Changing of the guard

A look back on some of the Donegal memories of 2023…

1 An impossible task

HAVE you ever tried to climb up a wall with both hands tied behind your back? It’s impossible. That’s the hand Paddy Carr, Aidan O’Rourke and Paddy Bradley had this year.

With a raft of the players who took Derry all the way to the final seconds of extra time in the 2022 Ulster final gone, it was a tough ask. With one of the players being Michael Murphy, it was even tougher.

A win over Kerry was an excellent start to the league but that’s where the slippery slope began. There were shoots of performances – like the home game with Galway – that offered hope.

Carr was forced out and Bradley and O’Rourke were left to pick up the pieces. Relegation eventually followed. So too an exit to Down in Ulster. To be fair, Donegal turned things around in the All-Ireland series.

Now, it’s over to Jim McGuinness. He did it before and the people of Donegal are excited again. It will be interesting to watch how he builds a team around players like Oisín Gallen.

2 Mixed season for ladies

THE ladies footballers also lost their hold on top flight league status after an equally chastening league campaign.

Missing many players, they kept plugging away but weren’t able to get the results before their fortunes changed in the championship.

Maxi Curran got some of the experienced players back and they won back the Ulster title to bring some spark back into the season.

The All-Ireland series brought promise. Wins over Waterford and Meath saw them top the group ahead of a home quarter-final with the Dubs but they fell away in a heavy defeat.

After Curran’s decision to step down, John McNulty was installed as manager. They do have the players to bounce back. As well as their winning minor team, you just have to look at players like Yvonne Bonner (Adelaide Crows), Niamh McLaughlin (Gold Coast Suns) and Tanya Kennedy (Sydney Swans) playing at a professional level in the AFLW.

3 Hurlers’ status retained

ON the hurling front, Donegal were unlucky on the promotion front. A narrow win over Tyrone secured a Division 2B semi-final spot before they lost out in the final to eventual Christy Ring Cup winners Meath.

Mickey McCann is back for another season and deserved huge credit for the progress. Despite a small playing pool, he has got the best of the quality available to him.

Donegal got back to Croke Park in the championship phase where they took on Wicklow in the Nickey Rackard Cup final. They were league semi-final winners over the Garden County and were in a good place before falling short, 1-20 to 3-12, at HQ.

4 The amazing Setanta story

STAYING with hurling, what a story it has been for Setanta. Last season they were Ulster Junior champions in a season that ended in a disappointing All-Ireland quarter-final defeat.

That day in Carrickmore, they made a pact to bounce back and that’s exactly what they did. After emerging from Donegal again, they saw off Ballinascreen in the first round of Ulster Intermediate and didn’t look back. Anyone present at their win over Éire Óg in the final will have been impressed by the level of performance. Their celebrations weren’t bad either.

At Ulster Junior level, Swatragh were favourites to take the title but St Eunan’s ousted them on penalties to signal another improving force in Donegal hurling. It was the perfect answer to a GAA proposal to curb NHL hurling in some of the so called weaker counties.

5 Experienced heads keep on giving

IT’S impossible not to be impressed by Naomh Conaill and everything they have achieved. Their level of consistency is evident and to be applauded.

Of their seven titles, four have come in the last five years. The final they lost was a hammering at the hands of St Eunan’s but they came back.

Like many teams, they focus on the possession and breakaway away style but the diagonal ball to Charles McGuinness proved an excellent plan B. What is pleasing is how their players on the wrong side of 30 keep on delivering and it’s proof that age is only a number.

The experienced heads are some example of how to look after yourself and keep coming back for more, especially after the magnitude of their 2021 final defeat.

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