McGuinness shows he means business by wheeling out big guns
JIM McGuinness has flashed out a clear signal of his intent to restrict Donegal's stay in Division 2 to one season by selecting most of his top stars for Sunday's Allianz League opener against Laois in Portlaoise.
Donegal's approach to last year's league bordered on the dismissive and, unsurprisingly, ended in relegation from Division 1 after they took only five of a possible 14 points. That was an usually low return for reigning All-Ireland champions, but Donegal supporters regarded the low-key campaign as part of a master plan which would reach fruition in September.
Instead, Donegal lost both their Ulster and All-Ireland titles, the latter in a humiliating 16-point defeat by Mayo in the quarter-finals. It meant that Donegal ended the year with only five wins from 12 competitive games, a much changed scenario from the previous two seasons.
Clearly, McGuinness is adopting a different approach to this year, having already expressed his desire to escape from Division 2 at the first attempt. He has included no fewer than 11 of the players who featured in the 2012 All-Ireland final win for Sunday's visit to O'Moore Park, while Paddy McBrearty is among the subs.
With Donegal having four 'away' games – two (Laois and Galway) over the next two weekends – there's very little margin for error in what is certain to be a very competitive group. They will also be away to Down and Armagh, while Monaghan, Meath and Louth will visit Ballybofey.
Donegal's determination to make rapid progress in Division 2 is based on a winning experience that launched their rise up the ranks in 2011. They won the Division 2 title that year, prior to embarking on a great run which yielded two Ulster and one All-Ireland title over the next 16 months.
McGuinness' return to so many of his high-achievers this early in the season suggests that he still believes they have the capacity to lead in a completely different type of challenge to what they faced a few years ago.
He is convinced that injury problems were the chief undermining agents last year and that the players remain as ambitious as ever. However, he is also very much in the market for new talent so there will be much attention focused on newcomers, Odhran MacNiallas and Darach O'Connor, who have been selected on the left wing of the attack for Sunday's game.
They will have Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and Mark McHugh to guide them along against a Laois team which, according to the bookies, will be more concerned with relegation than promotion.
It's a rather surprising assessment in a group where, apart from Donegal, Laois will be vying with Meath, Monaghan, Down, Galway, Armagh and Louth.
Donegal are 4/1 favourites to win the division, but whether that's based on the reality of their current situation or the memory of their championship triumphs in 2011 and 2012 remains to be seen.
Winning promotion is hugely important to Donegal, for while the memory of the heavy defeat by Mayo got most attention, they were also beaten by Monaghan, who had come up from Division 3, in the Ulster final. That double setback showed Donegal in a new light after two years when their defensive excellence was among the most consistent in championship history.
The big question is whether they can work their way back to those levels of efficiency this year or whether they have been sucked into the pack. The Division 2 campaign won't answer all the questions, but if Donegal fail to win promotion, their championship stock will take a massive hit. In those circumstances, the thinking behind McGuinness' well-flagged intentions are easy to understand.
Donegal – P Durcan; K Lacey, N McGee, R McHugh; F McGlynn, L McCloone, A Thompson; R Kavanagh, M McElhinney; M McHugh, D Molloy, O MacNiallas; C McFadden, M Murphy, D O'Connor