Donegal’s precarious position in the Allianz Football League is almost perfectly juxtaposed with the step up in training this week.
Jim McGuinness’s side were given a week off following their last domestic outing - a 1-10 to 0-9 loss against Mayo in Castlebar.
And while the cameras and the focus of the footing fraternity will be on Donegal’s climatic league fixture against high-flying Dublin on Sunday, this week the county senior panel quietly stepped up their training on the dimly-lit Castlefin pitch with the more obvious focus being the Ulster championship opener against Tyrone in Ballybofey on May 26.
The maths and permutations are not so simple, with the balance of power expected to change hands on a number of occasions on Sunday. The one thing for sure, though, is that if Donegal defeat the team managed by Jim Gavin, Division One survival will be guaranteed. Otherwise, it’s Russian roulette with Cork, Mayo, Down and Kerry all facing the bacon slicer.
“It’s not ideal but that’s the position we’re in,” said All-Star defender Frank McGlynn. “At the start of the year the aim was to stay in Division One and that’s what we are hoping to achieve come Sunday. We’ve learned from the previous few games so hopefully things will click into place.
“Division One is where you test yourself against the other seven best teams in the country. It’s where you want to be. But if you look back at two years ago we played in and won Division Two. That stood to us in that summer’s championship. It’s not the end of the world but if you had to pick one it would be Division One.”
Jim McGuinness has long since maintained the jury will only judge him on championship football and like their manager the Donegal players are putting their eggs in that basket.
“It’s about getting up the level you want to be at,” McGlynn said of Tyrone. “It’s an enjoyable time and one where most of the work is done. In between the games, you’re ticking over.
“If you don’t put in the work in springtime it’s hard to recover when you’re going through the championship campaign. We hope to see the benefits of that come May, June and July. “In the longer run hopefully things will work out for us and come the summer we’d like to be at our peak. That’s where you want to be.”
Donegal’s league form has been patchy, of course, but the tool of comparison should be now compared to this time last year - when Donegal defeated Armagh to maintain their top-flight status on the final day of the season.
Comparative tools with last year’s championship can be reserved until the sun is higher overhead.
Another McGuinness springtime commonplace utterance is the need to unearth players who can make a championship impact and in Ross Wherity and Ryan McHugh in particular, there are two more possibilities. Marty O’Reilly was reintroduced against Mayo having been on the peripheries since the Tyrone Ulster semi-final last June having also suffered a hamstring injury and then being grounded with glandular fever.
“We’ve brought in a few young players and that will stand to them ahead of the summer, so they’re not going in to play their first competitive game in the championship,” McGlynn added of the new injection. “All those things help. Ross has fitted in well.
“Even with the U-21s beating Tyrone, that will stand to the likes of Marty and Ryan and Patrick McBrearty. Playing well in their own age group can only breed confidence and that will benefit the senior panel.”
The marketers might tell us to expect the unexpected in the Allianz League but the progress of Dublin under Gavin has seen a continuation in the form that has seen back-to-back U-21 All-Irelands.
But unlike McGuinness, who lost out to Gavin’s team in the 2010 U-21 All-Ireland final at Breffni Park, Dublin have chosen to hit the ground running - perhaps an expected course of action under a new manager.
“Dublin have been impressive,” McGlynn said. “They’ve used a lot of players and there seems to be a freshness coming from the U-21s and minors they’ve introduced to the panel under Jim Gavin. Their fitness levels look very high so we’ll know exactly where we’re at on Sunday.
“But we have a good enough record in Sean MacCumhaill Park and have got used to winning in Ballybofey. It’s a massive boost to have it there but Tyrone have started the year very well and it will be a huge challenge. Every year, the first round of the Ulster championship is always the target date. It’s something we are building to.”