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McLoone says Ulster reign was main Donegal aim

JIM McGUINNESS may privately beg to differ, but Leo McLoone reckons All-Ireland dark horses Donegal have already achieved their primary goal for 2012 by going back-to-back in Ulster.

Now for the hard part - emerging from the so-called Group of Death to lift Sam in September.

With Kerry awaiting in next Sunday's quarter-final, Donegal can't even look beyond to a potential semi-final date with Cork or Kildare. Something which suits McLoone to a tee.

"I think our main goal at the start of the year was to retain the Ulster championship and we have done that," declared the man who clinically dispatched Donegal's opening goal against Down last Sunday week.

"I suppose you always want more when you are winning, and of course we want to win every game from now on. That won't be easy. Our focus will be each game at a time ... the quarter-final is our big game."

Still, there is no mistaking that Donegal return to Croke Park with a more confident attitude than 12 months ago. Physically they are a year further down the development road; the ultra-defensive mindset of 2011 has evolved into a more fluid counter-attacking system.

"I think our time in Croke Park last year will definitely have helped. That bit of experience. We are used to the surroundings and so on," said McLoone.

"A lot of teams have been working on ways to stop our play, and we were definitely more underdogs last year. Maybe this year teams are watching out for us that bit more after winning Ulster last year.

"This year we will be under that bit more pressure. But, as I say, we will take it each game at a time ... our run last year definitely would have helped us."

What's helping McLoone is an injury-free run. Even though Donegal claimed their first Ulster crown in 19 years last summer, he found it "very frustrating watching on from the line", his campaign disrupted by a broken ankle and then a broken cheekbone, both shipped while on club duty with Naomh Conaill.

"It was great to play a part this year, it meant a lot to me," said McLoone, who rewarded McGuinness's faith with goals against Derry and Down.