Eoin Liston: Donegal have serious claims – if McGuinness can restore the passion
How quickly things can change. This time 12 months ago, Jim McGuinness was preparing his Donegal team as All-Ireland champions to play Tyrone in the Ulster quarter-final.
They'd been relegated from Division 1 of the league, but Jim told us that it didn't matter. We'd no reason not to believe him. They swatted Tyrone aside and his genius as a manager looked to be taking on new meaning.
But after beating Down in the semi-final, it suddenly started to go wrong. Monaghan came into the Ulster final and did to Donegal what McGuinness' men had done to everyone else in the province over the previous two seasons. It wasn't a blip.
Mayo absolutely demolished them in the All-Ireland quarter-final in a devastating display. Now, entering their Ulster opener with Derry tomorrow, Jim and Donegal are under immense pressure.
There have been a number of reasons put forward for Donegal's demise. Many of them have been laid at the foot of McGuinness. I find that laughable. He pulled off arguably the greatest managerial feat in modern GAA by taking a team in total and utter disarray and turning them into All-Ireland champions after only two seasons.
And there is no way that, if they don't manage to scale those highs again, the blame can be attributed to the manager. He will leave nothing behind in order to get this team to their very best.
People are saying his role with Celtic is causing too much of a distraction. There may be some truth in that but I think the man that Jim is he can manage that side of things.
His assistant Rory Gallagher and Mark McHugh, one of the most important cogs in his machine, have both left in strange circumstances. While I don't know the ins and outs, I'm not greatly surprised by either case.
Sometimes, the drive and single-mindedness that sets the likes of McGuinness apart is also what makes it difficult for strong characters such as Gallagher and himself to work in harmony for a long period.
They must no longer have had the same ideas of where the team was going, and there was only going to be one winner in that battle.
From what I'm told, the McHugh situation is different. He's been suffering with a number of injuries since 2012 and the commitment required to be at optimum level for inter-county stars is so great, that it's understandable why a player might want to take a break to get the body right and explore different things.
Then of course there's the club championship controversy. I don't see why McGuinness is getting so much criticism for that. His job is Donegal senior football manager. That brief doesn't include the welfare of club players. That's the county board's duty. I'm not saying I agree with the overall situation, but if he makes a demand, and the county board aren't strong enough to say no, why is it his fault?
Donegal's problems are simple – they have a smaller pool of players than any of the other contenders and that hurts them hard. Because the commitment, hunger and downright madness that drove them to the All-Ireland in 2012 diminishes, there's nobody waiting in the wings to refresh the squad and take it on again.
If McGuinness has been able to restore that passion to his squad and they get an injury-free run at things over the summer, they are serious contenders once again. There's nobody in the country better equipped to do it.
When McGuinness was down in Tralee IT, he was part of two successful Sigerson campaigns. I saw a lot of him up close at the time and there was always something different about him. And it was here he learned a big lesson in team spirit.
The story goes that he and a few others were socialising a little too enthusiastically close to the first round of the Sigerson. Val Andrews and Pat Flanagan dropped them for the game and set out that no one person, no matter how high-profile, was greater than the collective.
McGuinness has carried that with him and that's why he can get over the loss of the likes of Gallagher and McHugh. And I fully expect them to beat Derry. Simply because they have to.