Rory Gallagher admitted after Donegal’s 1-16 to 0-8 loss against Derry on Sunday that injury and illness partially forced his hand.
The new Donegal manager was only joined by the majority of last year’s panel, who reached the All-Ireland final in September, for training for the first time last week in Termon and then in Downings.
Because of the run to Croke Park, where Kerry pipped Jim McGuinness’s team to the Sam Maguire on a 2-9 to 0-12 scoreline, and the subsequent club championship, Gallagher only got the majority of his senior players together after Christmas.
For the Dr McKenna Cup opener in Owenbeg against Derry, Gallagher had planned to use younger panel members Darach O’Connor and Odhran MacNiallias, as well as 2012 All-Ireland winners Paddy McGrath and Declan Walsh.
“They’d be four fairly experienced players, but three of them had the flu’ and Declan had a tight hamstring,” Gallagher said.
“That really left us with no choice. We were realistic in what we expected.”
This Sunday, Donegal will welcome Queen’s University Belfast to Ballybofey before rounding off their Section B with another home fixture, this time against Gallagher’s native Fermanagh, on Wednesday, January 14.
Yesterday, Peter McGrath’s Fermanagh, who had 15 changes to the team listed in the programme, overcame James McCartan’s Queen’s side on a 1-13 to 0-9 scoreline at Brewster Park in Enniskillen.
“For Queen’s, Paddy, Odhran and Declan should be OK,” Gallagher added.
“Darach may be another week. The likes of Frank McGlynn and Eamon McGee aren’t far away either.
“They’re not injured or anything like that. It’s the same with Karl Lacey and Michael Murphy - they’re all training; it’s just a matter of when we’ll integrate them in. Ten or 11 of them trained in Letterkenny this morning.”
Donegal’s young side performed admirably in the first half at the Derry Centre of Excellence but poor shooting - they kicked 10 wides in that timeframe to Derry’s three - meant they trailed 1-5 to 0-5 at half-time.
Emmett McGuckin’s goal on 16 minutes, when he finished off a centre from Mark Lynch, put daylight between the sides.
“We played quite well in the first half but we conceded a bad goal,” Gallagher said.
“I was quite pleased with that first half. Eunan Doherty did quite well, Gary McFadden grew into it and Willie Gillespie and Hugh McFadden got a bit of ball inside.
“We dominated a lot of the play and had plenty of chances. We had a very inexperienced team out.
“We maybe just had a lack of quality at times, but it was the first time out for a lot of them.
“We were caught with a short kick-out and then Eamon Ward was caught with the man in behind him.”
Derry, though, gobbled up almost all the midfield breaks in the second half around their competent pairing of Lynch and Conor McAtamney.
“Derry were miles better in the second half,” Gallagher added. “We were probably lucky enough in the end up that we weren’t beaten by more.
“It was a disappointing second-half performance. It’ll be tough for them to take today on the chin, but we explained to them in the lead-up to it that it’s an individual thing and about how they can handle it.
“We’ll hope to develop two or three of them.”
Gallagher admitted that he aims to have a close to a full-strength panel available for the visit of Derry in the Allianz League Division One opener in Ballybofey on Saturday, January 31.
The Belleek native will meet with Leo McLoone and Rory Kavanagh, who have not yet returned to training, and Anthony Thompson, who is working in the UK.
Donegal then take on Leinster and Division One champions Dublin at Croke Park on February 7 before a three-week break.
“The hope is to be as strong as we can be for the Derry game in the League,” Gallagher said.
“That’s the immediate goal as such. The aim is to get the 2014 squad up to speed by then.
“I fully expect to have the majority by that game.
“We want to be competitive in the League and we want to survive in the League.
“That’s the number one goal - as well as Tyrone in May in the Ulster championship - but we want to be fairly strong for the first two games, against Derry and Dublin.”