BY CHRIS MCNULTY
JIM McGuinness says that his Donegal squad remains ‘fully focussed’ on the May 25th Ulster Championship opener with Derry at Celtic Park and the Glenties man is ‘looking forward’ to meeting Brian McIver’s Division 1 finalists in three weeks’ time.
The departure last week of 2012 All-Ireland winner and All-Star Mark McHugh sparked concerns of unrest in the Donegal camp. The 23-year old’s departure coincided with confirmation of the withdrawals of Gary McFadden, Antoin McFadden and Thomas McKinley from the panel.
McHugh outlined last week that he’d fallen out of love with the game and was quitting the panel.
“Mark has been a big part of the group since 2010 when he was with the Under-21s,” McGuinness said of McHugh.
“In many respects he played in a specialised role in the team and he has been a big part of our success.” McHugh and McGuinness spoke via telephone on Tuesday of last week, when the player conveyed his decision to McGuinness.
It is understood that McHugh intimated to the manager that he felt he wasn’t enjoying his football. With his final year exams at Sligo IT coinciding with the week leading into the Derry game, the player intimated that he wouldn’t be able to give 100 per cent commitment at that time, while the thought of moving to America to play club football during the summer was also mooted.
McHugh has had injury troubles of late. Having missed the final group game in Division 2 away to Armagh with a hamstring injury, he started as a sub in the League final defeat to Monaghan last weekend, coming on as a sub late in the first half to make his 46th Donegal appearance.
Last year, McHugh missed a large chunk of Donegal’s League campaign owing to a pelvis injury and, following a heavy collision with Monaghan’s Stephen Gollogly in the Ulster final, he sustained concussion, a perforated eardrum and a quad muscle tear.
Indifferent form this campaign and the fact that Donegal played without a sweeper for much of this spring had made the player’s place vulnerable.
Despite the loss of a player who was the keystone in a system that won Sam Maguire in 2012 and back-to-back Ulster Championships, McGuinness says that their clash with Derry remains ingrained to the forefront of their thoughts.
McGuinness said: “You would, in an ideal world, like to have everyone going into battle, but the squad is competitive and we’re looking forward to the game. The boys are working hard at the moment. We’re also starting to get our teeth into sharp work now at training which is important.
“We’re looking forward to the 25th of May. Without a doubt it’s a big game and Derry will present us with a big challenge. Their form has been impressive since the turn of the year. We will need to be focussed and prepared for the challenge they’ll present to us in three weeks time.”
Gary McFadden, Antoin McFadden and McKinley decided to step away having arrived at the conclusion that their efforts would be best channeled into their respective clubs. McGuinness said he can understand why such decisions were taken and said that the trio’s departures were part of a ‘natural attrition’ that occurs every year between League and Championship campaigns.
He said: “It’s great being part of a county squad, but at the same time every player wants to play. I understand that. It can be difficult when players don’t make the 26 on match day and are not getting game time. That can be frustrating and I can empathise with that.
“This year we have had a lot less injuries than previous years and that has made picking the 26 a more difficult task.
“I’d like to thank all four players for their effort and commitment this term and over the previous terms and wish them well with their clubs during the summer.”
Three weeks out from their trip to the Maiden City, McGuinness remains upbeat about his team’s prospects for the summer.
He said: “We have a good winter under our belts and the squad is a lot more competitive this year. Paddy McGrath has come back into full training and he’ll get games with his club over the next couple of weeks. Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher and Christy Toye have made very good progress over the course of the National League as well which is positive heading into championship. The big challenge lies ahead in a few weeks time and our focus is now very much on that date”