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Young Guns! After losing 9 seasoned veterans, these Donegal newcomers are starting to thrive

Rory Gallagher’s side have proved they belong at this level.


pjimage Inpho Inpho

Kerry were cruising to a blowout victory in the league opener when Donegal posted the last six points of the game in a spirited response to lose by a more respectable margin.

Since then, they achieved a brave late win over the Rossies, and managed a draw against the back-to-back All-Ireland champions.

The 2-5 to 1-8 draw against Dublin last Sunday extended Donegal’s unbeaten run at Ballybofey to 16 games.

Tyrone took huge credit for their draw against the Dubs at Croke Park last month, which appeared to confirm their status as “genuine” All-Ireland contenders.

The same sort of praise hasn’t been heaped on Donegal, but inside the county at least, there’s a growing sense that this young side is quickly finding its feet at this level.

Just six of the 20 players who featured for Donegal in the 2014 All-Ireland final saw action last Sunday, while Mark McHugh was an unused substitute against Dublin and injury ruled out duo Karl Lacey and Paddy McBrearty.

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It represents quite the turnover for Rory Gallagher’s team, who’ve lost several experienced campaigners over the winter.

Neil Gallagher, Eamon McGee, Rory Kavanagh, Colm McFadden, David Walsh and Neil Gallagher all announced their retirements, while Odhrán Mac Niallais, Anthony Thompson and Leo McLoone have all stepped from the squad due to various reasons.

In total the players they lost made 759 senior appearances between them for the county, and Gallagher looked like he had a huge rebuilding task on his hands.

But a talented new crop have emerged from the hills, back-boned by a couple of strong recent underage teams. Donegal have mined two of the last three Ulster minor crowns and appeared in the county’s first All-Ireland minor final in 2014.

Jason McGee and Peter Crowley Presseye / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO Presseye / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

Jason McGee and Peter Crowley Donegal's Jason McGee bursts past Kerry defender Peter Crowley Presseye / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO Presseye / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

They also made it to three straight Ulster finals between 2013 and 2015, although they were beaten in all three – losing to Cavan (twice) and Tyrone.

Three of the 2014 minors, Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Micheál Carroll and Jamie Brennan started in the draw with Dublin, while Stephen McBrearty arrived off the bench.

Of last year’s minors, Jason McGee has made a huge impression at centre-field, and he couldn’t have timed his rise to form better given the recent retirements of Gallagher and Kavanagh.

Meanwhile, a host of the U21 provincial finalists from 2015 have become central figures in the squad – Hugh McFadden, Eoin McHugh, Darach O’Connor, Ciaran Thompson and, of course, Ryan McHugh.

Thompson again displayed his quality of free-taking from the right-side in the absence of regular ciatóg Paddy McBrearty.

Then you’ve got others impressing like Leitrim blow-in Paul Brennan, who appeared for the Connacht side in the 2014 championship, and late developer Caolan Ward.

Paul McCusker with Caolan Ward Caolan Ward in action against Fermanagh in the 2016 McKenna Cup Presseye / John McVitty/INPHO Presseye / John McVitty/INPHO / John McVitty/INPHO

Ward had hoped that 2016 would be his breakthrough year, but the 24-year-old had to wait until the recent spate of retirements before he really stamped down his place in Gallagher’s team.

He was handed a baptism of fire by Paul Geaney in the defeat to Kerry, as a late replacement for at full-back for Neil McGee, who pulled out of the game that morning due to illness.

Geaney bagged 2-4 that day, 2-2 from play, but since then Ward has found his home at centre-back and looks well capable of thriving at this level.

“We’d eight, nine or 10 fellas playing there with not a whole pile of experience,” Gallagher told Highland Radio after the game.

“You take Paddy (McBearty), Neil (McGee), Frank (McGlynn) and Michael (Murphy) out of it and it’s a very inexperienced team. Ryan (McHugh) and Marty O’Reilly are veterans at this stage and they’re only 22 or 23.

“It was a great learning curve for those lads and I thought they stood up well at times.”

Rory Gallagher Donegal boss Rory Gallagher Presseye / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO Presseye / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

Given they handed the Leinster champions a 0-5 to 0-1 start, Donegal displayed real fight to hit two quick-fire goals to go in at half-time three points to the good.

But perhaps the most positive sign to come from Donegal’s spring success has been the sight of Michael Murphy moving freely once again.

The Glenswilly man looked injury free and back to his brilliant best, showing nerves of steel to nail a late free – albeit one that shouldn’t have been awarded.

And at just 22, Ryan McHugh has developed into one of the finest players in the country.

Donegal goals vs Jim Gavin's dubs

The diminutive All-Star has scored four goals in seven games against the Dubs, who seem incapable of tracking the Kilcar star’s ghosting runs into the danger zone.

Donegal have proved plenty of people wrong so far, but greater battles lie ahead.

Tonight they’ll face Cavan at Breffni Park with Paddy McBrearty hoping to return to the starting line up after missing last Sunday’s game with injury.

Martin McElhinney, Ciaran Gillespie and Cian Mulligan are also back in contention for a place in the squad after returning to full training.

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