BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THE COUNTDOWN is on: Donegal’s defence of their Ulster Championship title gets underway this Sunday when they tackle Cavan at Kingspan Breffni Park (throw-in 3.30pm).
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness got a pleasant surprise on Friday night when 29 players reported for training, including Christy Toye, Karl Lacey, Ryan Bradley, Neil Gallagher and Eamon McGee.
Yesterday, Toye played the full hour for St Michael’s in their All-County League draw away to Naomh Conaill. Toye had been struggling for fitness due to an Achillies complaint, but yesterday the player said that he had ‘no bother’ during his 60 minutes of action.
It’s unlikely that he’ll be catapulted into the starting XV against Cavan, but his return to the fold, as with the others mentioned, is a timely boost given that county captain Michael Murphy is a definite absentee, his knee injury keeping him sidelined for another few weeks.
The Donegal squad spent a large portion of the weekend in Downings for a training camp, with only those players who have college exam commitments excused.
On Friday night they trained in O’Donnell Park, Letterkenny, before hosting one of the GAA Open nights, which were held across all 32 counties on Friday night.
After training, McGuinness briefed the press and gave a positive report from his injury list.
“I was pleasantly surprised tonight,” reported the Donegal chief.
“We had 29 training and, arriving here we were expecting about 23. Christy was out on the pitch, Karl Lacey was out there and we weren’t expecting that.
“We had a few others out too, which was very encouraging. Maybe it’s just the time of year, they know that the road is getting narrower. It’s definitely positive as long as they’re above board and not taking any chances medically.
“We have been asking them the whole way through the session and they all seem happy enough so that’s definitely a big plus.
“They’re all big, physical players we’d miss if we didn’t have them.”
Donegal’s Anglo Celt is on the line on Sunday as they start the long and winding road once more, this time seeking to become the first team to win back-to-back Ulster titles via the scenic route from the preliminary round.
“Nothing has changed for us on any level. The same paramaters that we worked off last year, we continue to work off now,” said McGuinness.
“We’re trying to improve the team and improve the squad, we’re trying to increase the squad so we can take hits like Michael Murphy not being available.
“We’ve never take the opinion that we were under pressure in any game; we’re working off a set of criteria that we’re trying to achieve. We are our own biggest critics from that point of view.
“We know exactly what we’re working on and if we can achieve those things in Cavan then we’ll be happy. If we can’t achieve them we’ll go back on the training field to try and make them better.”
Tickets for the game will be distributed to Donegal’s clubs tonight at the office in Ballybofey.
DECLAN BONNER will look to collect the first piece of silverware from his second tenure in charge of Donegal.