Coming towards the conclusion of Jim McGuinness’s post-match thoughts on Wednesday night the lights went out at Séan MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey.
At that stage, nobody was overly bothered as everyone had gotten enough from the Donegal manager a few minutes after the lights had gone out on the aptly-sponsored NI Power Dr McKenna Cup campaign. McGuinness, though, was content enough too with how things panned out.
He had seen his side miss out on a semi-final place as a consequence of Monaghan’s superior scoring average making the Ulster champions the best runners-up. They will now enter an interesting last four tie against neighbours Cavan, potentially the province’s latest upstarts but a county that has pedigree as well, while Derry take on Tyrone.
Donegal, after losing 0-13 to 1-7 against Mickey Harte’s Tyrone in Letterkenny, finished their Section A fixtures with two wins - a 1-10 to 0-11 victory at the Athletic Grounds against Armagh on Sunday and then a 3-17 to 3-5 success over Queen’s University.
“If we had won the first game we would have been in the semi-finals, but we never looked at the competition like that at all,” McGuinness said in assessing the curtain-raising competition in Ulster.
“We just wanted to get a good performance under the belt, get the cobwebs blown out after a long pre-season and just get the ball rolling again.
“It has been very good for us. We went with a stronger team because we had a long lay-off on the back of the Championship. We’ve been trying to move with a bit of intent towards the League and we have got that out of the McKenna Cup, which has been good.
“We haven’t had all the players available, so we’ll focus now on the other players within our own setting. We’ll try now to fine tune the thing for the lead-in to the Laois game.
“We’ll focus now on our own group in terms of getting a look at everyone in in-house matches ahead of the National League. That’s the best way for us over the next few weeks.”
Donegal were relegated last season after two years in the Allianz League Division One so must potter now through Division Two. They open with a fixture against Laois - the same side who they played in each of their last two Division Two fixtures back in 2011.
At O’Moore Park in Portlaoise, McGuinness suffered his first league loss as a manager, 1-15 to 1-11, in the last regulation match of the 2011 series. That result meant that Laois joined Donegal in the final at Croke Park, in which a 2-11 to 0-16 scoreline brought the first silverware of the regime in the north-west.
The return to Portlaoise on February 2 is the focus of concentration for the Donegal panel. The scars inflicted by Mayo and Monaghan last summer were still evident in the depths of winter. The easiest way to eradicate them was to hit the ground running in the New Year. A bit like John Lennon once penned: ‘It’ll be just like starting over.’
“We’re progressing steadily,” McGuinness continued. “We have still got Paddy McGrath, Mark McHugh, Patrick McBrearty and a couple of others to come back, but hopefully it won’t be too long before we see them again.
“McGrath is close; one for the medics; McBrearty is progressing really well. It’s day-by-day and week-by-week, but they’re moving in the right direction to get back. They will need to be integrated into training before their game time levels increase.
“They’re coming back into the fray and, while they mightn’t be at full tilt, they’re heading in the right way. Hugh McFadden doing exams today but he is still injured. It’ll be another wee while before we get him integrated in training and he’ll have to push himself on when he does get in. Injury isn’t serious. Paddy and Patrick will be longer.
“Karl Lacey had tightness in hamstring and didn’t want to take a chance be okay in a couple of days again. It was a good work out for everyone. Games like that are a lot better than a training session. We’ll do in-house matches now.”
Ryan Rafferty’s three goals means the Armagh student joins Cillian O’Connor from Mayo in having the unique distinction of grabbing hat-tricks against McGuinness-managed Donegal teams.
“It isn’t like us,” McGuinness said in regardless the three concessions. “It was a funny one. They had three goals and no points for a while. It doesn’t happen very often to us. We’ll look at it in the video to see where that came from.”
The importance of Donegal’s talismen in the full-forward line has been evident in January. Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy scored 1-4 and 1-6 respectively against Queen’s, meaning their cumulative totals for 2014 are already 2-7 and 2-14, or 4-21 of Donegal’s 5-34.
Another noteworthy plus was the return of Christy Toye, who had been out of action since the 2012 All-Ireland fine win over Mayo. The St Michael’s clubman, who is still only 30, missed the entire year last year with a persistent virus but showed up well against Queen’s as a second half substitute.
“He played very well when he came on and gave some very good passes inside. He found Michael and Colm very well,” McGuinness said. “You always have a fear that niggles can come into it, but he’s done very well and has been showing very well in training in terms of his aerobic capacity. It was very good for Christy on a personal level. It’s been a very difficult road for him.”