Just for a minute, forget about the two Ulster championships and the All-Ireland title.
What Jim McGuinness and the current Donegal panel have achieved has changed the culture of football in the county. It wasn’t proven beyond reasonable doubt on Sunday. It was merely another brick in the wall.
For years, Donegal supporters, and indeed players, used to make the perennial trip to Clones through the spider’s web of country roads on Sunday mornings more hopeful than expectant of bucking a downward trend. They’re the ‘Lost Generation of Clones’.
Between, say, the Ulster final of 1992 when 14-man Donegal defeated red-hot favourites Derry and the victory over the same opposition in 2011, St Tiernach’s Park, by and large, was frequently the graveyard of Donegal’s championship ambitions.
Michael Murphy, the current Donegal captain, recalls one of those painful afternoons back in 1998, when, as an eight-year-old, he watched Joe Brolly snatch the Anglo-Celt Cup with a last minute winning goal for Derry.
Brolly’s shot smashed droplets of rain that had clung to
Tony Blakes’s net onto the Donegal support behind the goal before cupping his ear to the same folk in celebration.
“It was a bad day at the office,” Murphy says of 1998. “I was sitting at the 13-metre line looking in as Geoffrey McGonigle did his business and Joe Brolly did his. It was a quiet trip home that day.”
There was the occasional deviation, like when Colm McFadden scored 1-7 in the 1-11 to 0-9 Ulster semi-final win over then All-Ireland champions Tyrone in 2004. But that was the exception and not the rule. More often than not, it was, as Murphy said, a quiet trip home through the clogging arteries of car-filled roads that ran for miles outside of Clones.
Last week former Donegal midfielder John Gildea, McGuinness’s old sparring partner from Glenties, recalled his time as a player.
“Our team, with players like Jim, Adrian Sweeney, Damien Diver, Michael Hegarty, Brendan Devenney and a young Kevin Cassidy could’ve stood up to any team in the country on their day,” Gildea said. “I really believe that now. But we didn’t believe it then.
“When Jim took over he could see the ability and has made the group believe. It’s almost a cult thing – everyone’s onside — but that’s the magic of Jim McGuinness.”
What McGuinness has done, as Gildea mentioned, is to amass belief - firstly within his group of players and in turn that rubbed off on his supporters. Those journeys now make Clones feel much closer to home.
“Jim, above anything else, has changed the mindset of Donegal’s footballers,” says John Haran, who was also part of the Donegal panel - in his case from 1997 to 2005 - as the county found itself in the fruitless abyss.
Antrim, on Sunday, proved themselves to be a more game outfit than the one who had lost 1-10 to 0-7 against McGuinness’s Donegal back in 2011. That was McGuinness’s first outing in the Ulster championship as Donegal manager. Since then, he’s won 12 from 13, with the only blot on the copybook being last year’s 0-13 to 0-7 Ulster final loss against a ravenous and still improving Monaghan team.
To put it chronically from the pre-McGuinness days, you have to go back to 1994 to piece together a dozen Donegal wins in Ulster from a series of fragmented campaigns.
“It’s nice to be back into an Ulster final, especially after getting beaten in it last year,” Colm McFadden said on Sunday after Donegal eventually saw off Antrim 3-16 to 0-12.
At half-time, there was a curious assessment from most over what had gone before. Donegal and Antrim were deadlocked at 0-7 apiece and the feel was more of a well-attended challenge match than an Ulster semi-final.
Inside of the Donegal dressing room, there were no cups and saucers flying. Instead, McGuinness reminded his panel of the diligent preparatory work they had put in since the 1-11 to 0-11 quarter-final win over Derry and urged them to show that on the field. Donegal bust into life.
“Antrim hit scores from long range and were penetrating well into the game,” he said afterwards. “I spoke in the lead-up about them scoring 1-10 in 31 minutes of football against Fermanagh. That’s lost on people who think it’s soundbytes on behalf of an opposition manager.
“The half-time score reflected that and once you prepare for that, it’s not as bad. We’re delighted to have got over the line and can prepare for an Ulster final.
“One thing we did say at half-time was that the work we had done over the last month wasn’t reflective in the performance. It did seem to come out in the wash the longer the game went on.
“Every single Ulster championship match is there to be won and it’s there on its own merits. Antrim are no different to how we look at every other game.”
McGuinness can now look at another game. This Saturday, in Clones again, Ulster champions Monaghan put their title on the line against Armagh in the other provincial semi-final. Between now and the final on Sunday, July 20, McGuinness and his panel can sneak out of the limelight and put in the hard yards and the tactical plan to put themselves in as good a position as possible to get the better of whoever comes out of that bruising battle.
Summer, and the championship, is where McGuinness thrives. It’s his amphitheatre.
“Thankfully now we’ve bought ourself another month leading into the Ulster final and that’s exactly where we wanted to be at,” he said on Sunday. “We’re there now and we want to make the most of this opportunity.”
Walking back down the hill in Clones with a 13-point winning margin in an Ulster semi-final seems like a parallel universe for the lost generation.
They will have another opportunity to enjoy the rustic old town next month. And thanks to McGuinness and his panel’s marvellous consistency in the province over the last four seasons, the new generation and the converted old one can return more in expectation than hope.