Two-time All-Star Karl Lacey has credited Jim McGuinness’s sheer thoroughness for Donegal’s improving fortunes as they prepare for their biggest test of the year to date against Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final this Sunday.
The Four Masters defender was a guest of Newstalk’s Off the Ball programme on Monday night at Dom’s Pier One in Donegal Town and although understandably unwilling to divulge too much as to McGuinness’s policies so close to the game, spoke about the bond that now exists in the Donegal panel.
“Jim came in and has brought a whole new level of professionalism into the team,” Lacey said. He’s put together a group of players who are willing to work really hard and are really committed.
“Jim has pointed out he will work us hard and will do whatever it takes. We are working hard for each other. He has huge belief in us and we have huge belief in him. We definitely believe he is the right man to bring some success back to the county.”
Donegal have found plenty of critics of their way of playing, primarily because the Antrim game was the only live transmission, or, as McGuinness put it himself “the only show in town” on the weekend the championship opened.
“I think it’s unfair,” Lacey said of the way the nit-pickers dissected Donegal’s performance in the 1-10 to 0-7 win. “We put in a great league there and we played some of the best teams in the country. We won in Tyrone and we went into Celtic Park and beat Derry off the field and went down to Meath and won and played Kildare and put up some very high scores.
“I know there was a lot of pressure on us and we were the first game of the championship against Antrim there. The whole country was watching us and it wasn’t great to watch but it’s all about winning and if we get to an Ulster final or beat Tyrone on Sunday that game is going to be forgotten about.”
Lacey’s point is that there were few eyes on Donegal when they plotted their way to promotion and in a way, the constant bemoaning of the defensive strategies shows grains of ignorance. Their four wins in the initial seven-game series came in against Meath in Navan, Tyrone in Omagh and at nearby Derry, as well as defeating Antrim in Ballyshannon.
Donegal scored 4-61 in total in that quartet of fixtures, an average of over 1-15 a match. In the championship, against a weak Antrim team and a young Cavan one, McGuinness’s side have notched 3-24, while at the other end Lacey and his defensive partners have conceded only nine points from play and a penalty rebound.
“Jim’s just got us working a lot harder than we were previously,” Lacey added. “I don’t want to be giving away any systems or anything like that coming up to the game but we’re just out there and every man is wanting to do his best and so far it’s working for us.”
While Lacey was receiving his man-of-the-match award from BBC at the mouth of the Breffni Park tunnel the weekend before last, with a slight headache after Eugene Keating’s neck-high challenge, McGuinness stood no more than five yards away making a few points of his own.
The Donegal manager was unhappy with the treatment his side obtained after their opening win over Antrim, particularly from The Sunday Game’s panel, who implied Ryan Bradley’s man-of-the-match was scantly deserved, despite the Buncrana player being picked for the award by the RTE team that did the live transmission.
Lacey explained the situation, with his loyalty to teammate and manager particularly evident, showing the bond that exists in the current Donegal panel.
“Straight after the Antrim game we met up in the Clanree Hotel to do our pool session, our recovery session,” he said. “Jim wasn’t very happy with what happened that night on The Sunday Game. Ryan Bradley was as proud as punch at receiving the man-of-the-match trophy. Ryan’s gone through a couple of hard years there at county level. He didn’t make it for a few years there and he has come back and is playing really well and is training very hard this year.
“He has no life outside of football. He’s training 24/7. He’s in the gym in the mornings and training hard at the weekends. The likes of Pat Spillane don’t see the other side of the coin. It was embarrassing for Ryan the way they treated him on the programme. I think that’s where Jim was coming from. To say that he got man-of-the-match and then for Pat Spillane to say there was no man-of-the-match was a wee bit harsh and that’s all there was to it really.”
Whatever about looking back, Donegal plot to overturn a Tyrone team against whom they have a surprisingly good record. Defeat for Donegal will be a setback of course, but if Lacey is anything to go by there is an understandable quiet optimism. The real test, though, starts now.
“It’s great to get the back-to-back victories but in all due respect to Antrim and Cavan, how good were they?” he added. We know it’s going to be a good test on Sunday and we know Tyrone mean business this year. They’ve got that look at them and with all the tragedy in the last year or so they’ve got the push on for Mickey Harte.
“These boys have three All-Ireland medals in their pockets and we have a lot of young boys playing in Clones for the first time. It’ll be interesting to see how far we have come. Whatever happens, happens. If we win we can look forward to an Ulster final and if we lose we will have a look at it and reassess.”