THIS TIME LAST YEAR Donegal had just returned from a week’s holidaying in Dubai, but fell over the line against Cork in Ballyshannon.
It was their second win in three Allianz League games, with an opening day win over Derry followed by a loss against Dublin at Croke Park.
Michael Murphy was sent off against Cork, but Donegal held on for a 0-12 to 1-8 win.
The following week, Monaghan overcame Donegal in Letterkenny in a game that was branded in one national newspaper as one of the worst in memory.
Harsh it may have seemed, but it was true that Donegal were jaded and perhaps still suffering from the hangover of the 2014 All-Ireland final.
Last week, Donegal flew back from five days on foreign shores, this time, though, it was from a training camp at La Caleta in Tenerife.
Rory Gallagher’s squad is close to full strength. Karl Lacey and Colm McFadden are being ‘held’, like thoroughbreds being kept behind stable doors before the Gold Cup.
Darach O’Connor, Michael Boyle, Rory Carr and David Walsh are injured, but all four are said to be progressing ahead of schedule.
“We’re further down the line now, I feel,” Gallagher says.
“The big things is the number of new players. Some of them got an early introduction last year to some degree, but we’re definitely at a higher level than we were at 12 months ago.
“The likes of Peter (Boyle), Eoin McHugh and Ciaran (Thompson) are making continued progress and we can see a marked increase in what we’re getting from the likes of Hughie McFadden and Martin O’Reilly. They’ve really helped things.
“They’re playing with great maturity and they’re becoming a bigger role in the team. They’re much more comfortable now at this level.”
The likes of O’Reilly and McFadden can testify to the notion that playing well means retaining a spot in the team, regardless of the availability of others. Odhrán Mac Niallais and O’Connor profited in the past from similar faith of Gallagher and Jim McGuinness.
Gallagher “It’s important for us to play well again and to keep developing as a team.
“For players who have the jersey, they have to back it up against top-quality opposition. We want to keep showing good form. We’ve been up and down too much in the last couple of years.”
Peter Boyle wasn’t in the squad until Mark Anthony McGinley picked up a quad injury in the lead-up to the Dr McKenna Cup game against Down and now the Ballyshannon man is in possession of the number 1 shirt – and looking set to retain it.
“A wee bit of misfortune for someone has given him a chance and he’s grabbed it but, no more than anyone else, he has to do it week-in, week-out now,” Gallagher says.
Donegal certainly do look better equipped now with Eoin McHugh especially appearing as if he’ll become a permanent feature in the Donegal XV. For now, Thompson and Boyle, too, are in the same bracket and it means Gallagher hasn’t had to call upon Lacey and McFadden, while Christy Toye, Rory Kavanagh, Martin McElhinney and Neil Gallagher have yet to start a game in 2016.
With that in mind, that Donegal are top of the table and boasting a points difference of +27 following the 17-point and 10-point successes against Down and Cork has stirred the buoyancy ahead of tomorrow’s meeting with Mayo in Ballybofey.
“Things can change very quickly, but we’re happy with how we’re going into the game,” the Donegal manager says.
“The two games against Down and Cork went better than I’d have expected. It’s at this stage of the season now where things really start to take shape. We feel that we have quality work done and we’re hoping to really push on.
“We’re aware that there are much bigger tests coming down the line. With all due respect to the first two games, teams are moving up the levels from here on and we could find ourselves in for a rude awakening.
“Our next two games are against Mayo and Kerry. No matter what way you look at things, they’ve been the second and third best teams in the country over the last couple of years.”