Defender says championship focus kicked in after bright start
Donegal got too comfortable too quickly in this year's league to precipitate a five-match losing streak which they take to Ballybofey for an Ulster quarter-final with Fermanagh, according to long-serving defender Karl Lacey.
Lacey insists that after securing three wins in the opening three rounds the focus switched quickly to championship matters.
"The focus going into the league was just to retain Division 1 status and Rory (Gallagher) hasn't been shy about saying that," said Lacey.
"We got off to a great start, three wins, and then I think one eye started to go on the Ulster Championship and we got into that comfort state where we took the foot off the pedal a wee bit.
"I'm not saying we didn't want to win the games, I just think we started to maybe up the level in training in the week leading into a game and we started talking about Antrim and Fermanagh," he said.
"And then as it fell we got into a league semi-final and I think on that day there was a gap was between the level of performance of Dublin and ourselves.
"They were a lot fitter, a lot stronger, and a lot faster than us. And it's up to us now over the course of the Ulster Championship and hopefully in the All-Ireland series to close that gap over the next two to three months."
Lacey admits he never had any hesitation in coming back to inter-county football after last year's defeat to Mayo in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
"Retirement never crossed my mind. It was hard to take last year, the defeat against Mayo, but you never make any rash decisions right away.
"You might take a week or so to think about it, but it never crossed my mind to step aside. You wouldn't be doing it otherwise if you didn't feel we could get up to the highest level again.
"The signs are there. Even last year, we put in a couple of big performances. Up in Armagh, it wasn't an easy place to go and we put in a big performance.
"Those signs when you do play well, there's no reason why you can't go out and do it on a bigger stage again. We feel our training levels are very high.
"There's great intensity there, great quality of players there. Going through and winning Ulster titles and knowing that feeling of winning, it's very hard to step away knowing there's a possibility it could happen again, which we all believe."
Against expectation, no Donegal player retired (Paul Durcan moved overseas), while Rory Kavanagh came out of retirement.
Inevitably question marks over their staying power are raised in almost every conversation about them.
"We don't take it to heart too much," he said. "As a player your focus is on yourself.
"I don't think lads read into it too much. We know ourselves at training every night that we're at the level. We'd like to think that we're at the level every other team is training at.
"A lot of the younger lads in as well are pushing every single player hard. Having that is massive.
"If you didn't have any young lads coming through then you might be thinking different. But having the likes of Odhran MacNiallais, Ryan McHugh, we've young Ciaran Gillespie in this year, Micheál Carroll, all these guys coming through is pushing you."
With knee and hip injuries catching him towards the latter end of his career, Lacey admits he has to tailor his training and sat out the early rounds of the league as he undertook a different programme.
"The older you get, the harder it is but those young lads are pushing you hard in training every night. If you can keep up with them, then you feel you're in good enough shape.
"Obviously I take the volume of training down," said Lacey, now a part-time lecturer in Blanchardstown IT who also works with Letterkenny IT.
"You might be a bit sore after a club game on a Sunday and might sit out the Tuesday. Whereas, if you're 22 or 23, a warm-up will loosen you out.
"The older you get, it takes more than a warm-up. You might just have to sit out a session or you might do something else at the side of the pitch."
Fermanagh have been a bogey team for Donegal in the past with back-to-back wins in 2003 and 2004 Ulster Championship and qualifier games that featured some of the current Donegal squad.
"I suppose that's a good thing about having the older lads about. The likes of Colm McFadden, big Neil (Gallagher) and Eamon McGee, we have experienced defeats to Fermanagh.
"Having that experience, being able to talk and share them experiences with the younger lads is very important.
"I think it's vital having the older lads about this year, whether the legs are gone or not, just to have that experience and share it."