Year three of Jim McGuinness’s tenure as Donegal manager got underway on Wednesday night in Enniskillen and although the ultimate goal has already been achieved, the objectives remain the same.
McGuinness was sporting the suntan from his end of the season break in Dubai with his All-Ireland winning panel, a trip they had returned from just a day beforehand.
But as he stood in the middle of the Brewster Park pitch at the conclusion of the first outing of the season – a 2-15 to 2-7 loss against Fermanagh in the NI Power Dr McKenna Cup - his message was the exact same as it had been a year beforehand at O’Donnell Park on opening day and 12 months beforehand at Sean McCumhaill Park.
“We’ll look at the league and our aim is to get as many points to keep us in Division One first of all and then we’ll see where it takes us,” he said as he fought the shiver in the air with steam coming from his breath as the temperate dipped below freezing.
“But the focus is May 26th and the championship. It was the same last year and the same the year before and it’ll be the same this year. There’s no bigger game in Ulster than Donegal against Tyrone in the first round and everything is geared towards that right now.”
Brewster Park on the first night of the Dr McKenna Cup as the fog clung from the floodlights seemed a million miles from an Ulster championship opener against Tyrone in summer’s height but it’s all part of the journey.
McGuinness and his assistant Rory Gallagher had seen Donegal lose by eight points to their hosts Fermanagh on a night when Maxi Curran, the county U-21 manager, was calling the shots.
Only Dermot Molloy, a half-time substitute, had tasted even so much as a minute against Croke Park in September. It was a night when analysis could be conducted on the surface and no deeper. Nobody played themselves into McGuinness’s plans, just like nobody played themselves out.
“It’s just a case of looking at the players around the county that didn’t get their nose in during the last 24 months and trying to find a player we can add to the squad,” McGuinness said of the inexperienced side that wore the jersey.
“We’re always looking for a player or two. Kevin Rafferty has retired now and Peter Witherow is going to Australia, so there are a couple of gaps there that can be filled. It’ll be all experimental from here. January is always a disjointed time of year for us. Some counties approach it differently. They put out strong teams before the National League but circumstances with us are different. We need to train as a group.
“We’re happy with the squad we have and it’s a young squad. We know what we’re about at this stage but we’re always on the lookout for someone who can add a bit of value, or even someone who can add a bit of value with their intensity at training for further down the line. If they have a good attitude they might be of use to us further down the line.”
Donegal begin the league with a first meeting with Kildare since the epic All-Ireland quarter-final between the sides 18 months ago. By then, McGuinness’s teamsheet with contain more familiar names, although one marquee name will certainly be missing.
“Most of it if not all of it,” McGuinness said when asked if Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey would be absent for the Division One opener. “It’s disappointing but he’s had an operation that went well and he’s back walking and will be jogging on it in a couple of weeks. Then it’s a case of just building it up.
“We were lucky enough last year we didn’t have any major injuries. Christy has a virus that he’s struggling to shake off and we don’t know how long that will keep him out. David Walsh has ligament bother in his shoulder and Neil Gallagher and Mark McHugh are also nursing injuries.
“We have very little done. We weren’t allowed to train before we went away and then we were away for a 10-day holiday so for ourselves, between now and the Kildare match, it’s very important we get into our own training for the next three weeks. It’s great to be home and great to get going again.”