‘Let the critics have their say. You shouldn't have to apologise for trying to have tight defence’ -- McGuinness
DONEGAL did things differently last year and they're at it again.
They went through last year's championship with one of the best defensive records in history, conceding an average of just 9.5 points in six games (8.8 when extra-time against Kildare is excluded), helping them to a first Ulster title for 19 years and a first All-Ireland semi-final in eight years.
It was defensive solidity of a type rarely seen. Yet, instead of being applauded for transforming Donegal from irresponsible spenders to careful savers, manager Jim McGuinness found himself in the dock for alleged crimes against Gaelic football.
He stood accused of attempting to strangle the game, reducing it to a negative bore-fest, where his players looped around each other in small circles in an attempt to hold possession as they slowly crabbed their way upfield.
It was, of course, all perfectly legal and highly effective as Donegal beat Antrim, Cavan, Tyrone, Derry and Kildare before losing by two points to Dublin in a game that yielded only 14 points -- the lowest All-Ireland semi-final return since 1956, when games were played over 60 minutes.
The criticisms of Donegal lasted right through the winter, leaving McGuinness perplexed as to what exactly they were supposed to have done wrong.
"Let the critics have their say. You shouldn't have to apologise for trying to have a tight defence. It's part of the game, isn't it? You can't let others do your job for you," said the Donegal manager.
"We're not bothered by criticism because we're our own biggest critics. When things don't go right, we're the first ones to examine why."
As Donegal prepare to return to Croke Park to take on Dublin again on Saturday night, McGuinness knows that they will be back under scrutiny as observers zoom in to see if they have changed their ways.
"Nobody ever changes their ways about having a good defence. It can never be too tight," he added.
"One thing that would be different this year, I suppose, is our perspective. We started last year in Division 2 and later on were trying to win a match in the Ulster championship for the first time in four years.
"We're in Division 1 this year and will be trying to retain the Ulster title. That makes things a bit different.
"It's the same for Dublin. They were trying hard to win the All-Ireland for several seasons prior to last year. Now that they've won it, they're coming at it from the different perspective of trying to defend the title."
One significant difference in Donegal's early-season approach this year is in their training programme. Unusually in the modern game, they are training collectively just one night a week at present which, McGuinness hopes, will keep them fresh and ready to press on for the championship.
As for a change of structure, McGuinness says that the conventional wisdom which decreed that Donegal tried to win last year's championship by squeezing the life out of the opposition is unfounded.
"Of course, we tried to have a secure defence, but we would have spent more time trying to develop the offensive side of our game. We didn't get everything right and we certainly never said we were the finished article. We did the best we could in what was our first season together.
"Now, we're trying to take things on. We know we have to develop as a group but it's a challenge we want to take on," he said.
Still, there must have been times after last year's All-Ireland semi-final when McGuinness reflected on what might have made the crucial difference against Dublin.
Would Donegal have won if Colm McFadden had scored a goal, rather than a point, just after half-time and put the Ulstermen five points clear? And what if Karl Lacey hadn't been forced out with an injury?
"You can look at specific incidents and say they made the difference, but it was broader than that," said McGuinness.
"My own view is that we lost because we weren't able to get through the middle with pace and purpose in the second half. Maybe lads retreated into themselves a bit, but then it was new to everybody. Dublin had been there before and learned from it.
"I'd look back at last year in terms of what we achieved rather than what we didn't. Others may see it differently but that's up to them."
Donegal have mixed the good (v Cork, Mayo), the bad (v Kerry, Laois) and the average (v Down) in this year's league, leaving it all down to their final two games against Dublin and Armagh to decide if they reach the semi-finals or are relegated.
"It has been a topsy-turvy sort of league for a lot of counties, including ourselves," said McGuinness.
"We did very well against Cork and Mayo but were disappointed by the Kerry game, in particular. We found out that day that if you give any team too much respect and stand off them, you're in trouble. Again, it was part of our development process."
Survival in Division 1 would represent a satisfactory league for Donegal, who started the campaign without some key players. The squad is stronger now, while there are also signs that the younger talent is maturing nicely.
"We have more lads now who are comfortable at this level," claimed the Donegal boss.
For all that, McGuinness knows it will be a tough summer. For a second successive year, they are drawn in Ulster's preliminary round (v Cavan), with Derry awaiting the winners in the quarter-finals, followed by Armagh or Tyrone.
It could scarcely be more difficult.
First, though, there's the considerable challenge presented by trying to remain in Division 1, starting against Dublin on Saturday.
"It's as big as it gets at this time of year. We want to take the points if we can but it's just as important to show we're making progress," said McGuinness.
Since it's their highest-profile game since last August, their critics will, no doubt, have the assessment charts ready, perhaps even with pre-conceived notions about Donegal.
"We don't have any control over that," McGuinness stressed. "You can't let others run your life."