BY RYAN FERRY
IT’S only a short hop across the border to Celtic Park, but for Donegal it’s just another pit stop on a long and fruitful journey under Jim McGuinness.
McGuinness has taken the county team from the periphery of Ulster to the Anglo Celt Cup and on to the All-Ireland, but he faces one of the biggest tests of his managerial career in Derry next Sunday.
People have questioned his methods and tactics before, but now they are questioning Donegal’s heart and desire.
The start of the championship is considerably less-hyped than last year’s opening with Tyrone. That game had an unnecessary all or nothing feel to it, and although Donegal did win, it was of no real benefit for the rest of the season.
Donegal went into that game as defending All-Ireland champions and despite suffering relegation only a month previous, hopes were still sky-high.
Those days of boundless optimism are now at an end. The cracks in Donegal’s armour began to show against Down in the Ulster semi-final, and after thumpings from Monaghan and Mayo last year, GAA followers in the county have lost some of their trust in their team.
So much so, that Donegal enter the 2014 Ulster Championship on a bit of a whimper. Donegal’s league was successful but it lacked a spark. They achieved their goal of winning promotion to the league, albeit without the speed and gusto of 2012.
Club fixtures have caused a stir in the county, while Mark McHugh’s withdrawal from the panel put McGuinness’s team into the spotlight again.
The bookies have changed their stance as the year has progressed and gradually edged Derry into the favourites bracket, and there is not much confidence among Donegal’s loyal supporters.
But is all the negativity really warranted? Sure, the league was underwhelming, yet that has been a recurring theme of Jim McGuinness era.
In 2011, Donegal won Division 2, but in truth it was considerably weaker than this year .In 2012, McGuinness’s charges just about managed to survive in Division 1, while last year, they suffered relegation.
However, they still won their first round outings in each of the last three years.
It is no secret that the Donegal manager does not place too much importance on the league. He focusses on the championship and he has had since the draw was made at the start of October to run his meticulous pen through Derry and come up with a gameplan.
McGuinness has instilled a winning mentality into his team and it must be remembered that they have won 10 of their last 11 Ulster Championship matches. Donegal know how to get the job done in the province.
Donegal have defeated Derry twice during the McGuinness tenure and there is no drastic change in their personnel since.
The Oak Leaf county have looked like a much more fluid and ruthless side during the league this year, but the real acid test will come in Celtic Park.
Brian McIver’s team had an excellent league campaign reaching the final and any team that beats Dublin this year are to be taken seriously.
Many commentators predicted they would struggle without Eoin Bradley but they didn’t. Mark Lynch raised his game and now looks like fulfilling his undoubted potential, while Ciaran McFaul and Benny Heron also rose to prominence.
Yet, it must be said that their league form mirrored their campaign in 2013 when they reached the Division2 final, before losing to Westmeath.
Their early season form did not help them as Down – who were relegated from Division 1 – came to Celtic Park and overturned them in their Ulster Championship opener.
It might be harsh to brandish Derry manager Brian McIver as a league manager, but if they lose on Sunday, he’ll have to be quick to sidestep that label.
McIver had a successful term in charge of Donegal and is remembered fondly by gaels in the county. He brought the county to their first National League title and he definitely lifted Donegal to a new level.
The grace and humility he upheld when he was shafted as manager was classy, and most of the Donegal GAA fraternity would still be vexed about his mistreatment.
Donegal made good strides with McIver in the league winning promotion in his first year and they won Division 1 the following spring.
But in the championship, they underperformed and went out tamely in the qualifiers in 2007 and 2008 having reached the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2006, his first year, a game Cork won narrowly.
Derry have had joy this year when kicking the ball in long to Emmett McGuckin and Cailean O’Boyle. They are two strong, powerful players, but they are the type of forwards that the McGee brothers, Eamon and Neil generally do well against.
The loss of Mark McHugh is a blow to Donegal, but it is the absence of Rory Kavanagh that will really hurt Donegal. Kavanagh was Donegal’s best player during the league and he was dominant in midfield throughout the league.
Derry have a strong midfield partnership in Patsy Bradley and Fergal Doherty and Donegal will need to be challenging if they are to create a platform to build on. Neil Gallagher’s presence in the middle would upset Derry’s engine room and it will be a boost to Derry if the Glenswilly man is not fit to take the field.
One area arising from the league final that will worry Donegal is their half-forward line. Monaghan raced forward from that sector in Croke Park and their half-backs scoring four points over the 70 minutes.
Derry are also dangerous from the half-back line. Sean Leo McGoldrick is one of the best ball-carriers in the game, while Gerard O’Kane and Kevin Johnston also impressed in the league driving forward to join the attack.
How the managers use their bench may also be important. Last year against Tyrone, the arrival of Karl Lacey and Ross Wherity swung the pendulum in Donegal’s favour and it might be someone coming on with fresh impetus that could make all the difference.
It will be close and feisty and Celtic Park will certainly be no place for the faint-hearted on Sunday.
Donegal have been on the road for a long time now and they know what it takes to get the business done in Ulster championship games. Perhaps it is time to place our trust in them again.