Donegal return to top flight league football this Saturday night when they face Down in Pairc Esler, Newry. (Throw in 7 pm)
The game is the first of Donegal’s seven games in Division One of the Allianz National League following promotion from Division Two of the league last season. It is the first of Donegal’s three away games for Jim McGuinness and his charges; the other two away ties are Kerry.
“We are back up in the top flight again after a couple of years in Division Two and we are looking forward to playing against the top teams in the country once again,” said Donegal boss McGuinness.
“Our goals and targets are very similar really to last year. We will once again take it a game at a time and hope to blood a few new players and bring them through for the championship.
“We felt that plan worked well for us last year and we will also be hoping to pick up enough points to stay in Division One and if we can make it through to the semi-final it will be a bonus. But the main objective is to unearth one or two players that will be able to step up to championship football.”
The manager also hopes to build on last year’s success and to develop and improve on the system that served them so well in 2011 in both the league and championship.
“Last year went very well for us but we will be working in developing on that system over the next few months in the league and we will be working on developing our forward play. We will also be hoping to improving on our scoring rate and keeping the scoreboard ticking over on a more regular basis and eradicate long lapses in scoring.”
Donegal have four home games - Laois in O’Donnell Park, Cork in Ballybofey, Mayo in Ballyshannon and Armagh in Ballybofey. And while the manager accepts it is a help to have four games at home, he hastens to add that there are no easy games be they home or away.
“It is a very competitive division with all quality teams and there is no such a thing as an easy game or easy points whether you are at home or away.
“We play Down on Saturday night; they were in the All- Ireland final two years ago and had a bad run last year. But they are still a good side, they have had a good pre-season and they have made no secret of the fact that their number one goal this year is to win Ulster.
“Then the following weekend we have Laois, who beat us last year and that is followed by Cork, the reigning league champions and All-Ireland champions from two years ago and we also have Kerry, All-Ireland champions Dublin, Mayo and Armagh, all quality teams.
“There is no situation where you can say this is an easy game and we should pick up handy points. They are all tough games whether they are home or away.
Donegal play Down and Laois over successive weekends before the league breaks for three weeks and resumes in March with three games in a row - Cork (home), Kerry (away), Mayo (home), Dubln (away) before rounding off the league with Armagh (home) on Easter Sunday.
And with Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden sidelined through injury for the opening three games and a number of others carrying knocks, McGuinness hopes to have a stronger squad available to him for the second half of the league.
“March is a hectic month and we will hope by the time it comes around that Michael (Murphy) and Colm (McFadden) will have fully recovered and all other knocks and injuries have cleared up. Michael and Colm are definitely out for the first three games but I would be fairly hopeful of having them for the second half of the league.
Donegal go into Saturday night’s game on the back of a three Dr. McKenna Cup defeats and, as well documented ,a less than satisfactory pre-season, while Down have two wins, one draw and one defeat of their outings in the Dr. McKenna Cup.
But like Jim McGuinness, the Mourne boss James McCartin, is planning this week without a number of key first choice players. Midfielder Kalum King is serving a suspension; centre back Kevin McKernan (on a break), while Paul Cumiskey, Damien Rafferty, Brendan McArdle, Gerard McCartan, Conor Garvey and Declan Rooney are all injured. Star forward Martin Clarke has returned to Australia to play Australian Rules with Collingwood.
“I know Down are without a few players but they have, by all accounts, put in a lot of work pre-season and are going to take the league pretty serious. They also have Ambrose Rogers back and have been playing Dan Gordon at wing forward and they seem to have found a new midfielder in Aaron Goff. He is 6’5’’ and has been very effective and played well in the McKenna Cup.
“It is a big game for both teams and if we can come away from Newry with a positive result, which we are aiming for, it will be a great start to the campaign and the season for us.”