Donegal will open their Ulster SFC with a quarter-final against Derry at Celtic Park with the fixture this week confirmed for Sunday, May 25.
The Ulster Competitions’ Control Committee finalised the schedule on Tuesday for next year’s provincial championship.
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness saw his team win the province from the preliminary round in both 2011 and 2012 but was an Ulster final loser this year when Monaghan were 0-13 to 0-7 victors in Clones in July.
McGuinness, though, was glad not to have to go the long way around again as by the time the quarter-finals roll in, third-level examinations will be finished so he expects to the majority of his now 39-man panel based back in the north-west.
“The big one for me was the preliminary round,” he said this week. “We have been in it twice so it’s good to avoid that. It gives us an opportunity to prepare really well.
“Around May 20 we would normally start getting everyone back home. They’ll be well wrapped up by the time the game comes around. It’s a local derby and most people in Donegal would be in Derry in half an hour or 45 minutes.
It’s one of them games to savour.
“It’s a very tough first round for us. Derry are always tough opposition. It is going to be very difficult in Celtic Park. I’d say it will be a fantastic atmosphere.”
McGuinness admitted that despite approaching his fourth year in charge there’s a feeling as though he is starting over, with one of the primary objectives being to lift the panel following their 4-17 to 1-10 hammering at Mayo’s hands in the All-Ireland quarter-final in August.
“You’re going into a championship based on the fact that you got a right going over in your last championship match,” McGuinness said, in possible reference to erasing the memories of the loss in the first round qualifier before his tenure began that Donegal’s players lost 2-14 to 0-11 in 2010 against Armagh in Crossmaglen.
McGuinness, along with his new backroom team of Damien Diver, Paul McGonigle and John Duffy will meet the panel again on Saturday morning to continue their preparations for the 2014 campaign.
St Michael’s duo Christy Toye and Antoin McFadden, Ardara’s Conor Classon and Thomas McKinley from Naomh Colmcille have rejoined the set-up having played previously under McGuinness.
Leon Thompson of Naomh Conaill and Ciaran Bonner from Glenswilly won the National Football League Division One title in 2007 under Brian McIver and also played for John Joe Doherty.
In terms of newcomers, Malin’s flying wing-forward Stephen McLaughlin is now on board as is Hugh McFadden, who, at either centre-field of full-forward, has helped Killybegs to the RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta SFC final against Glenswilly later this month.
McGuinness has also rewarded the man who he sees as the county’s top minor. Darach O’Connor from Buncrana was captain of Stephen Friel’s minor team captain this year and the forward follows in the footsteps of Kilcar duo Patrick McBrearty and Ryan McHugh in gaining a fast-tracked promotion to the seniors.
“We just met them and want to get them on programmes so that they’re getting a pre-pre-season, which means they aren’t coming in and getting caught cold,” McGuinness said of the group.
“We meet this weekend again and we want to get a few more things out of the way in terms of fitness tests, flu jabs, cardiac screening, all important things to do in the off-season which frees up weekends later in the year.
“A lot of things have moved on since the Mayo game. The key things were the club championship, the club games being on the same day. That’s all sorted.
“They were big issues that needed to be addressed. I met the players and I was happy that they were hungry and wanted to go again.
“It gives us an opportunity to have a proper pre-season. Last year we didn’t have that. We were away on holidays until the January 8 or 9 and it was a bit disjointed. There was a lot going on.
“We have only four of five of last year’s panel involved in the club championship so there are a lot of them getting a good rest. That will, hopefully, stand to them when we start moving again.”
Last season, McGuinness essentially gave Maxi Curran control of Donegal’s Dr McKenna Cup fixtures but with the senior manager stating he will select his panel for the Allianz League after those fixtures in January, it’s fair to suggest it will be an opportunity for those on the senior panel.
“There have been changes in the backroom team and changes in the squad. There has been a lot going on. Will pick league squad after McKenna Cup. It’s like a fresh start and it’s nearly time to press the button again, like in 2011.
“In 2011 we didn’t know if we were capable and it took 2011 to ignite that in us and it took 2012 to prove it. We know now that we can achieve at a national level if we are on top of our game. That confidence should help us with that.”