BY CHRIS MCNULTY
WHEN Jim McGuinness addressed the media in his pre-Championship briefing last month, the Donegal manager was enthused about the summer.
With an away fixture against Derry looming, he couldn’t look too far into the distance, but he knew what getting over the Oak Leaf would do for his squad.
“If we could get over Derry, if I could project three weeks into the future and we had won that match, then we would be in a really good position,” McGuinness said.
“If we could get over this game we’d have a month until the next game and we’d have everybody home. That would be a really good split in terms of having three weeks for coaching and a week for tapering.”
A timely win over Derry has once again put Donegal to the top of the Ulster Championship’s charts, with a semi-final clash against Antrim to come this Sunday in Clones.
Last Tuesday, Neil Gallagher, Karl Lacey and Martin McElhinney returned to training in Convoy, giving McGuinness a full hand to shuffle for the first time in a while. With Rory Kavanagh back from a suspension, the Donegal manager could well have a fully-fit squad from which to select his team to face the Saffrons.
That hasn’t just come by chance either.
Eyebrows were raised in some quarters when Paddy McGrath was named in the starting XV at Celtic Park. The tenacious Ardara terrier hadn’t played for the county since the All-Ireland quarter-final last August. Yet, after a couple of club games, McGuinness deduced that McGrath was ready for action – and the player didn’t disappoint.
After the game, McGrath tweeted: “Absolutely delighted first game back for Donegal big thanks to the medical team, lot of work behind scenes that people dont see#longroad :)”
McGuinness has some of the best medics in the business on his backroom team. Led by surgeon Mr Kevin Moran and doctor Charlie McManus, they are backed up by a team of physiotherapists and physical therapists, among them Donal Reid, an All-Ireland winner with Donegal in 1992.
“There is a huge amount of work going on a daily basis,” McGuinness said.
“I would always get an email update on how they’re moving forward, their availability for training and what have you.
“It’s incredible the work these people do, the strength and conditioning lads, the physios, the physical therapists and the doctors. People mightn’t always be aware what these people are doing, but the work is phenomenal.
“It isn’t me who gets the players back on the field! We are very grateful for the work they do and the players mention it regularly. It is a very important part of our team.
“We put a lot of faith in those people. They’re making sure the players are able to do what’s being asked of them.
“If they need to get anything, they’re able to get seen and referred. If people aren’t right, we haven’t pushed the button with them. We’ve taken on board the medical advice and always go with their expertise.”
When Donegal met up last winter to start on the long road to redemption, the walking wounded were in abundance: Lacey, Gallagher, McGrath, David Walsh, Patrick McBrearty, Frank McGlynn, Christy Toye and the now-departed Mark McHugh were all at different stages of rehabilitation on injuries.
“We got a plan in place from November, December,” Lacey said.
“From that time we looked at Derry as the key game for the year. I was eased into the National League, there was no going flat out. I got the training and game time that I needed.”
A masters student in sports performance at the University of Limerick, Lacey has taken a big interest in the area of recovery.
“It’s a totally different level now to when I started off,” he said.
“It’s analysed after every session. The medical team, the coaches and Jim meet after every session. We wear the GPS vests now too. They give off a lot of information off in terms of what’s going in and coming out – they can flag up any problems you might be having. We’ve a professional set-up with the technology behind it.”
Lacey has spoken of how the All-Ireland quarter-final slipped away from Donegal before they knew where they were. Lacey was sent on against Mayo after only 23 minutes – even at that stage, the game was up.
“You could just see in guys’ eyes in the dressing-room: ‘How the hell are we going to get this back?’ “That was a bit disappointing,” Lacey said earlier this year. “The fight had nearly gone out of us at that stage.”
Donegal’s injuries mounted last year and McGuinness lost those crucial nights between games because of the club championship schedule.
“We had no momentum,” Lacey said.
“It was all very stop-start. After a game, we broke up and went back to the clubs and didn’t see each other for a while. When you had boys injured on top of all that it made it very difficult
“We gave the best we could with the shape we were in, but we didn’t have the freshness or the training to prepare.
“There are things that you need to beat the top teams. You need your strength, your speed and your sharpness to be on top form. We didn’t really get that chance and that was a major factor.
“Every man gave everything that he had. We gave every bit of energy that we had. Unless you have the work done, it won’t happen. There is no magic dust for a sprout of energy when you’re in Croke Park.”
Although Kavanagh, Gallagher and McElhinney weren’t in the team for Derry, McGuinness’s surprise selection worked perfectly with the choreographed substitutions giving the sense that Donegal were in control of their destiny in Celtic Park.
“You can’t afford to have a weak link on the chain when you’re going to perform,” Lacey said.
“The young lads we have in – Odhrán MacNiallais, Luke Keaney, ‘Jigger’ (Darach O’Connor) – they mix so well and you’d swear Ryan McHugh was on the panel ten years. There’s a close bond between us. You get that from the hard training and the long hours.”
McGuinness concurs with that notion.
“One of the big positives this year has been that infusion of new talent,” he said.
“You look at Odhrán MacNiallais, Ryan McHugh, Luke Keaney and Darach O’Connor, who have done really well. Three of them were making their debuts against Derry (MacNiallais, Keaney and O’Connor). It’s great to have got that into the panel.
“What we need now is to get a balance going. Last year with injuries our hand was forced in a lot of things and we felt that some of these lads might have needed longer, but now we will see a real benefit of having them.”
McGuinness and his selectors John Duffy, Paul McGonigle and Damian Diver watched the Antrim-Fermanagh quarter-final, played the week after his team beat Derry. With most of their squad now back in Donegal bases for the summer months and the stresses of exams over, those words of McGuinness from pre-Derry still echo.
This week, he reiterated the thoughts that the weeks since the Derry win could prove to have been decisive.
“This is the time of year that we crave,” he said
“We want to get the most out of them. Most of the players are back at home now, sleeping in their own beds, and all of that is very important. We need to make sure that we keep our focus and that we get that performance we require. We just need our focus to be right.”
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