Gartland: Donegal hurlers want to take the next step

By Niall Gartland

DONEGAL skipper Conor Gartland hopes that they can summon the hurt of last year’s Nickey Rackard final defeat to Wicklow when they take on Mayo in Saturday’s showdown at Croke Park.

While Donegal have won the competition on three previous occasions – 2013, 2018 and 2020 – last year was Gartland’s first appearance in a Nickey Rackard final, not to mention his first outing on the hallowed turf of Croke Park.

There’s a different feel to things this time around with a game at Croke Park under his belt, and the Burt hurler believes that if they play to their potential they’ll bring the trophy back to Donegal for a fourth time.

“That was my first proper game in Croke Park. It was some experience, I maybe didn’t show up the way I wanted to but that can happen when it’s your first occasion.

“I feel I’ll be much better prepared for it this year and the team will be better prepared as well. We definitely feel confident that if we do perform we can go out and do the job.”

Gartland became the youngest ever player to captain a Donegal senior team when he was handed the captain’s armband at the start of the season, a few month’s shy of his 21st birthday. He acknowledges that it’s a nice honour, but adds that success for the team is much more important to him.

He said: “It felt great at the time but at the same time, it’s a brilliant honour but it’s all about the team. If I can offer a bit more to the team as captain, that’s great but it all just comes down to the team’s success in my eyes.

“It’s nice to get the write ups but it’s 100 per cent a team game and that’s what it’s all about for me anyway.”

Donegal have picked up a head of steam heading into Saturday’s final, winning all five group stage matches including a win over Mayo, whom they take on for the title. Their only real blip this season came in a league semi-final against rivals Tyrone, a game where their Setanta contingent were unavailable.

Gartland said: “To be fair we’d normally have five or six Setanta lads starting and a good few lads to come off the bench, so we didn’t have a full team that day.

“It’s been going pretty well this season, we’ve only had two losses in competitive games, against Derry and then against Tyrone with half a team.

“We definitely think the season so far has been a success but the outward success will depend on Saturday ultimately.”

Manager Mickey McCann admitted he pondered his future in the role following last year’s Nickey Rackard final defeat to Wicklow, but he decided he had more to give. His right-hand man is Ballinascreen native Gabriel O’Kane, and there’s other men behind them putting their shoulder to the wheel as well.

Gartland said: “Mickey and Gabriel have been manager and head coach ever since I’ve come into the panel. We had Jamsie Donnelly for a while as well, he was very good too.

“Gabriel is one of the best hurling heads I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, and there’s a few others behind the scenes as well like Marty McGrath and our strength and conditioning coach Shane Sweeney, he’s brought a whole new level of professionalism to the team.

“We’re all working really hard and Gabriel is brilliant, his training and drills are top-class and hopefully that’s standing to us.”

Opponents Mayo won the Nickey Rackard title in 2021 with a thumping victory over Tyrone, but they haven’t looked as strong in the mean-time and there have been retirements to a few key players like a certain Keith Higgins. Gartland isn’t taking them for granted, however.

“Mayo are a very dangerous side, they’ve got five or six good forwards and any team with a good forward line is always dangerous.

“We got the better of them in the group stages in O’Donnell Park but we’re under no illusions that the final will be a very different game.

“We’ve had a lot of good battles with Mayo down the years and we got the better of them in the final in 2020.

“Ourselves and Mayo would have a bit of an unspoken rivalry, we’re really looking forward to it and I think this game could go either way to be honest.”

It’s testament to Donegal that they haven’t skipped a beat this season even though a few veteran performers have been sidelined with long-term injury. But on that front, they should have a full deck to pick from this weekend as Danny Cullen has recovered from a shoulder injury, Ronan McDermott is back after sustaining an ACL injury and scored 1-2 when sprung from the bench on their last day out, while Declan Coulter is also back in contention. Gartland says that they’re extremely important players to have around the place.

“It’s the wee bit of craft that they have that really stands out. There’s other older lads as well, like my clubmate Stephen Gillespie, he’s coming up to his 100th appearance.

“They all have their wee tricks, they’re still hugely effective even if they’ve lost a yard of pace and they teach us younger lads a lot.”

If Donegal do the business this weekend, they’ll play Christy Ring hurling in 2025. Their captain sees no reason why they can’t nail down a Christy Ring spot for the long-term either.

“We definitely think we can compete in the Christy Ring. When we played Tyrone in the league, we got the better of them before losing in the semi-final with a few men absent.

“We beat Wicklow and London as well so we feel like if we get to the Christy Ring, we’ll be able to hold our own.

“We’re up in Division Two next year and we’ll be playing against some savage teams, the likes of Down, Kildare and Kerry, teams who have traditionally always been leagues above Donegal hurling.

“We’re going in the right direction but a win this weekend is absolutely vital.”

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