Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Laois boss Justin McNulty eyes turnaround opportunity

Justin McNulty

A matter of weeks ago Kieran McGeeney was entertaining thoughts of a Leinster Championship title with Kildare while Justin McNulty was fending off caustic barbs following an embarrassing exit from the same competition by his below-par Laois side at the hands of Louth.

But if time is a great healer, it also brings perspective to high-profile sporting competitions and helps fashion or fragment managerial careers.

Today McNulty is putting his tactical plans in place for Saturday's All-Ireland fourth round qualifier joust with reigning champions Donegal while McGeeney's role with Kildare is on a knife-edge.

Having shared in Armagh's 2002 All-Ireland triumph when they were key defenders in Joe Kernan's all-conquering side, the duo have since had parallel careers in management.

But it's McNulty who is enjoying an extension to the current championship with a Laois side that bounced back off the canvas following that knock-out blow from Louth to beat Carlow (3-13 to 0-12), Clare (3-17 to 0-10) and Wexford (0-16 to 2-8) in their three qualifier fixtures to date.

Impressive though these scoring statistics may be, McNulty is acutely conscious that a wounded Donegal will form the biggest challenge that Laois have faced for some considerable time.

And that's why he is demanding a "major improvement" from his side.

"All I can say is that if we play to the standard we showed against Wexford we won't win against Donegal.

"That's the reality of the situation and we need to show a major improvement," declares McNulty.

"We have to look closely at the number of chances we present to our opponents. While we had only two wides, Wexford kicked something like fifteen, while also creating more goal opportunities. That shows you where the balance of play lay."

Yet Donegal face obstacles going into Saturday's shoot-out at Carrick-on-Shannon.

Under Jim McGuinness they have never had to play back-to-back matches in successive weeks. The shortest gap they have experienced is two weeks between the 2011 Ulster final and the All-Ireland quarter-final.

And with a limited squad and key players lacking fitness, the last thing Donegal needed was an extra match sandwiched in the middle of the two-week gap leading up to the quarter-finals that they had planned for.

But Monaghan's victory in Sunday's Ulster final wrecked that envisaged itinerary and has forced McGuinness to amend his overall approach.

Karl Lacey was clearly some way short of full fitness against Monaghan, Mark McHugh will miss the game against Laois because of concussion, Ryan Bradley, Leo McLoone and David Walsh are playing well below expectations and there is a suspicion that Donegal's overall hunger is not all that it should be.

Without doubt, Donegal's performance last Sunday was their poorest in a championship assignment under McGuinness, the side looking lethargic and fragmented, devoid of spirit and real passion.

McGuinness's demanding task now will be to lift his side mentally to confront a Laois outfit that has the bit firmly between their teeth.

Justin McNulty's job will be to ensure that it remains there.

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