By Frank Craig
PADDY Campbell feels that Donegal will have been sharpened by their shock Ulster SFC final defeat to Cavan last term.
Declan Bonner’s men were in scintillating championship form in the lead-up to that November night’s duel. Pundits and scribes alike already had them on a direct collision course with reigning All-Ireland title holders Dublin come the semi-finals.
However, the Breffni men blew that script to smithereens to deny Donegal a place in the last four and, in the process, relieved them of their provincial crown.
Naomh Conaill clubman Campbell was given his Donegal debut by current boss Declan Bonner, during his first spell in charge, back in 2000.
He has no doubt that relinquishing their Ulster title will have hurt. But the criticism that came Donegal’s way following that loss to Mickey Graham’s underdogs will be what left the lasting mark.
But Campbell, nicknamed the Undertaker during his days as a no-nonsense full-back for both club and county, believes last season’s woes might actually be of benefit to the squad in the long run.
Despite back-to-back Anglo Celts in the last three seasons, Bonner’s men have failed to make any kind of a dent in the All-Ireland race.
Campbell hopes that Donegal’s young talent is now on the verge of establishing themselves, both individually and collectively, as forces to be reckoned with.
They have to, he insists, sooner rather than later as the clock continues to tick for the likes of Neil McGee, Paddy, McGrath and, most crucially, talisman Michael Murphy.
“I think Donegal are streets ahead of Cavan and many of the other sides in Ulster,” Campbell said. “The only team that I believe you can compare against them is Tyrone.
“With the new management in place there it’s going to be very interesting to see how they react. The Ulster final loss was a real disappointment on so many levels. Win, lose or draw, a clash with Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final would have been of huge benefit to the (Donegal) players and management.
“It would have been a measuring tool of sorts. But Donegal were caught on the day by a decent Cavan side with a very good manager. If you look at the stats, Donegal just didn’t measure up that evening.
“They usually create so many scoring chances and that didn’t happen. Their concession, it was still only 14 scores. It was 13 against Armagh. It was what they didn’t offer at the other end. And maybe the nature of that Armagh win didn’t help either. But that’s with the benefit of hindsight.
“In terms of the All-Ireland… again it’s very hard to know how good they are against Dublin and even Kerry, who I feel will bounce back. We’d need to see that. Like I said, last year was an opportunity missed as it would have given us something to gauge of.”
On getting that blend right this time out, he explained: “Michael (Murphy) has been around for so long but he still has so much to offer. His effort and quality, what he offers the team is massive. We’ve seen a good few youngsters now step up.
“Even with the disappointment of last year the likes of Peadar Mogan, Ciaran Thompson, Niall O’Donnell, Jeaic Mac Ceallbhuí and Michael Langan have all come on.
“But the expectation now on Donegal is a massive. An Ulster title used to be viewed as achieving. But now, we want that little bit more. And I understand that.
“Genuinely, the only two sides I feel are above Donegal at this time are Dublin and Kerry. And we need to be rubbing shoulders with them more often in Croke Park. At the moment, it’s hard to know how that younger bracket will react under that kind of spotlight, that kind of pressure.
“The quality is there. It’s an experience thing at this moment. And those lads just need a little more exposure of that kind of environment.
“But the chances Donegal are creating now, it’s way above anything they did in the past. They are slightly more exposed. But the balance has shifted to a more attack minded approach.
“Declan and (Stephen) Rochford have done a great job transitioning all of that.”