BY CHRIS MCNULTY
JIM McGuinness is already counting down the weeks until the start of the Ulster Senior Football Championship – “It’s only twelve weeks ‘til we play Derry,” he points out.
The Donegal manager is itching for his side to enter a busy spell of National League action which sees them playing five games in the next six weeks, three of those matches against Ulster teams, all of whom coincidentally happen to be on ‘the other side’ of the Championship draw.
With two wins posted from their opening two games, Donegal are nicely poised at the top of the pile, already the only team with a 100 per cent record and with a handsome points difference of +20.
Eamon McGee returns to the fold this weekend, having been suspended, while David Walsh is ‘very close’ to making a return.
Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher and Neil McGee have overcome their injuries and with his college players back in harness there’s a good feel to McGuinness’s panel, although Paddy McGrath remains ‘a few weeks’ away from being able to see competitive action.
All-in-all, the Glenties man is satisfied with his lot as he heads into a busy schedule.
“Touch wood we’re over the injury troubles, but you just don’t know what’s around the corner,” he reminds in a cautious tone.
“Look at Colm Cooper and how unfortunate he was. That was a serious blow to Kerry, as it would be for any team that loses its top player.
“We felt a big void last year when Karl Lacey was missing. Things can happen so easily. Anything could happen in training or in a match, but hopefully we’re moving forward with a stronger and healthier squad now.”
Patrick McBrearty’s recent performances have been impressive for club and college (NUI Maynooth), but that the Kilcar man has appeared from the bench in Portlaoise and Salthill is perhaps a hat-tip to those who have stepped up thus far.
Despite Donegal being at the summit of the second tier, McGuinness’s focus, as it was last year, is trained on the summer.
Last year, the knives came out for the Donegal manager when, following a League win over Down in Ballybofey, he offered his opinion on the League.
“It’s completely irrelevant,” he mentioned at the time. “Even if we had lost all our League games and ended up in Division Two, it does not matter.”
His overall stance hasn’t changed and he is also mindful that in a small League with only seven games it doesn’t take long for results to significantly alter the course of things, noting the case of Meath’s 2013. The Royals lost their opening pair of games, stared briefly at the trapdoor to Division 4, but turned the corner after the February break and won promotion to Division 2.
“If we get a victory, it would set us up nicely, but if we don’t take a victory, the table would all of a sudden become very tight,” McGuinness says of this Sunday’s meeting with Monaghan in Letterkenny.
“The table can change very drastically when you have a small number of teams and good competition. We’re just trying to focus on the performance.
“We want to kick on. If we can get the performance levels right again, we’ll let the result take care of itself. We’re looking for the same energy, the dame drive and hunger the players gave in the first two games.
“We have four in a row now so it’s a busy schedule.”
He might well ultimately view a sequence of League results as an irrelevance, but that is not to say that he doesn’t wish for his side to be hitting promotion notes in April.
Monaghan’s threat on Sunday is likely to be a step up from either of the opening two games with a general acceptance that Malachy O’Rourke’s team should also be aiming for the more lofty positions in the Division.
McGuinness says: “This will be one of the bigger games in the Division, there’s no doubt about that.
“Monaghan are a very good side who have done very well in the last year. They are Ulster champions, deservedly so, and they have matured over the last year. They will present a big challenge for us.
“It’s our first home game which is nice for the boys because it’s difficult being on the road. We know what this challenge is about. It will be a really good test for us.
“The challenge is in front of us, not behind us, and we want to take it on.
“Some players will get their first bit of game time at the weekend and that’s very important for us.
The first two games were big tests as well, they brought us to a level and we had to get over it.
“We were really pleased with the attitude of the boys. We have been happy with the performance levels so far, but we need to get that on Sunday again.”
With the backdrop of last year’s Ulster final and the wounds that linger from that July day in Clones, O’Donnell Park is set for a big occasion.
McBrearty, Gallagher, Martin O’Reilly and Hugh McFadden are among those also vying hard for positions.
In a pointer to last year’s Ulster final, McGuinness is delighted to be in a position where he can rotate players once more.
In Clones Mark McHugh had to withdraw early following a crunching collision with Stephen Gollogly that left the Kilcar man in some distress and led to some sideswipes between the camps in its aftermath and Karl Lacey cut a pale shadow of the Player of the Year from a year previous.
The 2012 All-Ireland winning manager says that Lacey ‘isn’t far off his full capacity’ while Eamon McGee and Darach O’Connor are in line for their first League appearances of the year on Sunday, both most likely off the bench and in O’Connor’s case it would be a debut in the League.
On Lacey, McGuinness says: “We just have to manage Karl. He was out for a long time and we have to be careful, but he is doing quite well. He isn’t far off at all from being at his full capacity. That would be a massive lift for us. We missed him badly last year.
“A lot of it now is about getting that focus right for the Derry game. Really it isn’t too far away from that.
“We just have to make sure that we’re ready for that game in May. We need everyone ready and we’ll be rotating the squad to give us a good feel for it over the next few games. It was killing us last year that we didn’t have men to call on off the bench. We were playing boys who just weren’t up to it physically.”
Monaghan scored an impressive win over Meath last time out, with All-Star Conor McManus overcoming a hip injury to hit seven points while young Jack McCarron, a familiar opponent to Donegal from his days with the Monaghan Vocational Schools team, has also impressed since stepping into the senior ranks.
“They will be very keen to remain unbeaten and the challenge for us will be to halt them,” O’Rourke says.
“That won’t be easy in this division, where on any given day any side could beat any other side. This game against Donegal is going to be very tough.
“The boys are working hard in training and we just want to make sure that is reflected in our performance on Sunday.”
Posted: 2:30 pm February 28, 2014
DECLAN BONNER will look to collect the first piece of silverware from his second tenure in charge of Donegal.