In some ways, graphically and not metaphorically, it was a little like a snapshot of the last supper.
“This is where it all started,” Jim McGuinness said at Donegal’s press day last week as he fetched a chair for himself halfway up the long table that lays in the centre of Meeting Room Five at Jackson’s Hotel in Ballybofey.
It’s often been surmised that the Donegal manager has biblical characteristics, physically at least, and he was immediately flanked by reporters, a dozen or so, who funnelled in equal numbers to his right and left giving the impression similar to that depicted by Leonardo da Vinci in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
McGuinness’s reference to where it started was that it was the same wing of the same hotel he had unsuccessfully applied for the position of senior team manager. Having belatedly obtained the role at his third time of asking, he’s about to embark on a fourth championship season.
His claustrophobic and defensively disciplined side won a first Ulster championship in 20 years in 2011 and having developed to a more expansive unit to retain that title a year later, it was a stepping stone to lifting the All-Ireland.
Year three, though, saw Donegal’s coordinates on the graph plunge dramatically, with Monaghan usurping their throne in Ulster before Mayo battered them out of Croke Park with a 4-17 to 1-10 annihilation in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
“We are probably still not over it in some respects,” McGuinness said of the manner of the defeat to Mayo. “Getting demoralised in a quarter-final is a different ball game.
“The disappointing thing is that we worked unbelievably hard to create an environment in which we could be successful. That was done over two and a half years. For me, that was washed away very quickly.”
The aura that had surrounded McGuinness and Donegal was washed away, possibly beyond repair, last August Bank Holiday, so it’s been a medicinal period since.
He likens it to when he was first appointed back in 2010, the summer in which Donegal had been bombed out of the championship by Armagh in a Crossmaglen massacre before the month of June was even out.
“The first year involved was the same dynamic,” McGuinness said when comparing 2011 to the present. “There wasn’t a lot of confidence around the team. They had been beaten by Armagh, expectation was relatively low. We are very much back to that now.”
Getting promotion this season from the Allianz League Division Two bore resemblances to that fledgling season. Donegal, this year, came under the radar to Croke Park having not featured once on live television all spring. When they did, against Monaghan in the final, McGuinness’s team were beaten convincingly, 1-16 to 1-10.
“We road-test four or five things in the league every year,” McGuinness continued, taking the positives from promotion. “Some of things we tried worked really well and some of them were unexpected in terms of how well they worked.
“You set your sights on different things and you bring different things to the championship. We know our strengths when we’re at ourselves and if you can add value – that’s the key thing”
Whilst it’s difficult to know exactly where Donegal find themselves right now, it’s fair to say they’re not at the heights of 2012 or the depths of last year. There’s still a sizable gulf between those two punctuation points.
McGuinness, with a psychology background, remains upbeat amid a time of change in Donegal football, a period that saw the backroom team featuring Rory Gallagher and Maxi Curran dissolved in September before four players, including 2012 All-Star Mark McHugh, left the panel last month.
“There is an element of sensationalism around Donegal,” McGuinness added. “I suppose it is trying to sell papers at the end of the day, to make a headline and I understand that but it does not happen in other counties the same way that it happens in Donegal.
“When things are tough and when people are saying nasty things instead of nice things, whether it’s in a family environment or a team environment, people come together and circle the wagons. They try to push on from that situation. That’s where we’re at.”
Two years ago before the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork, McGuinness noted: “You are either moving backwards or forwards. Nothing is neutral and for us it is very important to be moving forward.”
After McGuinness’s team go to the cauldron of Celtic Park to face Derry on Sunday, it’ll be abundantly clear which direction Donegal are going. The championship has always been his amphitheatre. He teams have always been primed for the first ball being thrown into the air in summer.
“This is the part I enjoy,” he said of the championship. “This is why I coach. This is why I manage. This is it.”
McGuinness, doubted by some, will be looking to sink his teeth into Derry. He certainly wants to continue to dine at the top table.