Donegal will want to leave nothing to chance as they open their Ulster championship defence at Cavan’s Kingspan Breffni Park on Sunday.
Jim McGuinness likes to talk about the factors that are variable and definitive. Things like weather, refereeing decisions and injuries are uncontrollable, while building a sturdy level of fitness, knowledge of the opponent and astute tactics can strengthen the preparations.
McGuinness was a scraggly-haired teen when Donegal won their solitary All-Ireland back in 1992, watching on from the substitutes’ bench already investing in his bank of knowledge on football. That team were one of the smallest ever - in stature at least - to win Sam Maguire and as Donegal head to Cavan they may possibly start without four of their biggest players.
Michael Murphy is still only in recovery mode following lateral knee ligament damage picked up against Dublin, while Christy Toye was allowed to dip his toe in the water in regard his troublesome Achilles in a club game last weekend.
Neil Gallagher, who has the best chance of the quartet, has been struggling with a similar complaint and Eamon McGee’s hamstring puts a grey cloud over his hopes.
All winter those who get paid to express their opinion - and many more who don’t - have been lambasting McGuinness’s ultra-defensiveness in the ultimately unsuccessful tilt to make the All-Ireland final at a free-scoring Dublin’s expense.
Unconventional Donegal came within a whisker of pulling off a masterstroke, so perhaps the only appropriate criticism was the unwillingness to abandon ship when water began spilling onto deck.
McGuinness has long since maintained his tactics are concocted to cement the talents of his own team, as well as being the most appropriate to out-think the opposition.
So those who constantly bemoan the blanket defence, or the Donegal duvet as it was quirkily known, show signs of perpetual ignorance.
For an enterprising young manager in his first season of senior inter-county football, who had to pick many of his players off the canvas on appointment, there was a streak of innovation. But while other sports in this era of rapid change seek to evolve, in Gaelic games there’s an old school mentality.
“We’d have been lauded had we won,” he believes. “It is nothing new in soccer, but was the first time it was seen in Gaelic football so it ruffled feathers. The reality is every game in the world is evolving.”
The week before that game, McGuinness relayed a story about the 2010 U-21 side he had taken to the All-Ireland final, losing to Dublin by a lick of Cavan paint as Murphy’s last minute penalty smashed the crossbar. That group left Cavan with tears in their eyes, but, having given their last drop, had nothing to be ashamed of.
In regards his own playing days, McGuinness insists there were regrets and those mistakes are not something he wants to repeat. “We thought we were ready and thought we were prepared back then,” he adds. “We weren’t.”
And against Dublin last summer, his players too, had given their all. Eamon McGee was a late call-up that claustrophic afternoon.
“I remember the Armagh team of 2002,” he says. “They always speak, even now, about how they left at least one more All-Ireland behind them. Even after all their Ulster success, that still grates them. It’s proof you don’t want to be looking back and having regrets.”
Donegal’s league form this season, albeit at a higher grade, was not as impressive as last. In Killarney and Croke Park there was a looser feel as experimentation superseded winning silverware. Survival was the overall objective.
“We didn’t start too well,” says Karl Lacey. “We had targeted the first two games (against Down in Newry and Laois in Letterkenny) and wanted four points. We had nothing though, but sometimes you learn more about yourself when you are losing than winning. Last year was great and everyone enjoyed it, but this is new now and we’ve been trying to improve.”
Reigning champions Donegal, minus some important players lining out against an energetic young Cavan side under a new manager on their new patch certainly carries upset potential.
Cavan’s history ranks head and shoulders above anyone else in the province and even though the numbers who saw those successes unfold first hand are dwindling, there remains a lofty expectancy level.
Successive U-21 provincial triumphs and last year’s minor win in Ulster means, finally, there is something to cling to. Six players from the U-21’s have been fast-tracked.
Player-power was the reason attributed to Val Andrews’ departure as Terry Hyland stepped in.
Cavan’s fortunes revolve around a fine centre-field pairing of David Giveny and Gearoid McKiernan, but as the latter hobbled off with ankle ligament damage against Offaly in Division Three, their fortunes nose-dived.
Survival was only achieved as Offaly failed to pick up a result against an already doomed Tipperary. McKiernan, by hook or by crook, is expected to start on Sunday, perhaps at full-forward. The hopes of a county pinned on his young shoulders.
“We all know what Donegal will bring with them,” Hyland says. “They’ll bring a bunch of very talented footballers who won an Ulster Championship last year and were probably very lucky not to get to an All-Ireland final. I presume they have evolved. Like everything else in football, you have to keep evolving and tweaking it.”
Tweaking it is something McGuinness is always at. And since maintaining their place in Division One, Donegal’s focus since has been on the one thing that really matters - Cavan and the championship.
“That criteria is based on Cavan, nothing else,” he says. “There is a job to be done and we know what the job is. We know what we’re working on and what direction we want to head in with the team.
“That’s ongoing and the Cavan game is our first day out so we can’t expect it to be perfect. We’re hoping that our attitude will be perfect to try to make it happen.
“We know we’re not the finished article, but we’re working hard to head in that direction. They did make good strides last year. It would be so disappointing if we fell at the first hurdle. We’re trying to do everything in our power to get over it.”