Ciaran Whelan: Donegal are impressive mid-summer pacesetters
ONE month into this year's football championship and after Sligo and Roscommon play this weekend, every team will have laid their foundations for the summer ahead.
For four teams after this weekend in the qualifiers, there will be no light at the end of the tunnel and some managers P45s for 2015 will drafted in some county board offices in the weeks ahead.
I was asked at the Eircom launch of this year's All-Ireland Championship this week what was my most memorable moment of the championship thus far. To be honest I struggled for an answer!
Outside of the drawn game between Laois and Kildare or perhaps to a lesser extent the game between Cavan and Monaghan, there is not much to shout about it presently.
It does not really surprise me as my expectations were pretty low anyway.
However, there is a positive outlook and there is plenty to look forward to when championship heats up throughout July.
It has certainly been a good year for referees so far as the large majority have handled the big games consistently.
It has also been a good year for the black card where they is now a better understanding and consistency in its implementation.
What we also do know is that the rankings have not changed.
No top team has been ambushed in the early stages and the big guns appear to be operating at the required level to challenge for the Sam Maguire.
The downside though is that the gap is widening between the top teams and the chasing pack which is not good for the game in the long run.
Whilst Dublin and Kerry have been afforded the opportunity to coast into this year's campaign against lower league ranked opposition teams, it has been the opposite for Donegal.
Faced with Mickey Harte's Tyrone and Kieran McGeeney's Armagh in their opening two Ulster Championship games, Rory Gallagher had to have his troops in mint condition by June.
Donegal now resemble the lad at the nightclub who spends the whole night having to put in the ground work and graft in chatting up the girl.
He looks like the top contender and has not put a foot wrong all night.
But there is always a danger that he could hit a flat patch and go stale when it matters most.
This allows a Dublin lad or a Kerry lad to swoop in during the last ten minutes of the night with a fresh approach and go home with the girl!
Kerry are probably the masters of such a strategy in football terms as they have always had an easier route to the title and they can time their run to perfection.
Yes, it is a well debated imbalance in the current provincial system and while Donegal can only approach it one game at a time, they are doing a damn good job of it so far.
Some people will argue that Armagh's inept approach may have assisted Donegal, but I certainly do not concur.
Donegal were excellent last Sunday and when a team can play a full second half teasing their opponents with possession, it is an indication of the level that they are currently operating.
Rory Gallagher has been fortunate that he can build on the culture and legacy left by previous manager Jim McGuiness.
A culture of hard work. A culture of a high, intense work-rate. A culture of team-work and unselfishness.
Gallagher has used the solid foundations to build a tactical plan with varied components of defence and attack which allows Donegal to catch their opposition in a web of intensity.
Their fitness levels are phenomenal and they succeed because there is never one player who breaks from the system of play.
It allows Donegal to dictate the terms of the game from the first whistle and there can be simply no way back for the opposition.
They will have their off days like they did when Monaghan dictated the terms in the Ulster final two years ago or for the period of the game when Tyrone pressed them high up the pitch and punched holes in their defence in the first round of the Ulster Championship this year.
However, they still possess a higher level of consistency than the majority of the other contenders for the All-Ireland this year.
Their early summer form will have given their potential opposition plenty of food for thought and there is no doubt that the likes of Dublin manager Jim Gavin and Kerry boss éamonn Fitzmaurice are currently scrutinising this re-energised Donegal team now under the guidance of Gallagher.
Gavin, in particular, will be looking for a system of play to combat the Donegal machine and quite frankly it is a harder task than many think it is.
It is still early in the summer and there is a lot of football to be played but if ever there was a warning shot sounded out to their opponents, it was last weekend by Donegal.