The return to full training of Colm McFadden and Eamon McGee will be a boost to Donegal’s longer term aspirations this season but neither are likely to play in Letterkenny in the NFL Division One on Sunday against Laois (throw-in 2.30pm).
In terms of result at least, last weekend’s opener for Donegal in Newry against Down was disappointing.
Conor Lavery’s point four minutes from time was enough for James McCartan’s side to open their campaign with a 1-10 to 1-9 win at a chilly Pairc Esler but McGuinness was content to draw the positives from a match in which his side really ought to have gone home with something.
However, minus the presence of the talismanic forward pairing of captain Michael Murphy and McFadden, his team were at an obvious disadvantage offensively and an indifferent start when Down scored a goal and three points made the task a loftier one.
McFadden has yet to play for the county this calendar year with a bulging disc in his back but was able to take part in Tuesday night’s session in Castlefin.
However, the corner-forward will need the best part of a month to get up to the required fitness level so Laois is out, while the next game against Cork in Ballybofey on Sunday, March 4, might also be. McGee had a groin injury last weekend and although he too showed little ill-effects at training, the Gaoth Dobhair defender will be assessed later in the week.
“It’s a case of waiting and seeing over the next few weeks to see how things develop,” McGuinness said. “We’ll just have to see. Colm did pretty much the whole session on Tuesday night but he has a lot a work to do - possibly a month - to get up to the level required. We’re hopeful for him and we hope he avoids a set-back.
“Eamon trained on Tuesday night for the first time in two or three weeks and he did reasonably well, although I don’t know if he would be in the frame for this weekend. I’ll talk to Colm and him to see how they respond, having come through the session.”
Captain Murphy underwent a groin operation last month and, like McFadden, faces a race against time to be fit for the early March fixtures. McGuinness, who has made little secret of the fact the championship - where Donegal open against Cavan in Breffni Park on May 20 in the preliminary round - is his be all and end all. “With Michael, at the minute it looks like he mightn’t be ready for Cork but if it’s the game after that, then it’s the game after that,” McGuinness said. “Whenever he’s right he will be right so we have to be careful. It’s 14 weeks this Sunday until we are out in the championship and Michael and Colm are vital players for us.”
Martin McElhinney’s eventful start to the New Year continued against Down when the St Michael’s clubman came from the bench to score a second half goal for Donegal only to pick up a knock on the ankle, which means another couple of weeks out.
“Martin went over on his ankle again and it’s frustrating for him,” McGuinness added. “He made a good impact on the game when he was introduced, notwithstanding the goal, as he’s very direct and can give you good pace through the middle.”
Christy Toye, who has tendonitis in his shoulder, took part in the non-contact parts of training in Castlefin, as occasionally did Eoin Waide, who has a broken thumb.
“Christy’s shoulder is still at him a little bit but saying that he did all the ball work and the running so it’s hard to know, while Eoin did the fitness work.”
One of the less pleasing aspects of Donegal’s performance against Down was slopiness in possession, a trait which can be forgiven in the first week in February.
But on a night when a single kick of the ball differentiated between two other reasonably matched sides, it was a huge factor in winning or losing.
“The key thing for us going into this weekend’s game is the reduction in the unforced errors,” McGuinness said. “That won’t make us the finished article by any manner of means but it will leave us in a better position by the end of the game.
“Last week was a game of high intensity and our boys dug in pretty well. I was very happy with that. Having gone five points (1-3 to 0-1) down early they kept their composure and working hard.
“If we were a little bit more clinical then maybe we could’ve maybe got the win or even a point. If we can get the boys who are out coming back for the middle of even the tail-end of the league we can look at it with a bit of optimism. When your resources are stretched so too is your bench and the impact of it.
“The injured players generally take three to four weeks to get up to speed again and then there’s nine or 10 weeks to look forward to championship. Hopefully we’ll get the full compliment on the pitch the closer we get to the Cavan game.”
Laois, who are managed by Justin McNulty, won the O’Byrne Shield in Leinster already this season but were defeated 1-11 to 0-8 against Mayo in Portlaoise last Saturday in their league opener.
But researching that particular encounter will provide McGuinness with enough evidence to suggest Sunday’s game might, like last year’s two meetings, be a close run thing.
For spells in the first half against Mayo, Laois didn’t look like the relegation candidates many expect them to be. With the wind at their backs and veteran centre-fielder Padraig Clancy playing at full-forward, they rained long balls down on the Mayo full-back line and earned some reward, but ultimately not enough.
“The team didn’t do themselves justice in terms of the performance,” McNulty said afterwards. “It was a fair enough result. Mayo were deserving winners and we have to go back to the drawing board to a certain extent to see how we produce a better display than we did today. The lads didn’t go out to try and play as badly as the team did, but it’s something we have to rectify.”
Niall Donoher is the only major absentee after the Courtwood clubman aggravated an existing knee injury against Carlow in the O’Byrne Cup earlier this year, and he is set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
“The good thing about the Laois game being so close is two games in little over a week is great for bringing you up to game speed,” McGuinness said, looking ahead to Letterkenny.
“They are a different team now from last year you now have Clancy at full-forward, which shows they are looking for a different dimension. They’ve also brought in a few at the back so it’s big challenge. Laois are a team whose physique impressed us last year but in Division One, these are the types of tests we want.”