McGuinness reliance on core Donegal group at odds with top rivals
Published 14/03/2014 | 02:30
Within minutes of Paul Mannion's equalising kick for Dublin in Ballybofey last April that condemned Donegal to a season in Division 2, Jim McGuinness was drawing a host of positives out of the obvious negatives that comes with being relegated.
Donegal, McGuinness said, didn't like the league anyway; it wasn't the end of the world and wouldn't make a difference; the balance between winning games in Division 1 and preparing for championship was extremely difficult; Division 2 would allow them to roll out their annual plan a lot easier without the pressure of harder games.
Some may have felt McGuinness was merely masking the failure to preserve their Division 1 status.
But he knows his squad better than anyone at this stage. He knows the limitations of its shallow depth. And a seven-match Division 1 programme over a nine-week period against the top counties just isn't harmonious with a squad that realistically only offers just over 20 potential candidates.
It is a striking statistic that, if they run with the team selected earlier this week against Down on Sunday, they will have started only 16 different players in five league games over six weeks.
Eamonn McGee's return for Karl Lacey last weekend against Meath and Lacey's return this weekend for Ryan McHugh, who is being spared ahead of the Ulster U-21 quarter- final against Fermanagh on the following Wednesday, represent the only alterations so far. It's consistent, but it's also a reflection of the resources available and the challenge it is to expand them.
Prior to the Dublin game last year, Donegal had used 25 players, but five of those were used just once briefly in those six games. The deployment of three more newcomers in the Dubs game brought the numbers used in the league to 28 (Lacey and Christy Toye were unavailable), but essentially the core figure was 20.
The playing landscape hasn't changed much in 12 months. So far, Donegal have again used 25 players in the league and with no sign of Paddy McGrath returning from a groin problem any time soon, that figure is unlikely to rise too much.
Like last year, there has been peripheral use of some players. Stephen McLoughlin got three minutes at the end of the Laois game on the first night; Eamonn Doherty got seven; and Hugh McFadden was afforded 23.
Of those outside the 16 starters, only David Walsh, Paddy McBrearty, Neil Gallagher and Darach O'Connor have had more sustainable exposure. Almost half the team have spent every minute of league time on the field so far. Paul Durcan, Neil McGee, Leo McLoone, Anthony Thompson, Mark McHugh, Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy have yet to enjoy even a second's rest.
What is gained in the promise of O'Connor and Odran MacNiallais is eroded somewhat by the emigration of Ryan Bradley and Ross Wherity.
It's in stark contrast to the resources of one of their main rivals in 2014 and one of the league's other unbeaten teams, Cork. Brian Cuthbert has had the luxury of being able to deploy 30 players so far in Division 1 and still win all four games.
Of all the top teams, Donegal remain most exposed to injury and must be careful. Rory Kavanagh has started all four games, but has yet to get past the 47th minute in any of them. Toye has recovered from a painful virus and enjoyed his first full 70 minutes against Meath last weekend.
Recently, McGuinness detailed the impact that injuries in 2013 had on an already limited squad and established that Gallagher, Lacey and Walsh all missed in excess of 60pc of the 66 training sessions they had between January and August when they lost to Mayo. Already the number of training sessions they have had so far this season is in the 40s.
The balancing act continues this weekend in Newry. Win and it might cut a bit of slack for the remaining games against Louth and Armagh.
But the reality remains for Donegal that when the jersey numbers hit the 20s, they start rapidly losing altitude quicker than the other main contenders.