By Frank Craig
MICHAEL Langan is in no doubt that Donegal still possess the necessary artillery to land the biggest prizes out there in Gaelic football.
Having won a pair of Ulster titles in boss Declan Bonner’s first two seasons back at the helm in 2018 and ’19, the squad would subsequently suffer two very underwhelming campaigns, back-to-back.
Langan admits that 2020’s provincial final loss to Cavan is one that remains impossible to fathom or even explain. But, he feels, events seemed to conspire against Donegal in last season’s semi-final defeat to Tyrone.
The loss of Neil McGee just five minutes in, a missed penalty, a second penalty that wasn’t given and, of course, the sending off of Michael Murphy, all before half time, meant that Donegal’s task from that point on was almost impossible.
Langan is adamant that Donegal can salvage something from the embers of their second-half efforts where they admirably refused to chuck the towel in.
“It’s been a difficult two seasons for a number of reasons,” he said. “But I know looking around the dressing room and the talent we have, we are very close to clicking. The Cavan Ulster final is still something that’s hard to wrap your head around. We’d a huge opportunity to do three in-a-row in Ulster. But we let that slip.
“It is the lowest I’ve ever felt on a football pitch – the moments after that final whistle. Looking at how Tyrone kicked on… you can look at it a few different ways. On one hand, it’s motivation. We were very close that day. We’ve had the measure of Tyrone for a while but we just tired a wee bit down the home stretch. The heat in Brewster Park was severe. Down to 14 men and I remember someone saying it was recording 30 degrees pitch side, it was just too big a mountain in the end.
“The margins were thin and with a little bit more luck we could have got over the line. At the same time, we have to start making our own luck as well.”
In such a structured environment, there is often very little room or even encouragement in modern Gaelic football for improvisation or off-the-cuff individualism. But Langan is a throwback to a different time. Even in Jim McGuinness’ often rigid template, if things weren’t going to plan Christy Toye’s instinctive genius was often summoned for. And there are easily parallels to draw between Langan and his legendary clubmate.
“I’ve been very lucky to have the likes of both Christy and Colm Anthony (McFadden) as team-mates at the club. They are two of the greatest players to ever represent Donegal. You’d only learn off the likes of those two. Everyone in the club, not just me, look up to those men.
“There are some comparisons made between myself and Christy, we have a sort of languid style. We do like to play off the cuff.
“But I think that is just having belief in yourself to take on responsibility if the half chance presents itself. Christy did that so many times for Donegal over the years. The game probably has become more rigid to what some supporters remember. It can be negative and often teams are going sideways if nothing is on. I think if you have that turn of pace, want to lift the head and go then there are still opportunities to do that.
“A turnover is such a black mark against a player now that there probably is more hesitancy to go into contact. But, more often than not, you’re going to have to ride a challenge to get the reward and for that space to open up.”
He added: “I’ve five seasons done now but the game hasn’t settled. There are changes going on all the time. Football continues to evolve very fast. When I came in, it was very defensive. Some will say it still is but I believe sides are just more measured now. If you look at the stats, so many scores now come from turnovers. So sides are determined to guard against that.
“Often, if it’s not a 910 odds on pass or shot the ball is worked or recycled once again. There is a reason behind that. And I understand why some people find it hard to watch. But I think we are aiming to find the right balance in Donegal.”
After Donegal welcome the Mourne men to MacCumhaill Park on Friday night, they travel to Corrigan Park on Saturday, January 15 to face Antrim. The McKenna Cup semi-finals are fixed for Tuesday, January 18 with the final pencilled in for Saturday, January 22.