Paddy McBrearty: 'Trophy can inspire summer assault'
McBrearty insists Division 2 final key as Donegal come under radar in bid to reclaim All-Ireland
TWELVE months ago when Donegal were the reigning All-Ireland champions, the analysis was smothering and the focus unrelenting.
The "massive expectation", as Paddy McBrearty termed it, weighed heavily on the team who had poured so much of themselves in the 2012 success.
"As All-Ireland champions there is a massive expectation of you and the majority of your games are televised and every team is out to beat you," McBrearty says.
"This year, we're coming in under the radar a little bit. There's no TV at our games. It might work to our advantage a wee bit."
Their All-Ireland win was the result of two years under Jim McGuinness, whose punishing training sessions had taken on mythical status.
And suspicions as to whether they could maintain such high standards off a thin playing base followed them into 2013.
McGuinness' work with Celtic brought further focus on Donegal's preparations, and their season petered out before it ever got going with relegation from the top flight, an Ulster final ambush and an All-Ireland quarter-final hammering.
"People might say it was a bad year but we got to an Ulster final. Five or six years ago that would have been a big thing for Donegal football, people forget that," McBrearty points out.
"But obviously as All-Ireland champions you want to be emulating that success the year after. It was disappointing the way it ended."
There has been a quiet but significant momentum to this Donegal side over the course of the spring.
Unlike last year, when McGuinness dismissed the significance of the league, Donegal tore into their opening games.
They won the first three rounds by an aggregate of 27 points, including a seven-point win away to Monaghan, who they face in Sunday's NFL Division 2 final.
"We won the first three games and maybe we took the foot off the pedal but we are where we want to be," McBrearty says.
"Our first objective was to get back up to Division 1 and we have done that. And getting up as champions is important.
"It's probably the game you want with championship only a few weeks away. You want to be playing in the big games against the best teams in Croke Park so we are looking forward to this test."
There's a little bit of symmetry to this weekend for Donegal. Back in 2011, McGuinness guided them to a Division 2 league final, which they won.
Later that summer, they claimed their first Ulster title since 1992.
Just over a year later, they were All-Ireland champions, but McBrearty insists no one is getting carried away just yet.
"We have a long way to go yet to get up to the levels we were at. We are where we were in 2011 under Jim – we are in a league final at Croke Park and we subsequently went on to win Ulster and get to an All-Ireland semi-final that year.
"We're taking it every game as it comes. It is a massive day up against Derry (in the championship) and first this Sunday against Monaghan."
Donegal have just returned from a training camp in Portugal but on their return there was a familiar issue.
One round of club games, fixed for Good Friday, had been called off again, leaving hard-pressed club players in the county without action once again.
With McGuinness admitting his is one of the shallowest squads among the main All-Ireland contenders, the idea is to try to ensure he'll have a full deck when Donegal take on Derry in the Ulster championship opener.
They learned that lesson the hard way when a hectic club schedule effectively ruled then Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey out of much of their All-Ireland defence, and McBrearty admits there is no easy fix.
"It's obviously difficult," he said. "You do feel for the club players in a way. When you are in a mindset to play two games and you might get off work or something on Good Friday, it dents your plans.
"For us county players it is kind of a mixed opinion on it. The senior management don't want the players to be injured but the club still needs to play games. I don't think you can win in either situation.
"You would hear odd remarks. At club games on Sunday there were boys giving out, club players talking about going to America for the summer and stuff, so it is a hard one.
"I don't think there is a win-win situation for the county board.
"If we were to go out and get injured at the weekend people would be saying we shouldn't be playing games and then when they aren't on, the club players are complaining.
"When a team is on an All-Ireland run, the whole championship is practically off until October and there are probably 10 or 12 championship games in the space of three weeks, which doesn't feel good at all.
"I wouldn't like to be at the head of the fixtures board at all in a county that is challenging for an All-Ireland."
While McBreary agrees that the current situation isn't a long-term solution, that debate will be sidelined for this weekend. McGuinness has always maintained that his job is to put medals in his players' pockets, so he's unlikely to forgo a chance to do just that on Sunday.
"This week we are looking at ourselves," McBrearty said. "We want to go out and win this game and go up as champions.
"Obviously we'll be looking at Derry too with championship in a few weeks' time but at the minute we are looking at ourselves and we'll evaluate where we are at come Sunday evening."