BY CHRIS MCNULTY
FROM their first night back at the wheel last January until they met for the final time in August, ahead of the ill-fated All-Ireland quarter-final against Mayo, the Donegal senior football team trained sixty-six times.
Holders of Sam Maguire when the jet-lagged bunch stepped off a plan from Dubai in early January, Donegal kept meeting road blocks in 2013 and the tyre blew out on the August bank holiday weekend.
With the evenings only beginning to lengthen now as the National League enters a massive weekend that will go a long way to determining the movers and shakers, Jim McGuinness calculates that his squad is already gaining on the sixty-six mark for collective sessions this term.
Unbeaten, with three wins and a draw from their opening four Division 2 games, Donegal are sitting pretty ahead of this weekend’s trip to joint-second placed Down, on a weekend when the other two sides, Monaghan and Armagh, on the second rung face off.
McGuinness is slowly but surely piecing his jigsaw together and only a corner piece in the shape of Paddy McGrath is outstanding. The Ardara man’s return remains some way off, but the rest of the pieces have been neatly tucked into place.
Christy Toye’s last game before this year was in the 2012 All-Ireland final, while the sum total of Odhrán MacNiallais’ contribution to the seniors was a half-an-hour in the League against Dublin last year.
Their placings in the half-forward line have given Donegal added value in a line that had been noted as a difficulty last season.
Yet McGuinness always assesses the bigger picture and points out that his problems were far from confined to the half-forward division.
“Our middle three lines were decimated,” he noted this week.
“We trained sixty-six times last year and we’re already pretty close to that number now at the minute.
“That’s down to a number of factors: We didn’t get to start early because of the celebrations after the All-Ireland; we had the team holiday in January; and we missed a lot of time through the club championship in the summer. During the club championship, we were down sixteen training sessions.”
Of those sixty-six sessions, five players from positions along those middle three lines of their team sat out a significant portion: Karl Lacey was absent for 46, Neil Gallagher didn’t take part in 45, David Walsh watched on during 44, Mark McHugh sat out 32 and Frank McGlynn was hamstrung for most of the twenty he was crossed off.
“We just kept picking up injuries,” McGuinness said.
“These were key players and key positions. We had players from those three lines who just missed too much football. They just didn’t have the workload behind them that was needed.
“We have got a wee run at it now and we’re not in bad shape.”
This weekend in Pairc Esler, Lacey, McHugh and McGlynn will start against Down, while Gallagher and Walsh are expected to be introduced from the bench, as they were for the drawn clash with Meath on Sunday.
The break between the Mayo game in August and the squad’s return to training in December enabled McGuinness’ mechanics to get under the hood and repair the lingering damage.
“Getting Christy Toye back has been huge for us,” McGuinness said.
“He gives us so many qualities with his power, his ability to ride tackles and he can take a score. He has worked so hard to get back into it again.
“Christy was excellent against Meath. He had a very good first half and he gives us a new dimension in the half-forward line. Christy has worked extremely hard. Last year, we just didn’t have that energy.
“Odhrán MacNiallais has come in there too and having himself and Christy in the half-forward line is like having two new players there. Odhrán has done a really good job for us and has been exposed to several big games now in the League.
“David Walsh was back on Sunday and, if we keep him healthy, he will put a lot of pressure on those boys which will be a big bonus. It’s great to see David back – we want him to push on now over the next few weeks.
“Neil Gallagher and Karl Lacey have come back in. These boys have been great servants to Donegal. We need to get them exposed to the big games again.
“But we’re also trying to balance that with giving players like Dermot Molloy, Odhrán and Ryan McHugh game time. It is a balancing act, but we’ve been managing well so far.”
The introduction of Lacey into the team for the game against James McCartan’s side, taking the spot of Ryan McHugh at corner-back, is the only one from last Sunday’s game against Meath in Ballybofey.
McGuinness has kept Neil Gallagher in reserve, having enabled Donegal to compete at centrefield after his introduction against Meath who had been lording that particular battle on Sunday, with Shane O’Rourke and Bryan Menton on top.
McGuinness said: “Neil played very well when he came in on Sunday. Hopefully he’ll do the same this weekend and by the time the next game comes around we’re hoping that Neil will be ready for seventy minutes.
“He has pushed on. He lifted it a lot when he came in. He’s working hard to get back.”
The Glenswilly giant had been held back because of a hamstring injury in the early moments of the season and it will be interesting to see how the Donegal ratio goes on Sunday in his absence.
Against Meath, John Duffy, who has been acting in the Maor Foirne role for McGuinness, raced in at one point to have a word with Paul Durcan at a time when Donegal were being wiped out in winning possession.
Durcan promptly smacked the ball down the middle into Michael Murphy’s hands. That was the fifteenth minute and the first time in ten attempts Donegal won a kick-out.
“We have looked at the kick-outs, but there were other aspects of our play that made it easier for Meath to play,” McGuinness said.
“When we got more up and at it, we took the game to them and we dominated for a good while. Meath are a good, big, physical side. It was a good test for our squad.
“The feeling is that it was good to get a really good test.
“Based on the three games before the Meath game, we probably learned a lot more from Sunday than a lot of our other League games. We will try to use that information now and bring it forward to Newry on Sunday.”
The same points might be on offer this week, but the League is inching near its prizes time. With the top four teams facing one another this weekend, this will be a defining priod.
Down have been familiar opponents for McGuinness’s Donegal. Down scored a win on the opening night of the 2012 League in Newry and Donegal defeated the Mournes in Ballybofey last year.
There has also been the two Championship meetings during the Glenties man’s reign, Donegal winning an Ulster final in 2012 and a semi-final in 2013.
The importance of this weekend is not lost on McGuinness, with the team set to do an overnight stay on Saturday night ahead of the fixture.
The manager said: “This weekend will put a shape on it. The next two series of matches will tell the tale.
“This week will put a shape and the next games should help finalise a lot of things.
“We just want to stay in the vein that we’ve been in: To enjoy our football and give it our all. We’ve been enjoying the learning and enjoying the games.”
With the entries this year on the credit side of his ledger , McGuinness’s numbers are totting up much better than twelve months ago.