Listening to some of the talk about where Donegal go from here, you'd have to wonder at what people think they were made of when they won the All-Ireland last year. I've heard a few people say that it's going to be very hard for them to pick themselves up to play Laois on Saturday. Or that they're going to be feeling sorry for themselves and will struggle to raise a gallop. To me, that's a total losers' attitude. That's curl up and die stuff.
I can take a fairly confident stab at what Donegal are this week. They are angry and annoyed. They're pissed off at themselves, at each other, at everyone. They can't believe they let themselves be dominated by a Monaghan team that basically beat them at their own game. And they are desperate to get back out on the pitch and start righting what went wrong. Hard to pick themselves up? I don't buy it for a second.
People talk about this six-day turnaround as if it’s completely unworkable. But if you go back through the teams that have lost round four qualifiers in that way, I don’t think too many of them were world-beaters anyway. In the majority of cases, they would have been underdogs for the game regardless of preparation time. And the one thing that none of them were was reigning All-Ireland champions.
It's only 10 months ago that these players won a great All-Ireland. And yet last Sunday you'd really only say that Neil Gallagher and Frank McGlynn came out of the game with any credit. Do people really think they're going to accept that? Just lie down and take it? Where's the evidence for that?
They'll be raging this week. Jim McGuinness will be angry at himself for not seeing it coming. Monaghan attacked them where they were strongest – they shut down Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and Patrick McBrearty and Donegal didn't know where to go from there. It was simple enough stuff and yet Donegal looked bamboozled by it. They should have been ready.
Anger is a great emotion. Anger among team-mates – some of them your best friends – just reminds everybody that this is a serious business. Donegal would have sat down last night and had a bit of blood-letting amongst themselves. That’s vital, a good old-fashioned bit of honesty all round can only be good.
Laying down the law
If I was either of the two McGee brothers for instance I'd be laying down the law. I'd be saying, "Right lads, I know I didn't play well at all but where was my protection?" Donegal's whole full-back line strategy all along has been for the two boys to be well covered and surrounded with bodies. Now, all of a sudden, they were being asked to go man-to-man, which they haven't been used to.
Fair enough, Mark McHugh going off was a big blow but Donegal still had 15 men on the pitch at all times. It’s not good enough that there was so little cover for the full-back line.
They’ll probably watch some video of the game together and that will be a tough session. You feel like cringing all the way through. It’s actually nearly as painful as being involved in it in the first place. It’s like when you hear yourself talking for the first time on the radio and you think to yourself, “God, do I actually sound that bad?” You’re watching it wondering how it went so wrong.
That’s when you need leaders. That will mean players not being afraid to stand up and point fingers. A lot of honesty has to flow around the room. You have to be prepared to take it as well as give it. If something was your fault, it was your fault. But that can’t stop you pointing out when someone else was in the wrong either. There has to be an element of naming and shaming to it.
In those kind of meetings, I often picked a row with somebody that I knew would have a go back. It wouldn’t be rehearsed because everyone would see through it if it was. And it would always be merited, always something that needed to be said. But part of the reason I’d do it would be so that whoever it was would give it back to me and have a right go. The more honesty in the meeting, the better it would be.
There has to be a common goal above all else. They don’t have to solve all the little problems in one go but they do have to make sure they walk out of the door united. When they’re done being angry with each other, they’ll make sure and keep back a bit of rage for the outside world. Everybody is writing us off? Well, we’ll show them. We’re not dead yet, not by a long way. How could we be? It’s only a few months since people were saying we were invincible.
Fix it collectively
The only people who know how annoyed Donegal are right now are the 30 boys in the room and the backroom staff. There'll be nobody exempt from criticism, not McGuinness, not Rory Gallagher, not Karl Lacey or Michael Murphy or Colm McFadden. And that's the best way to have it. It means everybody has to up their game now, everybody has to improve. They made a hames of it collectively and now they have to fix it collectively.
McGuinness has to work on their psychology this week but I really don’t think it will be that difficult. All he has to do is remind them that rolling over and dying wasn’t what they built their house on. The foundation of their All-Ireland win was character and commitment. It can’t be so that far away now that they can’t tap into it again.
They’re not going to be down, they’re not going to be moping. They’ll be feeling insulted by the whole thing. Once you win an All-Ireland, you don’t have the luxury to just go, “Ah well, I suppose it’s just not going to be our year.” That sort of emotion wasn’t in them when they were winning all those games in Croke Park last year, so why should it be now?
They had a bad day at the office. They were bullied. The tone was set when Stephen Gollogly crashed into McHugh with absolutely no regard for his personal safety. He was like a kamikaze pilot going after that ball. He knew it was going to hurt but he went in there anyway like his life depended on it. That's what Donegal were doing last year, that's what they built their success on. They have to get back to it.
One small thing they might fix by the weekend – they might splash out on a new pair of boots for Paul Durcan. He started the game with one of them taped up and then came out for the second half with tape around both of them! It wouldn’t have been so noticeable if his kicks outs had been going where they were supposed to but he looked to me at times like a quarterback who had gotten his calls mixed up.
I wouldn’t worry for them against Laois. Players know. You know yourself when you’ve had a stinker. You know yourself when you’ve been off the pace or let your team-mates down. You know as well that people are writing you off and saying you weren’t that good to begin with. And that is the case until you prove otherwise. Donegal are one-hit wonders until they put in a big performance to show they’re not.
It comes down to whether or not they're happy to sit back and have people think of them that way. Can they stomach all the good work of the last three years being undermined because of one bad day? Laois are coming knocking on the door this Saturday and Donegal will answer it. They have to turn the anger they must feel into the sort of aggression that will show everyone they're not done yet.
Donegal would be in a far worse position if they’d lost last week’s game by a point. The fact that it was such a comprehensive defeat can only have woken them up. It’s more than just their pride being hurt, it’s that they were outfought as well as outplayed. That’s not who they are.
Long term, it’s fair enough to question whether they can retain the All -Ireland. The one thing Sunday really exposed that they can’t change in a team meeting is the lack of depth in their panel. Donegal have great players from 1 to 15 but it’s when McGuinness has to go and put his hand into the bag to bring out replacements that they will struggle.
But that’s for next week and the weeks to come until the end of the summer. For now, Donegal just have to find their inner rage and use it to their advantage. They achieved too much last year just to let this year fizzle out.