In the accompanying panel, Donegal stick out like a sore thumb.
But then, says you, they always have been unique under Jim McGuinness.
Starting just 16 players across five Division 2 games, they top their table but couldn’t be more removed from Division 1 table-toppers Cork, who have given 11 more players starting berths.
What McGuinness is showing is there is more than one way to skin a cat. For three games, the same team lined out before Eamon McGee replaced Karl Lacey against Meath and Lacey returned for Ryan McHugh in the defeat to Down last Sunday week.
The manager’s contempt for the league has disappeared, fielding teams he knows and trusts to pick up results.
Eleven of his 2012 All-Ireland-winning team feature in the 16, with Leo McLoone recast as a centre-back. Christy Toye and Dermot Molloy, who came off the bench that day against Mayo, are there too.
Although Ryan Bradley has emigrated, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that come May 25 against Derry in Celtic Park, McGuinness could field 14 of the side that beat Mayo 18 months ago.
Donegal’s small pool was injury-ravaged last year but the only first team players currently being coaxed to full fitness are Neil Gallagher, Paddy McBrearty and Paddy McGrath.
Should McGuinness succeed this year with a team predominantly of two years ago, he will certainly turn evolution on its head.
Outside of Odhran MacNiallais coming in for Ross Wherity who has emigrated, there is little development personnel-wise from last season.
It’s a team that appears as hard to get out of as into. Of course, there is room for the exceptional youngster to join the fray at some stage of the game. Eighteen-year-old Darach O’Connor is just that, a prodigious talent, but McGuinness’s use of him for the last 11 minutes of the loss in Down last Sunday week caused furore when the Buncrana teenager picked up a hamstring injury playing for his school the following day and missed the U21s’ win over Fermanagh two days later.
McGuinness’s former selector and current U21 manager Maxi Curran, who had alongside him ex-senior assistant boss Rory Gallagher, aimed some thinly-veiled criticism at McGuinness. “The loss of Darach was very, very disappointing in what we feel are very unnecessary circumstances. For this campaign, we have had Darach for 40 minutes of two matches and one training session since last July. His history of injury always cause us a concern. Having to be in a situation of playing three matches in four days was always a situation fraught with danger.”
The fallout from the management break-up might be a bigger factor if so much didn’t point towards McGuinness stepping down at the end of the season. Rebuilding a team next season would seem too onerous a task as he juggles a job in Scotland and family.
Donegal chairman Sean Dunnion spoke earlier this year of how Michael Murphy was successful in persuading a number of players to delay their inter-county retirements until the end of this year. But what will remain when they and McGuinness leave? What legacy will there be? The argument that it’s a 20-man game — actually 21 now, because of the extra substitution — might be a strong one, but will the development of those coming on for cameos in the Donegal panel be stunted by such little game-time? McGuinness gives deeper meaning to the phraseno time like the present, and that realisation hasn’t been lost on the clubs who redoubled their decision to postpone their championship until the county exit the All-Ireland SFC.
It was more than McGuinness had asked for but there’s a clear recognition the road must be paved for Donegal to win a second All-Ireland in three years. The risk of picking up injuries in full-pelt club games has been removed. After a 2013 season when Dublin illustrated football has truly become a squad game, Donegal are attempting to reinvent the wheel. So much is expected of so few but then it’s only for one season. After that, what for Donegal?
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