Lacey still the glue holding plan together
McGuinness' blueprint of organisation and desire defined by the stellar display of re-energised Donegal talisman
As Derry's Emmett Bradley stood over a free which he subsequently converted with 12 minutes remaining in Sunday's Ulster quarter-final, Karl Lacey leaned over beside him with his hands on his knees to catch his breath.
Donegal's 2012 Footballer of the Year looked like he could give no more. After 58 minutes of harrying, hassling, covering and linking so effectively, his day looked done.
But appearances were somewhat deceptive. Lacey got his recovery and went again, getting on the ball a further six times and giving the final pass of 18 in succession with a burst of pace to find Leo McLoone for the insurance point in the closing minutes.
Lacey, though still only 29, does not have the legs that carried him to the highest personal accolade two years ago.
With so much mileage on the clock, so many potentially debilitating injuries over the last 18 months, the expectation that he can consistently punch holes in opponents with his energetic bursts forward like he did in 2012 is unrealistic.
But that his heart was so willing was perhaps the best indication that Donegal can still be a significant force, not just in Ulster but in the championship overall.
Lacey making those runs and covering that ground in tandem with keeping check on Derry's most dangerous player made Donegal a different team. His absence in key games last year told, his inability to get up to the pace against Monaghan in the Ulster final was decisive.
Jim McGuinness has consistently referenced the blocks of training that so many key players missed in 2013 that didn't allow them to implement the game plan with the same efficiency as before.
In his estimation Lacey missed two-thirds of their scheduled training sessions in 2013 because of injury. He just wasn't the same player. Even against Monaghan in the league final last month his influence was subdued.
But clearly preparations had been tailored for four weeks later and in that respect the planning and use of resources really could not have been better.
The trust McGuinness placed in Lacey in detailing him to shadow Mark Lynch said as much about his rehabilitation after 2013 as anything else. Lacey was giving inches and pounds away to Derry's most prolific league scorer but flourished in the role.
"Whatever job he gives you, you are going to do it to the best of your ability," Lacey noted.
"Maybe he knew that I had the fitness levels to mark the likes of Mark, who had a great league campaign, and that was identified. I am just satisfied to get that performance under my belt now and move on."
Lacey acknowledges now that the hip operation he had at the end of 2012 had more of an effect on him than anticipated.
"I suppose it took a lot more out of me than I thought it would," he reflected.
"It was very frustrating last year and I just never got to those levels which I would like to have been at. Hopefully now I am getting there and hopefully that was another sign," the four-time All Star said of Sunday's performance.
"I am not getting any younger so I am bound to be slowing up in some way. I had a tough year last year but so did everyone. It was frustrating. We regrouped early this year, we spoke about a few things and we worked hard and we are now getting the benefits.
"You like to think that after every training session you are one step closer and that is the way that I have taken it. I took it one game at a time during the league.
"We were away in a training camp (in Portugal) as well and we just worked hard. If you keep doing that you are increasing your fitness, day in, day out."
Lacey admits the victory was important to the team in the context of their last two trips to Croke Park, especially the heavy defeat they suffered against Mayo in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final.
"I suppose there was a lot of pressure and question marks over the team this year, ever since Mayo beat us in Croke Park," he said.
"All we can do is control what we have in that dressing-room there, we are going to push on and hopefully there will be bigger and better things to come."
Their success in first containing Derry and then controlling them on either side of a most impressive 1-5 blitz without reply had many of the hallmarks of the 2012 template that swept them to a second successive Ulster title and a second All-Ireland crown.
That third-quarter surge, which focused on Michael Murphy's presence at full-forward, mirrored the time frame that they generally turned the screw on opponents throughout 2012.
Donegal 'won' every third quarter in 2012, by a cumulative scoreline of 2-28 to 0-13.
They consciously lifted their game to another level in that period to take the initiative and Sunday in Celtic Park was a throwback to that as they outscored the home side by 1-5 to 0-1.
Of course not every game works out that way, but on Sunday there was an obvious effort to make the third quarter count and Donegal did, allowing them to comfortably control the rest of the game with the timely deployment of Neil Gallagher and Martin McElhinney seeing them over the line.
On a faster track than Celtic Park against a team that will seek to ditch the patient approach that Derry banked on and take them on directly – like Dublin and Mayo primarily – perhaps the pressure will tell.
For all the structure to their game it is still being implemented by largely the same group of players.
But for now Donegal have put themselves in prime position to, at the very least, reclaim their Ulster title.
A clash with either Fermanagh or Antrim will not be anywhere near as attritional as their corresponding semi-final last year when they suffered two concussions against Down. Nor will club games place greater risks on reducing an already refined squad.
The road is opening out for them again.