SETANTA managed to successfully defend their Donegal Senior Championship, yet this year’s title was certainly not straightforward.
They had a change of management, trained remotely, experienced injury concerns, and then there was the small matter of an up-and-coming St Eunan’s team in the final.
>Gary McGettigan took over as manager at the start of the season. Having been a player before, he knew the pressure that was on him. Setanta have won three of the last four Donegal Hurling Championships, so another victory was expected.
“Anything other than winning the championship would have been a failure,” McGettigan said.
“Over the last few years we have pulled away from the rest. The previous management had been there for a few years. When I took on the manager’s role the big difference was Ollie Bellew being there. Ollie, from managing Jordanstown, Queen’s and Antrim teams, had a lot of great ideas on set ups and how to create space and to get the right men on the ball. Sometimes it takes that.”
McGettigan reckons that Tyrone and Donegal club hurling tends to rely on the traditional man-on-man approach, so Bellew’s influence brought more nuance to the way Setanta played.
“Ollie was a massive help. He is one of those guys who when he speaks everyone listened. Thankfully he is back in for 2021.”
Preparations for the season were mixed. The injury list was short. Stephen McBride was injured and Justin McBride was overseas with the Irish Army.
They had started their training as usual, but then Covid hit.
McGettigan said: “It was an absolute disaster. We were doing conditioning for three weeks and then it was all stopped. We gave them running programmes. I never thought I would see boys doing home-training. It was strange keeping guys motivated to work out online.”
Mark Callaghan, one of the Setanta corner-backs, would have a stand out season for his club. At the start of the year, he didn’t think he would get to play any hurling at all. So he was glad to get some action.
“I had an early start with the county, so everything was going well for me but then everything was shut down. When we got back to the club it was great.
“The work that Gary set out was great. The online classes and training. That was really good. And the work we did with Ollie Bellew was great too. It was all very good.
“We did a lot of work on the basics, catching, blocking, hooking. We worked on the mechanics of all that stuff which was very good. I was happy with that. As a defender there is nothing better to see than a forward tackling or chasing down a man.
“The sessions were tough, but they weren’t long going in.”
But they went from one of the most difficult periods to one of their most enjoyable periods.
McGettigan said: “It was great when we went back. We had four weeks of training an then we had a game every week for the whole season. That was easy to manage. Sometimes in a normal season you could have no game for five weeks and it is hard to keep that going.”
Callaghan said that the run to the final was testing.
“There were a couple of tough games. Burt are not easy beat. Nor are MacCumhaill’s.”
Championship was played as a round-robin, and Setanta got to the final very easily. Then they met St Eunan’s in the decider.
McGettigan said: “Over the last few years ourselves and St Eunan’s would have been the two stronger teams. That was the stand out game for us.”
Setanta’s preparations were straightforward according to McGettigan.
“With hurling there aren’t too many strategies like blanket defence like they have in football. You don’t really know how you are going to set up until you see the other team. St Eunan’s didn’t play with the sweeper. There was no special tactics.”
Callaghan said that Setanta’s approach to the season was to focus on themselves, and their own set-up. However, he did say that they were up against a very good team in the final.
“We knew that they would bring intensity. They are an up and coming side. We knew what they were going to bring with regards work-rate.
“We always tried to focus on ourselves and let them worry about us. We always try to play to our plan rather than adapt to another team.”
Setanta have a very strong team though. They have about a third of the starting county team in their number. That provided them with a great advantage.
McGettigan said: “We would line out our strongest positions and let our opponents decide who they want to mark.”
The key man for St Eunan’s is Sean McVeigh. Setanta usually approach that problem the same way.
McGettigan said: “He was playing centre half-forward and Danny Cullen was centre half-back. We just let them go at it. It was a great battle. I have seen the two of them battling many times. They are two great athletes and two cracking hurlers. Most of the time they break even, or cancel each other out.”
The game started well for Setanta, as they went eight or nine points ahead. Their approach to the final was to try and be clever.
McGettigan said: “In the past we would have lumped high balls in. We are trying to get away from that. We want to play the way the top teams are. We want to play good quality diagonal ball.”
Their careful approach to attack earned them a big lead early on. Three-quarters through the match they led by 2-14 to 0-9. Yet the game was not over.
St Eunan’s approach to curtailing Setanta was interesting. Callaghan saw first-hand what the Letterkenny side did to try and unsettle him and his teammates.
“They would push in their danger men, like Conor O’Grady. Even Sean McVeigh would push in to full-forward. They like to shuffle men about to keep the defenders on their toes.
“In fairness to our own defence, myself or Denim (Rowan) or Marty (Bonnar), Brendan Tourish or Alan McConnell. We just held our positions. If we held our positions and picked up our man then we could stay solid. Our defence is one of our best lines. I thought we were really solid. Our defenders are real dogged and they wouldn’t let too much away.”
Kevin Kealy grabbed two goals for St Eunan’s and provided a real concern for Setanta.
McGettigan said: “There were a few nervy moments at the end as they got a couple of goals. At one stage it looked like we were going to win comfortably, but at the end up it was a lot closer. We are lucky that we have boys there who are experienced and who can see games out.”
Setanta won 2-19 to 2-13 at the finish, Davin Flynn scoring a total of 0-7 for his team. But it really was an all-round performance that won the game for them.
The celebrations were odd. With very few people in O’Donnell Park the players congratulated each other without the usual on-field mass of people.
McGettigan said: “It was weird. The players just shook hands and that was it. It was a strange one. But for myself, as a first-time manager anything other than a win would have been a disaster. The way it is, if you win, you have a great team. But if you lose it is your fault. That’s part and parcel of it.”
For Callaghan, he feels that the potential is great.
“We would have loved to contest Ulster. We reached the All-Ireland semi-finals before.
“That was great. I’d love to get back to that level and compete at that higher standard. As a player you want to be playing in the best games you can.”