Donegal’s management team are unwilling to risk any players with lingering injuries for their Allianz National Football League Division One fixture against Down in Ballybofey on Saturday night (throw-in 7pm).
Jim McGuinness’s side opened their campaign with a 2-14 to 1-13 loss against Kildare last Saturday at Croke Park and assistant Rory Gallagher describes the home engagement against Down, in terms of relegation, as a “must-win.”
James McCartan’s team are also without a point after the opening series of matches after they relinquished a 0-7 to 0-3 first half lead to lose 1-11 to 1-8 to Tyrone at Newry’s Páirc Esler.
McGuinness and Gallagher have made no secret of their using of the league campaign to try to bring fringe players up to championship level, whilst trying maintain a place in the top flight.
“We’re starting from behind in regards fitness and we don’t want to put anyone out,” assistant Gallagher said ahead of training in Castlefin last night. “We’ve lost a lot of big players and of course you’d love to play your strongest team every day but we’re short a few and not willing to risk them.
“It’s something we’ve learned over the last couple of years. It’s better to just get the player right so when they are able to come back then they’re fully injury free so they can really throw them into the training.
“Division One is a great place to play football and try and breed players and it’s the best environment for our current team. Looking ahead to next year, even, we’d far rather be playing in Division One than Division Two.
“We would love to have a squad of 25 or 30 players that are all capable of playing in the championship. Last year it was a pretty rigid 17 or 18 who took to the field every day and we work to try and improve players and we’re looking to see players who can make good championship players for us.”
Fringe players like Declan Walsh, Daniel McLaughlin, Dermot Molloy, Marty Boyle and Ross Wherity all saw game time in Croke Park last weekend and are expected to feature again at MacCumhaill Park.
Donegal face the possibility of taking on the county they beat in last year’s Ulster final 2-18 to 0-13 without the three nominees for the Footballer of the Year award.
Centre-back Karl Lacey will miss the vast chunk of the league campaign as he is recovering from a hip operation and Frank McGlynn is a definite absentee after he was unable to take to the field for the second half against Kildare with a torn hamstring. Colm McFadden was also forced off, in his case after just 11 minutes, with a minimal tear.
“Frank will not play but we won’t rule Colm out at the minute,” Gallagher continued. “We won’t really know till perhaps Friday evening or Saturday morning but there’s probably more chance of Colm not playing than playing.”
All-Ireland final substitutes David Walsh and Christy Toye are also unavailable. Naomh Bríd clubman Walsh has shoulder ligament damage and St Michael’s Toye has a long-standing virus.
Paddy McGrath, the Ardara corner-back, was unable to feature last Saturday on his 24th birthday due to a quad-muscle thigh strain but is likely to return and there is also better news in regards both Mark McHugh and Neil Gallagher.
Kilcar’s McHugh played 38 minutes and his effective link-up play was a telling factor as Donegal reduced Kildare’s seven-point advantage down to one in the second half.
The 22-year-old had suspected osteitis pubis, a pelvic injury, which hampered him since the All-Ireland final in September, while Gallagher was forced to watch Saturday’s match from the stands with a groin strain.
“The really good news for us is that the osteitis pubis appears to have totally cleared up,” Rory Gallagher continued. “That had the potential to be a really serious one but Mark’s only set-back is a small one, a calf injury, which he got with IT Sligo.
“That meant Mark was unable to start last week but the 35 or 40 minutes he got for us stood to him and the main injury has cleared up. He’s an important player for us as he’s comfortable on the ball so bar his fitness, the football side of it will look after itself. Neil Gallagher is also on the right road and may be available for the bench.”
Down are in a similar predicament to Donegal, pointless with a number of injuries to established players. Last year’s captain Ambrose Rogers and Danny Hughes both recently underwent surgery on respective knee and back injuries while Dan Gordon sustained a broken foot before Christmas.
Conor Laverty was dismissed last Saturday against Tyrone for two yellow cards but will be free to play against Donegal and Rory Gallagher believes that was a match in which Down might well have taken something from.
“Down led the whole way through the first half against Tyrone and can be relatively pleased with how they played,” he continued. “Bear in mind they beat us last year (1-12 to 1-11 in Newry) so they may well be confident to can put one over us again in the league.
“There’s no denying the championship is our number one aim but we want to play as many games as possible. The best way to go into the championship is with a bit of form and if you look at last year, that was the case.
“We were well out of tune for the first two games and we finished on a high with a win in a must-win game against Armagh. The last thing we want this year is to be embroiled in a relegation battle and with ourselves and Down going into the weekend with no points, in regards of staying up, it’s almost a must-win game.”