BY CHRIS MCNULTY
DONEGAL will go ‘back to basics’ as they search for, not only salvation, but the retention of their place in the race for the All-Ireland this weekend.
Jim McGuinness’ team square up to Justin McNulty’s Laois in Carrick-on-Shannon tomorrow (5pm) looking to bounce back from the disappointment of their 0-13 to 0-7 loss to Monaghan in Sunday’s Ulster final in Clones.
Aside from Mark McHugh, who suffered concussion, a peforated ear drum and a torn quad muscle following a hefty challenge from Monaghan’s Stephen Gollogly. Both players left the action in the tenth minute to play no further part in the game. McHugh will be absent from the Donegal team that lines out in Pairc Sean MacDiarmada, with his brother Ryan set to take the stage for his first senior start.
Neil Gallagher’s return from the off will offer the big plus of the Glenswilly man’s clean-catching paws in a move that will bring about a reshuffle. Rory Kavanagh is likely to retain his berth at centrefield, so there comes a connundrum with Ryan Bradley: Does he retain a place in the half-forward division or make way for someone like Martin McElhinney, David Walsh or Ross Wherity?
There will be changes, though.
Much has been made about Donegal’s performance – and where it went wrong.
The assistant manager Rory Gallagher offered some insight, but wasn’t divulging too much about the results of the inquest held with Tir Chonaill’s inner sanctum this week.
“We don’t think that there was too much wrong. The focus of our preparation will change slightly,” he said.
“One thing I’ve learned about punditry is that good things will be said about you when you’re doing well and bad things will be said when you’re not. We enjoyed the good things and will take the bad things on the chin. It’s irrelevant really.
“We feel that we didn’t make the mistakes that have been said of us.”
Donegal were stunned by a blistering Monaghan start which yielded four points inside the opening seven minutes.
With a number of players looking very leg weary, it had been suggested that Donegal had been over-cooked in training or that their minds had been cast forward to Croke Park; instances that were refuted out of hand by players and management this week.
However, in terms of preparation, Gallagher did hint that there may now be a change of plan.
“Not as such to the training, but just we feel that we could have done some things slightly different…maybe take a different approach, but it’s easy to say that in hindsight,” he said.
On Sunday’s game, Gallagher reflected the disappointment that was within the Donegal dressing room as their bid for a third Anglo-Celt in a row evaporated into the Clones air.
He said: “There was a lack of energy, no doubt. Monaghan produced a level of performance that we couldn’t match. It’s obviously disappointing when you play well short of what you’re capable of. We looked a bit leggy and, really, we never recovered from the start Monaghan got. We have a chance to put that right now.
“Monaghan showed an appetite that we just didn’t match.
“We had been on an unparallelled run, winning 14 of 15 championship games. On the day we met a hungrier, fresher team.
“The reality is that we were slightly flat. We had to look in our consciences to see how we had been preparing the team.
“We looked flat, as we did against Down. We will do a small bit of tinkering.
“We’ll go back to basics.”
The altering of the personnel could also have a transformed effect on the tactics – and it would be no surprise were Donegal to go back to that robust defensive model of 2011 and possibly attempt an aeriel blitz to Michael Murphy on the edge of the square. The Donegal captain was not only kept scoreless last Sunday but, aside from a poked effort at goal in the second half, was not even allowed a shot at the posts. Donegal need their talisman involved and to the fore.
Karl Lacey is expected to be included again after coming through 70 minutes on Sunday. Despite the Four Masters man looking short of match fitness, the Footballer of the Year will again be included from the start.
“He was flying in training (on Wednesday),” Gallagher confirmed.
Mark McHugh’s absence is likely to see Ryan McHugh tried in the sweeper’s role – and it is not a task that will faze the youngster, who had a superb second half last week.
Laois will head for Pairc Sean MacDiarmada hoping to topple the Champions, but the reality is that this is a team that Donegal should have too much for – a dangerous utterance given the manner last Sunday panned out, but a truism nevertheless.
A ten-point defeat to Louth in May led to four players departing their panel – Brendan Quigley, Gary Walsh, Damian O’Connor and Kevin Meaney. Wins over Carlow, Clare and Wexford take them here to a do-or-die meeting with the All-Ireland champions. Ross Munnelly has been in fine form of late and Laois have been improving – but this represents a massive test for them.
The six-day turnaround has been beaten to death this week – but it’s not seen as a concern in Donegal.
Gallagher said: “It’s unique to us since we’ve got involved.
“Before this we’ve always had 13 days to prepare. The general feeling, though, is that the only downside we have is Mark’s injury. The boys are itching to get out. They weren’t happy with the performance of the result last week, so it’s better that we have a chance to put things right straight away now.”
Donegal are a wounded animal this week. Pride’s hurt and that brings a dangerous set of variables for the opposition.
Gallagher said: “The real positive is that we have a chance to re-ignite ourselves.
“I’d expect to see a change this week.”
This mightn’t be pretty, but it’s the bottom line that matters here and the margins are irrelevant. Having the slip of paper with Dún na nGall on it in the quarter-final draw on Saturday evening is the big goal. Donegal to win.