BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THE League nowadays, they say, ‘doesn’t matter’ – but Donegal will still be going all-out to win against Dublin on Sunday when their status in Division 1 goes upon the chopping board (Sean MacCumhaill Park, 3pm).
Neither of the Jims – McGuinness nor Gavin – will take keenly to losing Sunday’s game, though plainly the eyes of both men are trained a little further down the line, most specifically to the starting post for the Ulster and Leinster Championships.
Their spring has had very different tales told, however. Dublin cruised into the semi-finals, with this game to spare, and the Jacks have five wins from six and a scoring difference of a staggering +41 that dwarfs their nearest rival, Tyrone, by a whopping 32 points.
Donegal, meanwhile, have won two from six but there has been nothing too bothered about McGuinness’s demeanour. As the All-Ireland winning manager, he knows well that judgement will be reserved until the months of high summer.
Still, with the threat of relegation looming over their head, they don’t wish for the hangman’s noose to be tightened by the Dubs.
It is a mirror image of twelve months ago when Donegal needed to beat Armagh on the final day to stay up. With twenty minutes left, they trailed 0-13 to 0-10, but they scored the game’s final six points to win by three.
“It would be brilliant to leave MacCumhaill Park with that same feeling this Sunday,” says Rory Gallagher, the Donegal assistant manager.
“People were buzzing when we beat Armagh last year and stayed up. Hopefully we can replicate that – it would send us into the Championship on a really positive note.”
Donegal go into the game without their full-back Neil McGee, who injured his left knee in the recent defeat to Mayo. Paddy McGrath’s quad injury and Neil Gallagher’s groin complaint rule them out of contention, meaning a reshuffle of the cards. Eamon McGee will slot in at full-back, while Frank McGlynn will go back to the corner with Ryan Bradley the man ear-marked now to parter Rory Kavanagh at centre-field.
Declan Walsh and Ross Wherity are likely to get votes of confidence while Patrick McBrearty, Ryan McHugh and Martin O’Reilly will all be involved in the panel. The trio were involved in the Ulster semi-final win for the Under 21s on Wednesday night and will take on Cavan in next week’s final.
“The under 21s will be involved,” Gallagher confirmed.
“There is no holding back for us and that has always been the policy. These players are a part of the senior set-up and have been for some time now. Maxi, in fairness to him, has always been happy for that arrangement and for them to be involved with the seniors because it can really help their confidence.”
Despite their campaign seeing them fall to four defeats, Donegal have expressed contentment at where their preparations are. Indeed, the scenario is similar to last year, when they required a final day win to stay up, while 2013 has not yet seen them suffer anything like the hammerings inflicted upon them by Kerry and Dublin in last year’s League.
“We were disappointed not to beat Mayo or Cork in the last two games,” said Gallagher.
“They were games that we were in positions to win, albeit not convincingly, but we didn’t. Division 1 is the place to be and we want to stay there.”
Donegal could actually make the semi-finals if they beat Dublin by three points more than a Mayo win in Cork, but survival is the aim of the game for now. Indeed, Donegal conceivably lose on Sunday and still survive, provided Kerry don’t win in Tyrone.
“We don’t want to be relying on other teams and MacCumhaill Park has been good to us so we’ll be going to look after our own result,” Gallagher said.
The paths of these teams this spring has been very different – but their ultimate goals are identical.
Jim McGuinness has openly suggested that the League was an irrelevance, even to the point of one afternoon saying that he wouldn’t be particularly bothered about relegation so long as he got out of the League what he intended.
Jim Gavin, too, talks on a similar tone. He said: “We’re on a training programme, to take us up to the first of June, and we’ll be sticking to that. It’s always a game-by-game stage process in the league. There’s a round of Dublin championship games the week of the semi-finals, and that’s going to go ahead. So this is bonus territory, really. We won’t be changing our plans at all.”
Dublin, though, are already assured of a place in the Division 1 semi-finals, but with Gavin expected to be able to recall his Ballymun Kickhams players this weekend there are men coming in looking to make up for some lost time with the county this spring.
While the Dubs will continue to let James McCarthy recouperate from a hamstring injury that has been niggling for some time now.
However, Philly McMahon, Sean George, Dean Rock and Jason Whelan are all expected to be given game time in Ballybofey.
That in itself is an outline for the depth and strength at the Clondalkin man’s disposal. Gavin has used 31 players so far in the league campaign to date, with an appearance by that quartet taking the figure to 35.
Meantime, with Gallagher stating that Donegal are to stick with ‘the tried and tested’ this weeked, it does not seem likely that the number of players to feature in the 2013 will extend beyond the 24 who have already appeared. Dublin have effectively been running with enough players for two panels – with Michael Fitzsimons and Alan Brogan yet to return to their match-day squad.
In addition, Bernard Brogan has not featured in the last two games and it is not believed that he will be in Ballybofey either, while Rory O’Carroll and Ciarán Kilkenny will miss out through injury.
“Dublin are in the fortunate position of having more players from more clubs to pick,” Gallagher said.
“They have a phenominal underage structure and everyone is vying for places in their Championship panel. I know from being in Dublin that players are so grateful to get a Dublin jersey.”
DONEGAL V DUBLIN
Sunday April 7th 2013
Venue: Sean MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey
Referee: Padraig Hughes (Armagh)
Odds: Donegal 4/7; Draw 15/2; Dublin 7/4 (Powers)
Verdict: Donegal to replicate last year and get the final-day win that preserves their top-flight status
See Monday’s Donegal News for full coverage of Donegal v Dublin