By Frank Craig
HUGH McFadden says that playing in empty grounds last year didn’t really have that much of an affect on players.
The Killybegs man admits it was a much different experience and that he can’t wait until crowds are once again cheering Donegal on.
But the fact that there was a return to play at all in 2020 meant that both he and his team-mates felt more than fortunate to get back to doing what they love.
With a decision yet to be taken on when the Allianz Leagues can start, GAA president John Horan recently admitted that he doesn’t expect to see supporters back at grounds until later in the year at the earliest.
The GAA’s Covid-19 advisory group are set to meet again in the coming days to discuss a potential return date for training.
GAA director general Tom Ryan and Horan last week described the revised start date for the Allianz Leagues next month as “a definite possibility”.
The GAA also envisages providing a four-week lead-in time so for the leagues to commence on March 27/28 teams would have to be back together the last weekend of this month.
Tir Chonaill powerhouse McFadden, for the moment, will continue to prepare on his own with the aim of being as up to speed as possible for when Donegal do get back down to business.
“Definitely – you miss the lads surely,” he said in relation to training in isolation. “We’re in constant contact through our groups chats but it’s still so far removed from what we’d normally be doing.
“One of the big things, and it doesn’t matter if it’s county, club, Junior B or whatever; that social interaction and that craic that comes with all of that is a massive part of the GAA.
“Like, those 10 or 15 minutes in the changing room before you head out, the stresses of everyone’s day is blown away right there and then with the bit of chat.
“Then you head out the door looking forward to getting stuck into the hard work. It’s hard work but it’s rewarding and it’s a real release.
“And again sport, it’s not for everyone but it is still so important to so many of us. For us that are involved, we know that when we do get back at it that we’re in a very privileged position.
“And I’m really aware of how much it brings to supporters and people that maybe are idle and don’t have anywhere to go or be, simply because of this virus. It’s a distraction.
“I see that myself at the moment with the Premier League and any other sport that’s allowed to go on. It’s something that allows us to maybe switch off, forget about Covid and the talk of it for a few hours at least.”
Donegal’s soccer counterparts across the road in Ballybofey, Finn Harps, returned to training last week. The League of Ireland Premier Division outfit also know that they’ll be kicking off their season on March 19.
The GAA still haven’t decided when they’ll allow sides back through the training ground gates and an exact throw-in date has yet to be rubber stamped.
Croke Park, it seems, are erring on the side of caution once again – much like they did in 2020. But McFadden believes it is the correct approach.
“Ideally, it would be great to have a date from far out and that both the players and management have a very clear path in front of them.
“We’re used to having very defined targets and aims mapped out. But the thing is, it’s a level playing field in that sense. We’re all in the same boat.
“The bigger picture, the one that is in the back of the head is that I’m hopefully going to be playing for both Donegal and Killybegs at some stage this year.
“The start of that really is only just around the corner, fingers crossed. So we’ll all get over the delay and the small inconveniences, if they even are that, with that thought in mind.
“The focus for now is to get as fit as possible and as strong as possible ahead of all of that. And it’s an experience to be pushing yourself on your own. That responsibility is something new so it’s a different kind of challenge.”
One of the pluses last year, even if it was a fixtures tinkering that was forced on the GAA, was that there was a clear distinction between the club and inter-county calenders.
It’s the exact same this time out although it’s the county that will get things under way first, this time out.
“I think it’s good in the sense that you have a clear understanding of the year,” McFadden said on that change. “You have a clear date of the All-Ireland final and you’ve a good grasp of how the club championship is going to be run off.
“To be fair, I think here in Donegal for the last few years we’ve had the club championship run off week on week. I definitely think a condensed inter-county season, with less breaks in between would be a positive.
“And if the club scene and all the championships around the country were run off in the same window, it would also be a really good thing.”
He added: “There was this real aspect of togetherness in the club scene last year. The club got back at it first, back in June and July. Lads that had been away were suddenly back home and boys were getting back out to play just for the enjoyment and distraction of it.
