THIRTEEN of the starting line-up from Donegal’s All-Ireland final win over Mayo have been named to play in Saturday evening’s National Football League clash with Kildare at Croke Park (throw-in 5pm).
A long-term hip injury keeps the 2012 Footballer of the Year, Karl Lacey, out of the opening equation of 2013’s puzzle, while All-Star midfielder Neil Gallagher continues to miss out through a groin injury.
However, the remainder of the fifteen who marched behind the Artane Band on September 23rd have been inked on the page for the Division 1 opener with Kieran McGeeney’s Lilywhites.
There remains a question mark over the fitness of corner-back Paddy McGrath, who will be given a fitness test tomorrow morning, Saturday. The Ardara man is nursing a thigh injury sustained in training last week and didn’t take part in collective training on Wednesday night. However, the outlook is positive for the tenacious McGrath, who is expected to take his place.
Frank McGlynn and Ryan Bradley will play with both overcoming minor knocks.
The medical team are continuing to monitor Mark McHugh, who played 39 minutes of a comeback game for Sligo IT in their narrow Sigerson Cup defeat to NUI Maynooth on Tuesday.
The Kilcar clubman had been sidelined with Osteitis pubis for a couple of months, but having played on Tuesday he too is not expected to suffer any adverse reaction to the game time earlier in the week.
“It’s a step into the unknown in that we haven’t played a game together this year yet, but we have a very settled team out this weekend,” said Rory Gallagher, the Donegal assistant manager.
“These boys have been playing together for the last two years and there will be good chemistry and dynamics between them.
“It’s a good way to go into the game with a string fifteen.
“Our biggest hurdle will be fitness in comparison to Kildare, who went back at it much earlier than we were permitted to.
“In fairness this was the route we wanted to go down. We decided that the McKenna Cup wouldn’t have much value for us, so this was the road we went.”
In the absence of Lacey and Gallagher, Donegal have drafted in Declan Walsh and Martin McElhinney, so there are no rookies, with both Walsh and McElhinney having their fair share of game time over the last couple of years and more than capable deputies.
“We’d like, in an ideal world, to play something close to our strongest team in every game,” said Gallagher.
“It isn’t like, say, a Premier League soccer season whereby you have 38 games and you need some serious squad rotation but, that said, the challenge is there for the players in the starting 15 to stay there and for the players outside of it to get in.”
The Donegal match day 26 for tomorrow’s game includes three ‘new comers’ to the 2013 panel: Ryan McHugh (Kilcar), Ross Wherity (St Eunan’s) and Shane McGowan (Bundoran) have all been named among the substitutes.
Gallagher said: “They have come from the outside in and all three have done well. We’re happy with where they are and certainly all three aren’t a million miles away from where we’d like them to be.”
Many neutral eyes will be drawn to the system employed by Donegal in the League. What had been derided as a curse upon Gaelic Games in 2011 became something of an art nouveau last year as a new blueprint, with something of a lethal attacking concoction about it, was laid out by Jim McGuinness. The Donegal management have already stated their intention to tweak the system, but it certainly won’t see a wholesale changing.
“What we are looking to do is to improve each and every player,” Gallagher said.
“We want everyone to get better. That is our first objective. The style of our play and our approach won’t alter too much. We will be fine tuning bits and pieces alright, but that will be about it.”
Although this is a home game for Kildare, the Lilywhites gave up the game in the confied St Conleth’s Park in Newbridge to take part in the ‘Spring Series’ with this tie the first in a double header that also includes the game between Dublin and Cork.
“There’s a double edged sword to everything,” said the Kildare manager, Kieran McGeeney.
“Points are going to be very thin on the ground in Division One and for us just coming into it, every wee advantage would help.
“But then getting a chance to play in Croke Park before the summer – our Championship match against Offaly is due to be there – there are plusses and minuses but Croke Park is where everyone wants to play.
“If you asked the 30 players, they’d forget about home advantage, they’d forget about staying in Division One, they just see Croke Park and that is where everyone wants to play.”
While James Kavanagh has departed the panel and a rumoured move to the Galway panel didn’t materialise, McGeeney is also planning without Andriú Mac Lochlainn.
“He has three kids under five or six, a young family, and that takes money to keep,” McGeeney explained.
“Trying to get out three times a week on top of that was just impossible. A lot of people like to give
out about him but without him we would have been lost on many occasion.
“It’s a pity to lose fellas like that so we’ll have to see. Unfortunately that’s the sport we live in too, that there’s so much asked of you.”
Donegal team: Paul Durcan; Paddy McGrath, Neil McGee, Eamon McGee; Frank McGlynn, Declan Walsh, Anthony Thompson; Rory Kavanagh, Martin McElhinney; Mark McHugh, Leo McLoone, Ryan Bradley; Colm McFadden, Michael Murphy, Patrick McBrearty.
Verdict: Donegal will field a strong hand and will want to make an impression in match night one. That said, Kildare are a little further down the line with their preparations and it’s perhaps right that they start as favourites.