'Don't make the same mistake we did', says Brian McEniff
Brian McEniff tells Martin Breheny that Ulster clash with Tyrone should be Donegal’s priority – not the league
STAY in Division 1, but don't allow anything to distract you from May 26 and the Ulster quarter-final clash with Tyrone – that's the advice to Jim McGuinness and his Donegal squad from the only man in the county with experience of previously plotting strategy for an All-Ireland title defence.
Brian McEniff's bid stalled at the Ulster final fence in 1993, but he believes the real damage may have been done earlier, which is why he is advising McGuinness and Co to be wary of how much they invest in the spring campaign.
McEniff led Donegal's 1992 All-Ireland winning heroes all the way to the Allianz League final in 1993, where they drew with Dublin before losing the replay.
"Getting to the league final was probably the worst thing that could have happened to us, especially when it ended level. We had an ageing team and we were going flat out into the second week in May in two very tough games with Dublin. Naturally, we wanted to win as much as we could at the time, but we'd probably have been better off to have been out of the league earlier," he said.
Donegal struggled to beat Antrim in the first round of the Ulster championship and while they eventually reached the final, their reign ended against Derry in a Clones downpour. By then, the long season had taken its toll as they were without several key performers through injury.
McEniff says there are significant differences between Donegal's All-Ireland winning squad of 1992 and 2012 – not least in age profile – but believes that the league experience of 20 years ago could still be relevant.
"Staying in Division 1 – as they did last year – is what the league is all about for Donegal. I wouldn't be at all concerned about whether or not they reach the knock-out stages and I'm sure Jim won't be either. It's all about May 26 and the Ulster championship game with Tyrone," said McEniff.
Nonetheless, Donegal will be under an intense spotlight over the coming weeks as the public analyse how the All-Ireland winning experience, complete with an exhausting celebration and promotion schedule, has impacted on the squad.
"He's taking on a lot, but he's a smart fella and there's no way Jim would have done it if he thought it would damage Donegal's chances in any way. He's a measured guy – he knows what he's at. I would have no worries on that score. He'll work it out alright," said McEniff.
However, if Donegal hit a losing streak in the League (they are away in four of seven games, including four of the first six), will questions be asked about McGuinness' dual mandate and whether he's spreading his talents too thinly?
"Look, you will always get people asking questions about everything, but, in the end, it's all about how Donegal do in the championship. It's going to be tough for them in the league because everyone will see them as a scalp.
"On top of that, Donegal wouldn't have as much work done as some of the others. Winning an All-Ireland is an exhausting experience, what with celebrations, bringing the cup around the county and beyond. It has to be done and it's right that it should, but it can leave lads a bit drained for what is a very busy few months.
"Now, it's a question of doing enough to stay in Division 1 while all the time getting right for the big clash with Tyrone on May 26. That's going to be a massive occasion for both counties.
Whoever loses has to head into the first round of the All-Ireland qualifiers and it's not where you want to be, especially if you're defending All-Ireland champions. Having said that, it's still a second chance. When we lost to Derry in the 1993 Ulster final, that was it – there was no way back," he said.
Ballybofey is the nominated venue for the clash with Tyrone, but capacity issues could cause it to be switched to Clones.
"That would a terrible shame from a Donegal point of view. We're All-Ireland champions, we're due a home game, so I sincerely hope it stays in Ballybofey," said McEniff.
First though, there are seven games to be played in what is the most competitive Division 1 grouping for a long time. It took a win over Armagh in the final game for Donegal to remain in Division 1 last year, but they were an altogether different proposition in the championship where they won all seven ties.
"Points will be hard to come by, but Donegal are All-Ireland champions which brings its own confidence so I'd be optimistic they will stay in Division 1. That's all they need from this league," said McEniff.