Donegal open their Ulster Championship campaign in Celtic Park, Derry on Sunday and for many Tir Chonaill supporters, it is a trip that will be made with trepidation.
This time last year Donegal were laying their plans for the first leg of their Ulster championship defence against Tyrone and proceeded to blow the Red Hands men away in MacCumhaill Park.
Twelve months on, the scenario is different; this time there are factors which would suggest that they travel to Celtic Park with question marks hanging over them.
There are question marks also about the opposition that Donegal will play on Sunday. Derry have disappointed in recent years in the championship, but the arrival of Brian McIver as manager has seen a sea change in their fortunes. They were probably the fittest team during the National League campaign but more than that, McIver has instilled discipline and organisation which were probably missing for much of the recent past period in Derry’s GAA history.
The Bradleys, Paddy and Eoin, are no longer involved, but their absence hasn’t been noticed. How will that work out when the championship starts? That is one of the question marks over the new-look Derry.
For Jim McGuinness and Donegal, it is more about getting the freshness back. When the Naomh Conaill man took over Donegal at the end of 2010, Donegal were down on their luck, but he transformed them.
That transformation is not dissimilar to what Brian McIver has done with Derry. Discipline, organisation and team spirit were the platforms on which an All-Ireland success in 2012 was built for Donegal. Indeed McIver can claim some credit for that Donegal success as he was in the process of getting Donegal back on track during his period in the county from 2006-2008. Just ask any of the present Donegal panel and they have nothing but good words for McIver.
The question marks over Donegal relate to the team that they will be able to put on the field on Sunday next. They are without Mark McHugh (taking time out); Rory Kavanagh (suspended) and there are huge doubts over the participation of Neil Gallagher.
Gallagher has an ankle problem and even if he is able to make a contribution, there is a huge worry that he could do the ankle further damage or even at best, his fitness may not be enough to last the full 70+ minutes.
However, with Derry having one of the strongest midfield partnerships in the country at the moment in the returned Fergal Doherty and Patsy Bradley, the health of Big Neil is vital to Donegal’s chances. Fergal Doherty’s return when Brian McIver became manager is probably not a coincidence. Doherty is now the heartbeat of the Derry side and one of McIver’s leaders.
Who will line out at midfield for Donegal? Could Michael Murphy be moved to play a pivotal role there?
These are the questions that are being posed by supporters, but no doubt there will be a few surprises when the teams line up for the throw-in at Celtic Park at 2 p.m. on Sunday next.
In his time in Donegal Brian McIver was never a man to give away any trade secrets and he should know much about the Donegal players and their style of play. Will that be a factor on Sunday next?
Jim McGuinness had his squad away for the weekend and no doubt the plans have been hatched. Can he get the freshness and dynamism that was there in 2011 and 2012 back in the panel. It was that willingness to work for each other and leave everything on the field as a team which made them so successful.
Last year we could see that they were struggling to reproduce the form of the All-Ireland winning year. For some of the squad there may not be too many more chances of Ulster success. All of them want to go through the front door to an Ulster semi-final on 22nd June.
That’s a good enough reason to avoid a trip down the Qualifier route beginning a day earlier on Saturday, 21st June.