McGonagle, Ciaran Thompson and Jack O’Brien all played, while Mark Anthony McGinley missed out with a quad injury but is tipped to start in goal on Saturday.
Players like Caolán Ward and Peter Boyle had played for Donegal before – although neither since the 2013 Dr McKenna Cup when Maxi Curran took charge and used the competition to give his Under-21 side some games. St Eunan’s Rory Carr is currently recovering from a dislocated shoulder, so might feature in the latter stages of the league.
The Donegal side that takes to the field on Saturday night will include a number of the newer faces. Gallagher has suggested there will also be a number of experienced players on board, with the likes of Neil Gallagher and Eamon McGee expected to start the returning Rory Kavanagh and Christy Toye in contention.
3 – Adding to the panel by the conclusion
Karl Lacey, Gallagher confirmed this week, has been given an extended break and will not be rushed back into contention.
The four-time All-Star and 2012 Footballer of the Year has suffered a few injuries in recent seasons – hip surgery in 2012 and then a minor corrective knee op in 2013 – and to maximise one of his prize assets, Gallagher is prepared to be patient.
David Walsh and Colm McFadden aren’t going to play in Newry but will be gradually introduced, as will the aforementioned Carr. Goalkeeper Michael Boyle is said to be recovering well from a cruciate injury picked up in September on his return from Donegal Boston to Termon and there’s a similar story with Darach O’Connor. Both are said to be ahead of schedule.
On the outside looking in, it appears as though the Donegal side will gradually increase the experience levels the further the league goes on. But there’s a window of opportunity to the younger elements of the panel to stake a claim early. June 12, and the Ulster SFC opener against Fermanagh or Antrim, is the only date that really matters.
4 – Even semi-final?
Donegal found themselves in the semi-final of the Allianz League last spring, by virtue of Stephen Griffin’s late point in the 1-9 to 0-12 draw away to Mayo.
At the time the score was celebrated but it cut in a little to the preparations for the Ulster SFC preliminary round tie against Tyrone. Five weeks before that particular fixture, Donegal lost 4-11 to 0-19 at Croke Park against Cork in the league semi-final.
Although it was an entertaining contest on the face of it, Gallagher would’ve undoubtedly wanted to keep his cards reasonably close to his chest.
This year, the lie of the land is different. Donegal, on June 12, are the last of the nine Ulster counties to take to the provincial playing field. Therefore, there’s nine weeks between the last Division 1 fixture and the Ulster SFC.
Twelve months ago, the panel Gallagher inherited, were given a team holiday to Dubai having won the 2014 Ulster SFC and reached the All-Ireland final. This year during the three-week break in February, Gallagher can put the time to good collective use with a five-day training camp to Tenerife confirmed.
Gallagher said that survival is the first aim. But a semi-final – if the opportunity does arise – mightn’t be that bad a thing with the likes of Lacey returning to the fold.
5 – The number one?
The Allianz League offers a opportunity for plenty, but perhaps none greater than those who will keep goal.
McGinley, the St Michael’s goalkeeper, may get the nod on Saturday should be recover from a quad muscle injury he picked up minutes before Down came to Ballybofey in the Dr McKenna Cup.
The Ards native has never won the jersey but has experience of League of Ireland Premier Division football with UCD.
Danny Rodgers, too, should see some gametime having played the opening two McKenna Cup games. Peter Boyle came in for the fixture in Fermanagh.
At this exact point in time, who starts in the Ulster SFC is anyone’s guess but as mentioned, Michael Boyle is ahead of schedule and might see championship action for the first time since 2009.
Paul Durcan, the No1 for the best part of a decade is in Dubai at the minute but will meet with Gallagher at the end of February to talk things over.
The former Four Masters goalkeeper was in top form as he helped Ballyboden St Enda’s to both the Dublin and Leinster SFC titles and is expected to play in their All-Ireland club semi-final against Clonmel Commercials next month.Tags: