BY CHRIS MCNULTY
ON THE back of two games without a win – the draw against Meath and the defeat by Down – Donegal have a chance to get their promotion wheels back on the tracks this Sunday when they take on struggling Louth in Fr Tierney Park, Ballyshannon (throw-in 3pm).
Having started the League in whirlwind fashion with wins over Laois, Galway and Monaghan putting them firmly in the driving seat, Donegal are once again back in a fight for the promotion spots.
Level on points with Monaghan and Down and, with Meath and Armagh poised two points in those sides’ slipstream, the final two weekends of action could yet see scurry for calculators given the tight nature of things at the top of the ladder.
Donegal do head the way and should see this weekend as a chance to widen the points difference tally against a Louth side that has yet to register a win, with draws against Galway and Armagh the sum total of the Wee County’s success so far.
Despite Donegal being disappointing in areas against both Meath and Down, McGuinness says he is not remotely concerned by the supposed slump in form.
“We have areas that we need to improve in, but we have had a lot of positives,” the Donegal manager said.
“We didn’t have the shooting boots with us against Down, but we can’t be too critical of them in fairness, can we? It’s not too often they don’t take the chances.
“We want to take the information from the last few games and use that to get ready for Louth.
“As always, the bottom line is that we want to try to win every game we play. We’re learning a lot. We have road tested a few things and we’ve tried out new lads and tried out people in different places. Our aim for the game against Louth is the same as it has been so far – to go out and deliver a performance.”
Much was made after both games that both Meath and Down had dominated the winning of primary possession around the middle third.
“I thought that we did well with the Down kick-outs,” McGuinness pointed out.
“Our own kick-outs, we do have a bit to work on. But that’s the nature of the League. We have been trying out different things and testing some options. It isn’t a concern because we’ve been testing those things. It’s good to get that opportunity at this time of year.
“We’re happy with the training and happy with the direction we’re going. It’s good, too, that they’re up and running with the All-County League. That will lift the natural fitness of the squad and keep players in a competitive environment.”
McGuinness has a slight injury concern over Frank McGlynn’s hamstring, while a groin injury has rendered Neil Gallagher doubtful and Dermot Molloy has been hampered by a troublesome ankle injury. With Molloy not playing for his club, Naomh Conaill, last Sunday, and taking only a minimal part in Tuesday’s training session Patrick McBrearty appears to be in line for his first League start of 2014, having made a couple of impressive appearances off the bench.
Donegal’s contingent from the Under-21 panel – who take on Armagh in next Wednesday’s Ulster semi-final – will be included in Sunday’s panel for a game that could see Donegal take a huge leap back towards the top flight.
McGuinness does not expect Louth to be obliging opponents in Ballyshannon.
“This will be a very tough battle,” the Donegal manager said.
“Aidan O’Rourke will have Louth well set up, make no mistake about that. He has already said publicly that he wants three points from the two games. This will be a real battle. Every game in the Division will be now because every team is playing for something.”
Indeed, Louth need, at a minimum, a point to stand any chance of surviving slipping down the trapdoor to Division 3 and former Armagh player O’Rourke could welcome Shane Lennon back into his squad having returned to training lately.
“He’s quite mobile and kicking points in training,” O’Rourke said.
“That’s a positive for us, so hopefully he’ll come back into the equation. It was a long shot for him to get back for the league but his rehab has gone quite well and he’s hit all his marks, so we’ll see.”
Derek Maguire is out injured and O’Rourke is under no illusions in terms of what his side requires.
“Going into the last three games we felt we need four points from six and that hasn’t changed,” he said after their draw against Galway.
“We probably still need three from four now, so the equation hasn’t really changed; just where we get the points from has changed.
“As I’ve said from the start – and the results bear it out – it’s a very even league and teams on form on any given day can beat anybody. Every game is winnable.
“I’m not underestimating the task by any means but we’ve found in the recent past that boys respond better whenever their backs are against the wall and hopefully that will be the case in two weeks.”
With his side having been off-target in Newry two weeks ago, McGuinness can expect improvement in this area at the weekend. With McBrearty a likely starter, it will renew from the start the triumvirate of McBrearty, Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy that has been McGuinness’s first-choice full-forward line since McBrearty’s emergence in 2011.
As well as two points on offer, this Sunday should give Donegal a chance to boost their points difference.
The bottom line is that Donegal are regarded as a top tier outfit and one of the sides with genuine hopes of big prizes. Louth, at best, are hopefuls in the Leinster Championship. Although McGuinness’s words are naturally cautious, he wants his side to make a statement at the weekend.
“We’re looking forward to it,” he said.
“It has been a good League for us so far in terms of competition We have been trying out a few bits and pieces and we’re happy with the progress of our fitness and the progress of the team.
“We have two games to go now so we want to see it out positively.”
Donegal head to Portugal for a training camp on April 10th and will hope to have a Division 2 League final to look forward to on their return. A comfortable win on Sunday would go some way to sealing that spot.
For a side with Donegal’s ambitions, anything less would represent a major disappointment.