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Tweaks needed if Jim is to keep Sam in Hills

Mark Twain once said "to stand still is to fall behind" and while I'm quiet sure if he was an ardent Gaelic games enthusiast, his words are especially relevant to Donegal as they continue their preparations for the defence of their Ulster and All-Ireland titles.

Two years ago when they re-invented their blanket defence in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, their ultimate demise came as a result of a lack of cutting edge up front, as despite Colm McFadden's best efforts, Jim McGuinness's men couldn't keep the scoreboard ticking over as the Dubs began to surge.

Twelve months later, the game-plan had evolved, with swift counter-attacking play added to the defensive cordon - it was this strategic development that led to them ending a 20-year wait to get their hands on Sam Maguire again.

With May 26 looming large on the horizon, the question now is what enhancements McGuinness and Rory Gallagher will bring to the Donegal game-plan that will create an edge for the summer campaign?

Or indeed can they bring enhancements? Or do they need them in the first place? Would the status quo be good enough?

Two wins from seven league games culminating in relegation to Division 2 wasn't ideal preparation, but if a positive could be derived from the situation, it did provide an opportunity for the likes of analyst Martin McHugh to rein in expectation by almost writing off Donegal's chances before a Championship ball was ever kicked - he has a habit of doing that, you'd almost think Jim asked him to do as much!


When viewed in the context of their 2012 league campaign, where they finished only two points better off, managers would be wise to avoid the poor mouthing of Donegal's credentials and in fact accept that their early-season form adds some semblance of credence to McGuinness's declaration following the final round of games that Donegal "don' t even like the league anyway".

However, the fundamental difference from 2011 to last year was that having lifted an Anglo Celt and running the Dubs close in that bizarre semi-final, McGuinness was not only able to develop the playing style, but he was also able to dangle that carrot of All-Ireland glory in front of a group of players who now had reason to believe they could potentially go on and win it.

This summer there is a marked difference for the Donegal boss, who perhaps burdened by success, doesn't want to literally fix something that isn't broken, but must also be acutely aware of the dreaded All-Ireland hangover that proved costly for the likes of Tyrone ('04), Cork ('11) and the Dubs ('12).

They all found it difficult to respond when the question of their desire was put to them following their respective All-Ireland success from the previous year.

As a manager who prides himself on his psychological abilities and given he earns a decent crust from Celtic FC as a performance consultant, an equally significant test for McGuinness this summer will be to see if he can instill that immeasurable trait of hunger into his side in advance of the gauntlet being thrown down before them.

He also has to assess the fitness of a number of key players who are returning from injury or whose league was cutrailed – Paddy McGrath, Neil McGee, and particularly, Karl Lacey, who aside from a couple of challenge and club games, will effectively make his competitive comeback in their Championship opener in Ballybofey against Tyrone. Others such as Mark McHugh and Frank McGlynn have a few gears to find yet.

When he scans the list of candidates queuing up to relieve them of their Ulster and All-Ireland titles, McGuinness will see that the likes of Tyrone and Monaghan, from a provincial point of view, have made progress throughout 2013.

Nationally, Jim Gavin's Dublin team have developed a highly effective and attractive brand of attacking football that saw them land a first Allianz Football League title in 20 years.

Aside from Kerry ('06 and '07), recent history has proven it is exceptionally difficult to string back-to-back titles together. And while outwardly McGuinness will swat away any doubts on Donegal's ability to complete this feat, the reality is that a new drive, desire and tweaking to the game plan will need to be implemented if Donegal don't want to fall short.