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Donegal have to do it all again

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Donegal's Karl Lacey. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Donegal's Karl Lacey. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Donegal's Karl Lacey. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

AFTER 22 minutes, the scoreboard in Carrick-on-Shannon read one-all. As in Donegal 0-1, Laois 0-1. By the final whistle, the scoring rate had improved slightly (0-14 to 0-8) but that couldn't disguise the mongrel of a game it had been.

For Donegal, the dubious reassurance that 'winning ugly' might steel them for the looming challenge of Mayo was mercilessly exposed just eight days later.

Perhaps just as well for Laois that they were spared that Croke Park onslaught, but their default policy of uber-defence under Justin McNulty had reached an inevitable end-game after three seasons. Damage-limitation will only get you so far ...

Six months on from that back-door borefest, Laois and Donegal renew battle in O'Moore Park this Sunday. Both counties will be seeking to hit the Allianz League ground running; but there's arguably more than a pair of Division 2 points at stake.

Jim 'Midas' McGuinness must prove himself all over again in Donegal – minus his erstwhile ever-present assistant, Rory Gallagher. Meanwhile, over in Portlaoise, there's a new boss in town but Tomás ó Flatharta has plenty to prove, too, after his most recent (abruptly terminated) reign in Galway.

In the wake of Donegal's 16-point Mayo meltdown, coming so soon after their tame Ulster title surrender to Monaghan, there were serious question marks over whether McGuinness would want to come back for a fourth season.

BOMBSHELL

That he ultimately chose to do so, according to Karl Lacey, was "vital" – even if Gallagher's subsequent bombshell departure came as "quite a shock" to the players.

"Jim is a massive part of what Donegal have achieved over the last three years," he stressed. "Just to have him back ... he wants to prove a point as well. There are question marks over his head too.

"He wants to prove a point with this Donegal team, that there is more in us – there's an Ulster championship in us. He is highly respected by every single player. Unfortunately Rory is out of the back-room team. That was out of our control but that's the way you go; you just have to get on with it." Lacey was speaking at the launch of Setanta's 'live' TV coverage of the Allianz Leagues. The irony is that he won't be popping up on Setanta's screens this spring, due largely (we suspect) to Donegal's new off-Broadway league status.

"We'd rather not be in Division 2 and are very unlucky to be down here. One kick of the ball from (Dublin's) Paul Mannion put us down," argued Lacey, who didn't feature at all during last year's relegation campaign following hip surgery.

"I think it's a very competitive league, there's some cracking teams in it, but the pressure isn't as high as Division 1 because a lot of the focus is on Division 1 with the bigger teams. You can sneak under the radar a bit."

The 2012 Footballer of the Year is now hoping to banish not just the collective malaise of 2013 but the fickle injury fate that saw him limp through the championship, visibly affected by another setback (to his knee) in June.

The body is "feeling good" right now, with a pre-season under his belt – unlike last year when he was recovering from surgery and his colleagues came back from the team holiday in January and virtually "straight into the National League ... you have no base built up. I suppose we were just playing catch-up from there".

Meanwhile, over in Laois, ó Flatharta will be chasing substance with the embellishment of style.

Portlaoise goalkeeper Graham Brody will make his debut on Sunday, while fellow newcomer, Ballyfin's James Finn, starts at wing-forward.

"I am aware that they have had a defensive system in the last few years and that is great, we will be requiring that," the former Westmeath and Galway boss cautioned. "We will be playing attacking football but we'll also have to mind the house."

His long-term goal? To see Laois perform at such a consistently high level that "when you boys are talking about the elite teams in the country, Laois are included in that conversation".

Easier said than done, but Sunday against a refocused Donegal should qualify as a pretty good early benchmark.

DONEGAL (SF v Laois): P Durcan; K Lacey, N McGee, R McHugh; F McGlynn, L McLoone, A Thompson; R Kavanagh, M McIlhinney; M McHugh, D Molloy, O Mac Niallais; C McFadden, M Murphy, D O'Connor.

LAOIS: G Brody; D Booth, M Timmons, P O'Leary; D Strong, P McMahon, A Ryan; K Meaney, J O'Loughlin; J Finn, D Kingston, B Sheehan; R Munnelly, E O'Carroll, D Conway.


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