Donegal county hurling team making great strides but clubs not in step - Doherty

Tom Comack talks to some of those involved in Donegal hurling to look back and look forward to the coming season

Hurling feature

Action from the Donegal senior hurling final between Setanta and St Eunan's PICTURE: GERALDINE DIVER

After one of the county’s best seasons ever Donegal are due to step up another notch when the 2021 Allianz National Hurling League gets up and running.
Division 3A champions and Nickey Rackard Championship winners in 2020, Donegal are all set for a return to Division 2B in the League.
It will be their third season in 2B in the last five years. Donegal played in the higher division for the first time in 2015, after years of soldiering in the lower reaches of Division 3B and Division Four.
In the Nickey Rackard final, they defeated a fancied Mayo. It was also a third Nickey Rackard success for the county.
Heady days compared to when Danny Cullen, a member of the current team, first wore the green and gold at senior level.
“It is a big change indeed,” said the versatile Setanta clubman, who scored three points in December's 3-18 to 0-21 win over Mayo.
Danny was also on board when Donegal defeated Roscommon in 2013 to win the coveted trophy for the first time, and again in 2018 when they conquered Warwickshire, to claim a second title.
“The win over Mayo was probably the sweetest of them all. Mayo were highly fancied and have been playing at a higher level in both the league and the championship for a number of years.

Carndonagh celebrate after winning the Donegal Junior Hurling Championship in 2020 Picture: Brian McDaid

“It was a brilliant end to what has been a trying year with Covid-19 and all that goes with. We had won the league just before the lockdown in March. We beat Armagh in Carrickmore and the next week the lockdown came into force.
“It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and a number of years of steady progress and a big change from when I came into the panel first.”
After standing out at underage right up through the age groups with both the club and county Danny was drafted into the county senior squad in 2004. Denis Murphy was the manager, a Wexford native domiciled in Letterkenny, who did a power of work promoting hurling in the St Eunan’s club.
“I was 16, in my first season. We were playing in Division 3B at the time against the likes of Tyrone, Monaghan, Fermanagh, Sligo and Longford.
“The Nickey Rackard, the Christy Ring competitions were not in place at the time. They were introduced the following year and the Lory Meagher Cup for Division Four teams was introduced in 2008.
“We played in the Ulster Junior championship against the likes of South Down, that was a Down side without the players from the Ards peninsula. The standard was not very high.”
Darren McDermott, after a stellar playing career with Donegal, took over from Denis Murphy and managed Donegal in 2005.
McDermott, due to work commitments, handed on the baton to Eamon Campbell, a club colleague of Danny’s. Eamon was from Antrim stock and was steeped in hurling in the Glens. Donegal had also reached a Nickey Rackard final in Eamon’s first season, but were no match for Derry in the final.
Eamon Campbell remained in the job for five seasons and brought stability and despite losing two Lory Meagher Cup finals in-a-row, Donegal had progressed and the curve was upward.
Then another former star, Andrew Wallace, took over the manager’s bib and guided Donegal to the county’s first big breakthrough in modern times.
Donegal under Wallace’s stewardship pipped Tyrone in a dramatic final on Croke Park’s hallowed sod. Danny Cullen missed the Lory Meagher success. He was down under in Australia, in a year out.
When he returned the following year Ardal McDermott had taken on the role of player manager for a season. Ray Durack, another former county man and All-Ireland Vocational Schools’ winner with his native Galway, took up the challenge in 2013 and masterminded that first Nickey Rackard Cup triumph.