“The numbers were great. And I think every club in the county probably experienced that injection. There has always been this sort of tug of war conversation about county players and their club.
“But any county player I’ve ever met wants to play for their club every single time. And the clearer distinction we have between the two seasons going forward, the more chance we’ll have of that happening.”
The provincial championship draws were also recently put on the back burner and, it’s understood, will now not take place until after the return to collective inter-county team training.
McFadden says it’s not that big a deal and that it will, for a change, allow sides time to focus on themselves, even if it’s just for a little while.
“Again, it’s different and it’s a change. Let’s see how it goes and who we get first! Come back to me then! But you’re right, it eliminates this huge run in and wait.
“It usually happens at the beginning of October and the talk starts immediately. What is will allow, I feel, is for teams to focus on improving themselves instead of obsessing about another team for months at a time.”
Meanwhile, the Killybegs clubman says Donegal will look to figure out exactly what went wrong in their shock Ulster SFC final defeat to Cavan whenever they do get back down to business collectively.
“Look, the first thing is that there is still this massive sense of disappointment. Losing finals isn’t nice. In terms of what went wrong, it’s still very hard to put a finger on it.
“We’ve talked about it to some degree but we’ll probably really look into it when we get back together as a group. We’ll have to figure that out.
“It was a very disappointing evening for us. It’s a short turnaround, meaning we don’t have to sit and stew for too long. We were supposed to be back in January so we knew there wouldn’t be much time to sit around feeling sorry for ourselves.
“The appetite is whetted to get back. And even though things didn’t go out way that night, there remains a huge belief in this group that we are a good team.
“Everyone in the set-up will be looking forward to getting back together and going at it again.”
Donegal opened the defence of their Ulster SFC crown at home to fierce foes Tyrone in Ballybofey last term. The crunch tie would usually have attracted a sell-out 19,000 supporters.
However, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 championship was played out behind closed doors.
McFadden admits that the drive in to the Ballybofey venue, through the lonely looking streets, really brought home the fact that this was going to be a very different type of season.
But once the action got under way, he says the void terraces and stands didn’t have an impact on the players’ performance or application.
“It definitely was different. But the importance and significance of it all is the exact same. There is no doubt the match day is a very different experience.
“All those lads are seriously competitive by nature. That doesn’t change. But coming into Ballybofey, with Tyrone in town, and not a being to be seen… that does register. So it’s not the actual game. Once that gets under way, you’re into it.
“Driving in, the contrast to what you’d usually see, of course it’s a much different experience. There are big moments in games where a crowd lends energy or whatever.
“But again, it’s the same for both teams. Once the game gets under way, you zone in on that and it has your complete focus.”
The Donegal team doctor, Kevin Moran, once again heads up the GAA’s Covid-19 Advisory Committee. McFadden says his expertise, and the fact that the entire squad and backroom team have last year’s experience under their belts, means they’re well prepared to deal with all the rules and restrictions that will once again be in place when ever they do make their return.
“We’re very lucky. We have a really good, professional set-up. We know what’s in front of us this year. Unfortunately, we do all have experience under our belts of playing football and preparing for it with Covid around us.”
McFadden is one of the most personable lads in the Donegal set-up and, by his own admission, ‘likes to keep the sunny side out’.
A primary school teacher at Scoil an Linbh Íosa, Killymard, just outside Donegal Town he, under Level 5 restrictions, is currently having to work from home.
But again, he says it’s a matter of making the best of a bad situation. Although he is in no doubt that many are finding the current lockdown situation at home extremely difficult.
“I think we’ve all realised that the GAA plays such a huge part in all our lives. On and off the field, it’s there. People calling you to talk about how a certain game went or how the club was going, it broke the monotony of it all for people.
“This thing didn’t really hit home until March last year. And we were coming into the brighter part of the year. This time out, we’re having to get through some dark, winter months.
“It’s tough going. But people just need to dig in and realise it’s going to get easier. If we have football around the corner, longer evenings and hopefully a reduction in restrictions, people are going to get a real lift in the coming weeks and months.”