WHEN Donegal took on Kildare in the opening game of the National Football League last year, it was against a backdrop of limited preparation and an ever-growing injury list.
They were only after returning from a team holiday to Dubai a couple of weeks previously and were looking at long-term lay offs for Karl Lacey and Christy Toye. Others, like Neil Gallagher, David Walsh and Mark McHugh, were struggling for fitness at the outset.
During their League campaign, Paddy McGrath and Neil McGee were among those to suffer injuries that put them out of action for varying timespans.
They could never quite catch a break, their frustrating spring coming to a close when a last-gasp point from Paul Mannion eared Dublin a draw in Ballybofey, meaning that Donegal were relegated from Division 1.
When Down won in Ballybofey a week later, all of a sudden Donegal were peering over their shoulders and dangling close to ‘must win’ territory by the time they headed for Omagh at the beginning of March. A defeat there by Tyrone on a forgettable afternoon and the writing was on the wall.
Now, as the curtain is ready for lifting on the 2014 National League season – with Jim McGuinness’s men in Division 2 this term – it is a much stronger Donegal that is standing before the opening day.
And it’s just as well given that Croke Park’s fixtures computer has conspired to hand them back-to-back away games to open their campaign.
This Sunday, McGuinness takes his squad for O’Moore Park in Portlaoise and a meeting with Tomas O Flatharta’s Laois, now under the guidance of the former Westmeath boss.
It’s a game that has been on O Flatharta’s radar for some time.
“Donegal are a big powerhouse the won the All Ireland two years ago, we just need to get everybody who’s injured get them mended for that game and be in shape for that,” he said recently.
“We can see that there is one or two young lads’ fighting for a place there which is always good, we’d like to have a fairly competitive environment there. One thing that we’ve learned is that when we move the ball fairly fast it pays dividends for us.”
Laois are a familiar opponent for Donegal teams of late.
Donegal defeated them in the Division 2 final of 2011, after suffering a defeat in the final Division 2 group game of that campaign, while Laois won in Letterkenny two years ago on a sodden Sunday memorable now only for that cringe moment on TG4 when the Donegal manager was question about the departure of Kevin Cassidy, an analyst who stood uncomfortably shuffling his feet a short distance away.
Laois also happen to be the last team that Donegal defeated in League or Championship, in their round four All-Ireland qualifier in Carrick-On-Shannon last July.
Donegal are back with gritted teeth looking to prove a point in 2014 – and want to get off to a good start. There are no easy pickings in their next game, a meeting with Galway at Salthill, a venue that will have uncomfortable memories for many of those who’ll start that game.
The memories of Michael Meehan running them ragged in 2009 will surely still be lodged in the memory bank.
After the pair of away fixtures, Donegal don’t return to action – when they welcome Monaghan to Letterkenny for the first home game of the campaign in a fixture that will surely get the patrons discussing last year’s Ulster final between the counties.
Going into that on a good footing from February is vital for Donegal.
“The bottom line in the National League is that, if we win our first two games we’ll be in contention for promotion, but if we lose our first two games we’ll be in danger of being relegated,” Donegal manager Jim McGuinness says.
“Having two away games two weeks on the bounce at the start is obviously very difficult, but it’s something that we have to look forward to.”
The recent return of Karl Lacey to training will have lifted the morale considerably. A player who was patchwork at best in 2013 is nearing full fitness again – and the significance of having him back in harness is not lost on his manager.
“It was a great shot in the arm,” McGuinness says, “a great boost to the squad to have him back challenging. It will probably be towards the middle or the end of the League before we have him back at full pelt. Having him back and healthy is massive for us though, he is so important.”
The power and drive of Christy Toye, seen in competitive action for Donegal for the first time since the 2012 All-Ireland final, is another major boost. Toye’s absence as an impact man off the bench was a massive chink in the armour last year.
Over the winter months, Mark McHugh, Neil Gallagher, Neil McGee, Patrick McBrearty, David Walsh and Paddy McGrath have undergone treatment on various injuries. Some have already returned; others are close to having the green light flashed before them.
Although Lacey is set to begin a Masters in Sports Performance at University Limerick today, the timetables have been mapped out with the management and that is not to be seen as a deterrent to the preparations of a player whose return was perhaps the most timely boost that could be given ahead of the new campaign’s opening.
Michael Murphy is back on Donegal soil again and is serving only one master now – McGuinness – as opposed to dividing his time between county and Sigerson Cup plans. The importance of that should not be forgotten; already we’ve seen reminders of the captain’s genial ability in the Dr McKenna Cup.
There’s no doubt the mood is considerably more upbeat that it was twelve months ago. The integration of Darach O’Connor and Odhrán MacNiallais have added a neat side-plate of food for thought and it’s hoped that the last year will see the curves of Ryan McHugh and Martin O’Reilly continue upwards.
“Division 2 will be tough, but we have a good, solid base already done in January and we want now to take our performance to a consistent level through the League,” McGuinness says.
“We will want to win every game, but more importantly it is about moving forward collectively to use it as a platform. Not long after the League we’re away to Derry in the Championship. That’s at the front of our minds and what we’re focussing on.”
For now, a good start, as Plato’s old proverb says, would be half the battle.
DONEGAL’S NFL DIVISION 2 FIXTURES
Sunday February 2nd Laois v Donegal Portlaoise, 2pm
Sunday February 9th Galway v Donegal Pearse Stadium, 2pm
Subday March 2nd Donegal v Monaghan O’Donnell Park, 2pm
Sunday March 9th Donegal v Meath MacCumhaill Park, 2pm
Sunday March 16th Down v Donegal Páirc Esler, 2pm
Sunday March 30th Donegal v Louth Fr Tierney Park, 3pm
Sunday April 6th Armagh v Donegal Athletic Grounds, 3pm