Donegal captain Seán McVeigh lifts the cup after the Nickey Rackard Cup Final match between Donegal and Mayo
Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Attitudes were changed and Danny Cullen now firmly established as one of the central figures in the team could see.
“Players were taking the game more seriously. We had bigger numbers at training. Players like Jamesie Donnelly, Joe Boyle and Sean McVeigh had come into the squad.
“These lads were very committed and took the game very seriously and set standards and thankfully everybody bought into it.
“The footballers had won the All-Ireland in 2012 under Jim McGuinness. The players saw the commitment the footballers were putting in and the level of professionalism it took to be successful.
Mickey McCann, a star forward in his playing days and a Lory Meagher and Nickey Rackard Cup winner, took over from Durack and in his first season masterminded the second Nickey Rackard success.
And he was calling the shots when Mayo were put to the sword back in December for Nickey Rackard Cup triumph number three.
“Mickey has done a brilliant job and taken it to a whole new level and has a brilliant management team. Gabriel O’Kane is our full-time coach and is top class and has taken the coaching and the preparation for games to a new level.
“We are also very lucky to have got players of the quality and class of Declan Coulter, Davin Flynn and Gerard Gilmore and we picked up Ritchie Ryan last season.
“They are all quality forwards and we are very lucky and really delighted to have them and with Mickey staying for the coming season we are really looking forward to it.
“Hopefully Covid-19 will be sorted and we will be able to get back playing again soon. Unfortunately, there was no promotion last year so we are in the Nickey Rackard Cup again. We would like to have a shot at the Christy Ring Cup. But we are up in Division 2B of the league so we will be hoping to consolidate our position in the league and build from there.”
The hurling league was pencilled in for an end of next month start. But the Covid-19 virus and the country’s third lockdown have delayed that startup date. Mayo, Derry, Roscommon, Kildare and London are the other teams in Division 2B. However, London may not compete due to pandemic travel restrictions.
Club game not matching county
While there are green shoots, the feeling is that progress at club level in the county has not matched the strides being made on the county senior scene.
And that is a worry in the long term for the health and well-being of the county senior team.
“The county seniors have really made great strides in the last ten years or so. It is great to see,” said former county player John Joe Doherty from Carndonagh.
John Joe, who wore the green and gold for the best part of the 1980s, has dedicated most of his life to the promotion and development of hurling in his home club and in Inishowen since hanging up his hurley.
“Disappointingly I don’t think the game at club level has moved on and developed and in fact I don’t think it is as strong as it was six or seven years ago.
“For years Burt and Setanta were the only two challengers for the senior championship. But MacCumhaills came with a very good team and reached a number of finals and eventually won one.
“All of a sudden you had three teams in contention and St Eunan’s were not too far away either.
“But with Burt going through a lean patch and MacCumhaill’s have fallen back down the pecking order there is a gap between Setanta and the rest.
“St Eunan’s are probably the nearest to them. But they don’t seem to have progressed as well as expected a few years ago.
“I honestly thought a few years ago with the quality of the young players coming through they would have won a championship by now.
“Buncrana are one of the clubs that have stepped up and are now competing in the senior championship. They have by-passed MacCumhaill’s and are probably the third best senior team after St Eunan’s.
“It is a matter of them sustaining that moment now and building on it and that is the challenge for Buncrana. Burt, given their tradition, they will always be about. But looking at their undedage I cannot see them back challenging in the next few years.
“We had five teams in the senior championship last year, that will be up to six this season. Carndonagh after winning the junior championship are going up this season. But even at that I don’t think that is enough to take the county senior team to the next level.
“I remember the late Francie Cunningham saying at a county board meeting many years ago that we would need at least eight senior teams in the senior championship. That was many moons ago and we still haven’t reached the desired number.”
But it is not all darkness and doom. The Carndonagh clubman is delighted to see the game spreading and the emergence of Dungloe.
The Rosses club, after a number of years’ success at underage, fielded a senior team for the first time in adult competition. They entered the junior championship and went all the way to the final.
“I’m not saying that because we (Carndonagh) beat them in the final. It is great from a hurling point of view to see the game spread. Dungloe would be seen as a football heartland.
“They gave us a real fright and if they can sustain it they showed they have potential. Ritchie Ryan is a huge player for them and if they can keep him the young lads will learn a lot from him. The knowledge and experience he brings after playing U-21 and minor with Limerick is priceless.”
Overall John Joe Doherty welcomed the introduction of the junior championship and league and bemoaned the fact it was not done years earlier.
“It means teams can play at their own level and are not going out game after game and playing against senior teams and suffering big defeats.
“That is what turns young lads off. Players can only enjoy the game if they are able to compete on an equal level.
“The junior league and championship enticed Four Masters back last year and that was great to see. The more clubs you have competing the better.”

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