September Road may prove circuitous for McGuinness and co

The outside track is made for a team like Donegal


It’s nearly 28 years since I attended with a friend from Monaghan the first 1985 All-Ireland semi-final. Seated nearby on his own was a Kerry man from central casting, cap on head, silent and inscrutably taking in the match. After a fine contest, Eamonn McEneaney landed a free to tie up the match and send the semi-final to a replay.

Before leaving, the solitary supporter (and given the average Kerry attendance at semi-finals in those days, this might literally have been true) turned and said: “I’m glad he got that. Ye deserve another day out.”

Whatever about being the home of football, Kerry is without doubt the home of football’s most artful patronising pleasantries.

No county knows this better than Dublin. So there must have been some satisfaction in the county, as the realisation dawned that their team had rescued Kerry from Division Two football next season. Anyone heading down south from the capital for a few days in the Kingdom can polish up their own messages of goodwill.

“Sure, we were delighted to do it. Ye don’t deserve to be down there at all. Division One wouldn’t be the same.”

Instead Donegal took the tumble – the first time this fate has befallen All-Ireland champions since Kerry themselves 12 years ago.

There’s been so much noise in the aftermath of Dublin’s late equaliser that the impact of the relegation has been diffused. In ordinary circumstances you might be tempted to say that manager Jim McGuinness’s comments about not liking the league were incautious but given his qualifications in psychology and adroitness in that area it’s hard to characterise anything he says after matches as being “in the heat of the moment”.

For sure there was frustration about the course of the match – and the afternoon. Three counties, Donegal, Kerry and Mayo, were in the relegation frame over the course of Sunday’s matches. Donegal spent the least amount of time in seventh place – a matter of seconds – but that’s where they finished the season.

There was hard luck involved. Donegal were unhappy about a penalty that was felt due to Rory Kavanagh as well as the failure to show Paul Flynn what was felt to be a merited second yellow card, which would have given them a man advantage during the second half and a likely win in consequence. But Donegal have come to power under McGuinness as a formidable blend of will-to-win and science. It’s unusual to hear external factors such as luck and refereeing decisions being referenced in post-match interviews. Also unusual was the sight of the champions failing to protect a two-point lead so late in the match.

Despite a more even and in many ways more impressive league campaign, they have ended up losing their place at the top. That’s not all down to bad luck – McGuinness accepted that the rigours of championship training, which was under way last week regardless of the Dublin match, may have contributed to the cramp that forced Colm McFadden off at half-time. Had he stayed on, again it is more than possible that Donegal would have done enough to seal both of the points. The late Eamonn Coleman warned Joe Kernan that the one piece of luck vital to defending All-Irelands was that related to injury and match fitness, issues that are not entirely under the control of even the most organised manager.

Absentee list
Donegal could point to Neil McGee’s injury as being another that cost them on Sunday, to say nothing of Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey’s season-long absence. A third All Star, Neil Gallagher, was also missing, as were two panellists David Walsh and Christy Toye who both played in nearly every championship match last year (Toye missed one).

As things stand, it is hoped that everyone will be back for the end of next month.

Does relegation matter? Not this year, anyway. What good there was to be got out of this league has been absorbed. The change of status will impact next year when with another promising under-21 side on the way up, they will have to trial newcomers in the less exacting environment of Division Two. Donegal are again dealing with the unknown. For two years they pursued the ambition of a second All-Ireland for the county and made it happen. Now they enter equally unfamiliar terrain trying to retain the title.

Experience and knowledge will have to compensate for the loss of raw hunger, which is peculiar to teams chasing their first All-Ireland.

No one can accuse McGuinness of inconsistency. Throughout the league he has re-routed all inquiries about league status and current form along the September Road. His sole declared focus has been May 26th and the meeting with Tyrone, the team that has pushed them hardest in Ulster for the past two seasons.

It would be unthinkable for McGuinness and his management not to have conceived, however covertly, a Plan B that takes in the qualifiers. The outside track is made for a team like Donegal. Five of the six All-Ireland wins achieved through the qualifiers have gone to counties with an already conventionally won title.

He mightn’t be talking about it but it’s highly unlikely that such thoughts haven’t crossed McGuinness’s mind.