Good times and bad have seen voters in the county continually act against the national trends. Away from the polling stations, Donegal embraced their Ulster and All-Ireland triumphs of 2012. It brought much-needed joy to the county and also plenty of attention, treated with an element of suspicion in some quarters.
When Donegal failed to retain those titles the theory bandied about was that it was due to a lack of hunger. Although Down, in last year’s Ulster semi-final, were the first team to really find a chink in the Donegal armour, it was Malachy O’Rourke’s Monaghan who floored them, winning handsomely, 0-13 to 0-7, in the provincial final.
It was the loudest cheer heard at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones in quarter of a century. Donegal, with barely a pulse to be felt, were then obliterated by Mayo, 4-19 to 1-10, in an August Bank Holiday massacre at Croke Park.
“Last year, we were managing a situation and not a team,” manager Jim McGuinness said on Charlie Collins’ Talking Sport podcast .
“We trained 66 times between January and June, which was massively down in the previous two years. We’d a limited amount of training because we came back late from the holiday and because the club championship went ahead during the Ulster championship. We would train Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, so we lost 16 sessions. On top of that, we were haemorrhaging injuries. We never really got off the ground at all last year.”
McGuinness, aided by their new backroom team of Paul McGonigle, Damien Diver and John Duffy soon oversaw an earlier pre-season in dimly-lit Castlefin or the windswept Dunfanaghy.
Away off in the overlooked north-west, it was a fair distance from Croke Park — even more so metaphorically.
For some, Donegal’s intense approach to 2014 is considered as a final throw of the dice from McGuinness, who sought a four-year term when initially appointed in July 2010. However, McGuinness has never said the conclusion of year four necessarily means the end for him. Now, though, the focus is on the panel and not the manager.
“We’ve taken a different approach this year,” he explains. “A lot of the lads were out through injuries for a long time so we’ve been trying to take care of them. It’s about trying to bring them steadily forward and not have any setbacks. We feel we are at a decent level now.”
Division Two in February isn’t a place where too many juries sit to make their evaluations. Donegal, though, have been plotting along well, winning 2-19 to 1-9 in Laois and then 1-16 to 0-12 against Galway in Salthill.
Aside the results, even at this embryonic time of year, there’s little signs of 2012 — hustling and breaking — back in Donegal’s play.
If there was one team, historically and presently, who have never stood in any sort of trepidation of Donegal, then it’s Monaghan. Last year’s Ulster final — as big a shock as it was at the time to many — was not the exception, it was the rule. Only a battle-hardened Tyrone’s more advanced stage of cuteness denied Monaghan a place in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. This season, O’Rourke’s team continue to evolve and their 0-20 to 0-6 waltz past Monaghan three weeks ago show just how much they have improved. Before that, Monaghan shared the spoils in a 0-14 to 1-11 draw in Newry. Tomorrow afternoon, Donegal welcome the Ulster champions to Letterkenny. For the first weekend in March it will provide an interesting appraisal of just where McGuinness and O’Rourke have their teams at. Don’t forget to tune in.
DONEGAL: P Durcan; K Lacey, N McGee, R McHugh; F McGlynn, A Thompson; R Kavanagh, M McElhinney; M McHugh, C Toye, O MacNiallais; C McFadden, M Murphy, D Molloy.
Subs: M Boyle, D O’Connor, D Walsh, E McGee, G McFadden, H McFadden, L Thompson, L Keaney, M O’Reilly, N Gallagher, P McBrearty.
MONAGHAN: R Beggan; R Wylie, D Wylie, F Kelly; C Walshe, K Duffy, C Boyle; G Doogan, P Finlay; T Kerr, C McGuinness, P Keenan; D Malone, J McCarron, C McManus.