McGuinness puts faith in young guns to fire Donegal
Published 04/03/2014 | 02:30
THEY haven't gone away, you know.
Seven months after being written off on foot of a 16-point All-Ireland quarter-final drubbing by Mayo, Donegal look like they've put their annus horribilis behind them.
Treating the 2013 league like an irrelevancy was one of the criticisms of Jim McGuinness when his 2012 All-Ireland winners dramatically fell from heroes to zeros.
A post All-Ireland slump and a plethora of injuries certainly didn't help their cause.
But relegated in the league, foiled by Monaghan in their Ulster three-in-a-row bid, mortified by Mayo in Croker and then a major back-room reshuffle that included the departure of McGuinness' right-hand man Rory Gallagher, saw Donegal enter 2014 with 'one-hit wonders' accusations once again haunting them.
But three rounds into the National League they're unbeaten.
And while it's still early in the season and they're operating in Division 2, it was big rivals and previously unbeaten Monaghan that they defeated by a comfortable seven-point margin last Sunday.
They are still operating at less than full throttle, with Paddy McBrearty, Rory Kavanagh and Eamonn McGee only now settling back in and David Walsh and Paddy McGrath still to return.
But Donegal's form so far has indicated that McGuinness has resolved all their injury problems and got his side refocused for another assault on Ulster and the All-Ireland.
Already catching the eye is Odhran MacNiallais. A midfielder with Gaoth Dobhair, the 21-year-old was on the panel last year but only saw one half-hour of action, in their drawn final league game with Dublin in Ballybofey.
His older brother Ronan is a former senior panelist but the young Gweedore man has impressed already this season, playing all but eight minutes of Donegal's games since the new year.
His first league start yielded 1-1 against Laois and he top-scored with 1-3 last weekend, showing the sort of dynamism that Donegal's half-forward line is often reckoned to lack.
Even more newly minted is Darach O'Connor, a diminutive corner-forward who made his league debut off the bench last Sunday.
The 19-year-old Buncrana schoolboy, nicknamed 'Jigger', has been starring in the MacLarnon Cup (Ulster schools' 'B' championship) but is sitting his Leaving Cert this summer, which may curtail his involvement.
McGuinness has shown in the past that he is not afraid to give youth its fling, with Paddy McBrearty memorably playing Ulster minor and senior championship in one afternoon when he first burst on to the scene.
McGuinness has said Donegal's new faces "have given us a fresh impetus, which is good for the older players as well," but there are actually not that many of them.
Ryan McHugh, younger brother of Mark, broke into the team last year but is now commanding a starting spot at corner-back.
Martin McElhinney, who started only one of their 2012 championship series but came off the bench in all others, has impressed so far at midfield, and Dermot 'Brick' Molloy has also shown good form.
Leo McLoone's relocation to centre-back has been very effective. Karl Lacey has, noticeably, operated at corner-back so far and they've still got the best defensive record (1-31) in the top two divisions.
The return of one of Donegal's elder lemons – Christy Toye – is arguably also part of their renaissance. Toye's cameos repeatedly proved vital when they won the All-Ireland and the physicality he brings to their half-forward line is significant.
With victories over Laois, Galway and Monaghan, they already look a class apart in Division 2 and host Meath in Ballybofey next before a telling trip to Newry, but Donegal's form already indicates that the league will not be the summit of their 2014 ambitions.