Six days to go. It’s a great time to be a Donegal supporter. It’s a massive time here and a great time for the county. I say to all, enjoy.
As I have said here over the last few weeks, the team’s run has given us all a huge lift and boost and has come as a welcome relief from all the doom and gloom about the economy and the world as a whole.
We are heading to Croke Park on Sunday for the All-Ireland final with the expectation that we are going to win the All-Ireland. Given the road we have taken and the teams we have beaten on our way – Tyrone, Kerry, Cork and Dublin - the winners of the last ten All-Irelands, it’s a reasonable expectation.
I don’t think any other team in the long history of the championship has beaten as many top teams to reach the final. Not only have we beaten Tyrone, Kerry and Cork, we have beaten them well and regardless of what the critics say, we have done so playing a good brand of football.
But a word of caution. We must not allow ourselves to get too cocky and carried away.
Mayo are a good side as they showed against Dublin in the semi-final. This year’s Mayo team are a different type of animal than Mayo teams of the past. Like Jim McGuinness, James Horan has transformed Mayo’s fortunes and they are now a side to be reckoned with.
Another fact worth noting too is that for all our boys, Sunday’s final will be a first. Mayo have a number of lads that have played in at least one (2006) and a couple of them will have played in two (2004 as well).
That is the only advantage they have over us. But knowing Jim McGuinness and the way he works, this will not be a problem. He has got everything spot on up to now and I have every confidence that he will get it right for the final too.
As I have been saying here all summer, we have the system and we have the players. It’s now about reproducing it all one more time for one more game.
I expect Mayo to come out with all guns blazing and throw everything at us early on. However, as has been the case all season, I expect us to be ready for them, taking it all on the chin, and after soaking up their best shots, then going for the jugular.
We have moved on in a big way from last year and we’re now a more potent force. It’s a team that doesn’t rely on defence alone. Our defensive set-up is still very important, but we have become far more attack-minded this season, and this has been reflected on the scoreboard in all our games.
In Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden we have two of the best inside forwards in the game at the moment. I’m expecting a big game from Michael and if he does turn it on then I think he will have a huge influence. When Michael is on top of his game and wins ball close to goals, he is almost unstoppable.
Colm has really blossomed in the last two seasons and has finally fulfilled his true potential. He was voted Ulster Player of the Year last week by Irish News readers. This is a reflection of the summer he has had. To win a player of the month award is a good achievement but being named player of the championship is the ultimate accolade and is no mean feat. As I stated last week, it was fully merited.
I’m not for one minute suggesting that we are just a two man team. Far from it. One of the reasons for our success this season has been the depth of our squad. The modern game is more about the squad than the team. It is a 20-man game now and we are lucky to have strength in number as we have seen all too well right through the summer, with players being introduced and making big contributions. The introduction of a substitute does not seem to disrupt this Donegal team. The game and the system just carries on.
This, and Jim’s ability to have his players in the right frame of mind and the heads right, have been key to our success. Another plus is that we are at a more advanced stage in our formation and are fitter and stronger than Mayo. But then the weather, a refereeing decision, a lucky goal at the right time - they can be great levellers too on any given day.
However, I don’t think this will be a problem either. We are so well prepared that I’m confident that Jim has every angle covered and we will be ready for any of those eventualities should they arise.
On preparation and fitness, I would say without fear of contradiction, that this is the best prepared and fittest Donegal team ever to leave the county.
And what’s more I have no fears either on complacency. I’m confident that Jim will not allow it be a factor. Nor do I think he will underestimate Mayo and what they will bring to the table. He will have all that covered.
Last week I appealed to supporters to leave the players alone and let them get on with their preparations nice and quietly with as few distractions as humanly possible and I’m repeating that appeal this week. I’m especially appealing to those younger supporters who were not around in 1992 and have not experienced the build-up to an All-Ireland before. The hype and the buzz in the county is great and I encourage all supporters and Donegal people to enjoy it. But leave Jim and the boys alone this week to get on with their preparations without any fuss. They have a job to and that is to go out and win the All-Ireland and bring the Sam Maguire Cup back to Donegal once again.
It is all about winning and never forget that. There are no prizes for being second. It’s not about playing attractive football or anything like that either. It’s about winning the game and that is all that counts. We cannot afford to allow any slippage in our focus or our performance.
20 years on from 1992
The most important thing is that Michael Murphy climbs the steps of the Hogan Stand to lift the Sam Maguire, 20 years after Anthony Molloy lifted it for the very first time.
I know a lot of comparisons have been made all summer with 1992 and we can talk for a week about ’92, but it is time move on. It was brilliant and we all enjoyed it. It was the first All Ireland at senior level and it was always going to be special.
All of us, players and management, got a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction out of winning the Sam Maguire for the first time. But I’m loathe to talk too much about ’92 this week. This is this team’s time. They are a new generation and it is time to win Sam again. That has to be the focus between now and Sunday. Nothing else matters.
We’re in the final and back at the top table. This is the year to win and I’m confident, as I have been ahead of all the games, that we will win. It is a matter of going out now and playing like we are capable of doing and if we do that, I expect the cup to be back in Donegal Town on Monday night.
Mention of 1992, I came across a photograph recently of our arrival back in Sligo on the Monday evening after the final. The photo featured myself and Anthony Molloy, Superintendent Joe Meehan from Mountcharles; Karen Crawford, the team physio and Jim McGuinness walking up the platform at Sligo station.
Jim was a fine and handsome young man back then and it’s great to think, 20 years on, that he is leading us into another All-Ireland final and hopefully masterminding a victory.
If ever a man needs a break. Jim is that man. He’s had a lot or tragedy and heartbreak in his family with the death of his two brothers.
He shipped a fair deal of criticism last year, but his response at the time was that Donegal were a ‘work in progress’ and that progress is now about to be delivered upon.
Jim is one link with 1992, and of course Mark McHugh is another. It is brilliant that Mark is carrying on the great family tradition. Great GAA families and family dynasties are very much part of the GAA and Mark is carrying that with distinction. He is a credit to his family and to his club, Kilcar and I have no doubt they are all very proud of him.
He really has developed into a fine footballer in his own right and is a very important cog in our set-up. No more than the team as a whole, he has really developed his role from last year and has created his own unique niche in the modern game.
When he came on the scene first I stated at the time, I could see traits of his uncle James’s game in his play. He was a mix of James and his dad, Martin.
But he has developed his own style of game and is very much a quality footballer in his own right now. He’s a class player who is performing in a very difficult and demanding role both mentally and physically, and is playing it exceptionally well.
But he is indicative of the whole team who have bought into the system that is working so well. It’s a system that has taken Gaelic football to a whole new level and I suspect a whole new era for the game.
Roll on Sunday, I’m really looking forward to it.
Finally, before I finish, I just want everybody that is going to the game to enjoy the occasion. But take care, especially the young people going to Dublin for the weekend. We tend to have tragedy associated with our big days. In 1992, young Seamus Braid lost his life the night after the All-Ireland and after the Cork game this year, young Andrew Duffy also died tragically.
Enjoy the day and the weekend by all means, but be careful. Take care on the roads on the way to and from the game and just be careful while in the city. We want it to be a joyous and happy occasion for all and one that is not marred by tragedy and sadness.
Brian McEniff, was in conversation with Tom Comack.