BY CHRIS MCNULTY
JIM McGuinness has the look of a man who’s counting the days down to the start of the new season.
Donegal’s first game of 2014 will be against Tyrone in the Dr McKenna Cup on January 5th – in 51 days’ time.
Seven weeks from Sunday, the old rivals McGuinness and Mickey Harte will cross paths again, but they will be very much in experimental mould.
McGuinness and his new backroom team of Damian Diver, Paul McGonigle and John Duffy have spent the last number of weeks devising programmes for their players and getting them assessed by the medical team.
The new-look squad includes those players McGuinness has added to his ranks: Ciaran Bonner, Leon Thompson, Christy Toye, Conor Classon, Antoin McFadden, Thomas McKinley, Stephen McLaughlin, Hugh McFadden, and Darach O’Connor.
Donegal have been paired with Tyrone, Armagh and Queen’s University in the McKenna Cup and it is expected that McGuinness will rotate the squad through those three fixtures.
“We have a good competitive group and it’ll be interesting to see how it rolls,” McGuinness said.
“We’re looking forward to getting started now.
“We’ll have a number of players tied up with colleges so we’ll be able to look at the squad in a broad sense and seeing how much playing time we can allocate to players.”
While some of his players, like Patrick McBrearty, Hugh McFadden, Ryan McHugh and Mark McHugh could be otherwise engaged with commitments to college teams, McGuinness will have most of his main men. With Michael Murphy not having returned to college, something McGuinness says is a ‘nice wee bonus’, Donegal’s totemic captain will be available from the off this time around, handing them a significant boost.
The medical team have been working on getting some ailments cleared up. David Walsh recently underwent a hernia operation while Paddy McGrath had an operation to correct an abductor tendon muscle injury which prevented him from lining up for Ardara in the Club Championship. McGrath is aiming to be back for January, but could be kept in cotton wool until the start of the National League in February.
Walsh and McGrath have been able to do jogging while Christy Toye, McGuinness says, is back ‘on the road to recover’ and Karl Lacey, the 2012 Footballer of the Year, ‘is in good shape’ having missed the bulk of the 2013 campaign.
McGuinness said: “He is still working on his rehab plan from last season and is doing a lot of work on his own to get back to full fitness again.”
The memories of the All-Ireland quarter-final hammering against Mayo are still knawing at McGuinness’s mind and the Donegal manager hopes the few months off will have done his charges the world of good.
2013 saw Donegal lose their grip on Ulster and All-Ireland titles, but the manager can’t wait to get back on the bike again.
He said: “We’ll have had a long break since we were out in the Championship and we’ll be going into it a lot fresher.
“We are looking forward to the season ahead. We have an opportunity now to go and enjoy our football.”
2014 Dr McKenna Cup:
Section A – QUB, Donegal, Tyrone, Armagh
Section B – St Mary’s UCB, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Derry
Section C – UUJ, Down, Antrim, Cavan
* Ulster GAA will once again be selling a limited number of competition tickets for the 2014 Dr McKenna Cup which will permit you access to Round 1, Round 2 and Round 3 games involving your team, both semi finals and the final for just £20/€25. For all information relating to the 2014 Dr McKenna Cup, view www.ulster.gaa.ie/mckennacup2014/