Rory Gallagher was aware of the task he was facing when Donegal ambled down the M1 last August after losing to Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
It was apparent that the squad was breaking up, though even Gallagher might’ve been taken by surprise at the volume of those to have left the panel.
Soon after that defeat at Croke Park, Gallagher sought, and got a new four-year term as the Donegal senior manager.
“We knew that there would be a new beginning,” Gallagher says now as Donegal aim to make it to a seventh Ulster final in a row.
“I can remember vividly coming back from Croke Park and just knowing that we’d been looking for seven, eight, nine new faces. We knew that we’d have a huge amount to bring in from the end of last year and it’s why we were anxious to have them together and playing in the League.”
Last month, Gallagher’s new-look Donegal hammered Antrim 3-19 to 1-9 in Ballybofey to book a semi-final meeting and on Sunday Tyrone lay in wait.
“The Championship is the acid test for players,” Gallagher says.
Donegal had seven players starting a Championship game for the first time; five of them making their Championship debuts and another, Michael Langan, coming off the bench for his Championship bow.
“There was a very low-key build-up,” says Caolan Ward, one of those thrust on the Senior Championship’s stage for the first time.
“Rory didn’t want us thinking too far ahead. We just prepared like normal for the game.
“Overall, from a performance point of view, we have areas of improvement but it was a first day out for a lot of fellas, including myself, so it was since to get over the line and get into the semi-final.
“We didn’t know what to expect because it was completely new. We just went out to play the game. We didn’t think about the opposition or the occasion. There were some nerves before the start.”
The size of Gallagher’s task last winter was made more difficult when Odhrán Mac Niallais, Anthony Thompson and Leo McLoone opted out of the panel, along with those who had retired – Colm McFadden, Eamon McGee, Christy Toye, Rory Kavanagh, Neil Gallagher and David Walsh.
As a measure of how much the landscape is changed, it is worth noting that in Jim McGuinness’s four years as Donegal manager he gave just ten Championship debuts: Patrick McBrearty, Daniel McLaughlin, Marty Boyle, Martin O’Reilly, Declan Walsh, Ross Wherity, Ryan McHugh, Darach O’Connor, Luke Keaney and Odhrán Mac Niallais.
You have to go back to 1988 for the last time a Donegal side contained as many first timers as Gallagher fielded against Antrim.
Then, Tom Connaghan gave debuts to John Joe Doherty, Martin Shovlin, Martin Gavigan and Tommy Ryan from the off and introduced Barry Cunningham and Paddy Hegarty in a 2-10 to 0-8 loss to Armagh.
The previous year, Connaghan fielded six debutants as Donegal lost 1-8 to 0-6 against Armagh. Michael Kelly, Eamon Breslin, Corny Carr, Declan Bonner and Manus Boyle made their Championship debuts in the starting XV and John Cunningham was put in as a replacement.
Since Brian McEniff was appointed Donegal’s first manager in 1972 – before then, a selection committee looked after the team affairs – there have been just two other instances where a manager fielded six or more debutants in a Championship game.
In 1977, Sean O’Donnell fielded Michael Houston, Michael Oliver McIntyre, Anthony Harkin, John Fullerton and Denis Doherty in the starting side against Derry, while Sandy Harper came off the bench in the 1-12 to 0-12 loss in Ballybofey.
Two years later, O’Donnell gave seven players their Championship debuts in a 1-11 to 1-9 win over Tyrone: Sean Gavigan, Martin Sweeney, Seamus Flynn, Jim Brennan, Paul McGeehan and Seamus Reilly starting and Eugene Sharkey coming on as a replacement in Irvinestown.
A look through the history books certainly sheds light on the job that Gallagher has had on his hands since last autumn – but the manager still believes in his side and knows that he had to add numbers to his ranks.
He says: “We won an All-Ireland using a couple of subs. It was David Walsh and Martin McElhinney who came in. The top teams have got a really good bench. It’s no secret we’re carrying a big squad. The young fellas that came in, they did well in the league. Time will tell how strong this squad is.”
Paddy McGrath is one of the veterans now and the Ardara man scored his first Donegal goal in the win over Antrim.
McGrath was rather blunt in his assessment of the changing of the guard.
He said: “No harm to the boys who have gone their separate ways and retired, but youth is what the game is all about now.
“Thankfully Donegal have a strong underage now and we are starting to breed one or two inter-county players every year which is great and that is what we need to continue in order to compete with the best teams in Ireland.
“When we were starting off we had those older players to bring us along as well. It’s just a new generation and now we are there with the wee bit of experience to bring those fellows on and that is just the way that life goes on. You do need that bit of experience as well and hopefully those young fellows get plenty of game time now.”Tags: