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'It was sink or swim and they had to swim' - Michael Murphy on Donegal's young guns

Donegal face Tyrone in the Ulster SFC semi-final today.
Jun 18th 2017, 9:15 AM 3,843 0

AFTER AN EXTREMELY impressive league campaign, Tyrone will provide a stern examination of this young Donegal outfit this afternoon.

Jamie Brennan Source: Presseye/John McIlwaine/INPHO

Rory Gallagher has seamlessly introduced a flurry of youngsters into the Donegal line-up this season amid the departures of several former All-Ireland winners.

Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Jason McGee, Michael Carroll, Ciaran Thompson, Cian Mulligan and Jamie Brennan all thrived as Donegal finished third in the league and narrowly missed out on a league final appearance.

They backed that up with a comfortable 3-19 to 1-9 hammering of Antrim in the Ulster preliminary round, but the Red Hand will provide the real acid test of their credentials.

“It was a stage that so many of the lads that had went and the boys were just thrown in,” says Donegal skipper Michael Murphy.

“It was sink or swim and they had to swim. From day one Rory and the management were very positive.

“Rory in fairness gave them that confidence that you know no matter what, they are going to playing for a number of years. It wasn’t a case there was a mallet over the head that one bad performance was going to lead to them never playing again.

GAA/GPA in partnership with Pat the Baker announce the launch of a new Protein Bread Michael Murphy was at Croke Park for Pat the Baker's launch of a new Protein Bread Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

“That breeds really good confidence into them. Likewise the type of characters they are, they’ve very little fear and you can put a bit of importance on coming through successful minor and U21 teams.”

So often in the past, playing one another serves as the perfect barometer of their Ulster and All-Ireland credentials.

In 2011, Jim McGuinness’s first season in charge, Donegal dumped the reigning All-Ireland champions out in the Ulster semi-final. It represented a changing of the guard in Ulster and in Tyrone.

When the sides met at the same stage the following year, Phillip Jordan, Kevin Hughes and Brian Dooher had retired, while Brian McGuigan was relegated to a substitute role.

Kevin Hughes Source: James Crombie

McGuinness famously led Donegal to the All-Ireland title in 2012, while Tyrone entered a period of transition and a seven-year drought without an Ulster crown followed.

By the time the sides met last July in the provincial decider, the roles were reversed. A fitter, faster Tyrone edged an enthralling affair by two points. Almost a year later, the Donegal side has been completely revamped under Rory Gallagher.

Colm McFadden, Eamon McGee, Rory Kavanagh, Neil Gallagher, Leo McLoone, Odhran MacNiallais, Anthony Thompson, Paul Durcan, Christy Toye and David Walsh have all left the scene.

Murphy is now one of the elder statesmen in the Donegal camp at just 27 and he realises the enormity of the task facing his young team-mates.

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“They’d have played Tyrone in those other age groups and this is a new team for ourselves and we’re still learning anytime we play Tyrone. They’re a massive test. Mickey Harte will always have Tyrone well-organised and drilled.

Neil Gallagher and Peter Harte Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“On the back of them beating us last year in an Ulster final, there’s still a bit of hurt there definitely from that. They were the far better team on the day and they totally deserved their win. I keep harping on about it, but I want to win things with this team and in order to do that we need to take each game as it comes.

“We’re not at that level where the team has been together for years where we can count on that know how, we need to build that it up now. You can only do that through winning games. We got on the road against Antrim. This is a provincial semi and an opportunity to get to a provincial final.”

Having witnessed Donegal’s rise from no-hopers to All-Ireland contenders, Murphy understands there are essential checkpoints every team must pass before they reach the top.

“You need to keep proving it day after day, day after day and build that up over a number of years,” he said.

“You look at the successful teams in the country and what the likes of Dublins, Mayos, Kerrys and Tyrones are doing. They’re just constantly building confidence through winning games and an understanding with each other.

“That’s the only way you can do it. You can’t all of a sudden just become confident, you have to build wins under your belt and get confidence and know how from that.

“That’s what these teams that are challenging for the All-Irelands are doing. That’s what they have. You can really put no price on how important that is.”

Martin Reilly and Michael Murphy with Sean McVeigh Source: Presseye/John McIlwaine/INPHO

Having spent much of the first part of his career at full-forward, the Glenswilly man has settled into a role at midfield orchestrating the play.

“I’m playing more out around the middle now. So far that tends to be where he sees me fitting in. I’ll stick at that and I seem to be embedded there at the moment. I’m enjoying it there too and I’m building up relationships with the young lads that are around there in beside.

“I just enjoy playing and seeing whatever way I can play the game. Like any player wants to do, he wants to try and contribute and get as many scores as he can and help play as well for the team as he can. Out there allows you to get as many aspects of the game as possible whether it’s kick-passing, trying to defend and tackle or trying to get forward and being creative. It’s an area of the field where you can try and do all that.

“If one of the areas aren’t going well for you on any different day at least you can be fairly successful in one of the other areas of the pitch. The way the game’s going now it is about speed and it’s something I’ve never been blessed with too much so I have to try and think outside the box and see what way I can contribute to the team.”

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