The evening Donegal won the Ulster championship against Derry earlier this month Brendan Devenney text his old stablemate Jim McGuinness to congratulate him and remind him of just how far he had taken things in such a short space of time.
Last June, the two friends who had each formed the bloodline of the county team for the best part of a decade strolled out of St Oliver Plunkett Park listening to the silence of their thoughts after Donegal were dumped out of the qualifiers at the first round stage by Armagh.
At the time, McGuinness’s name was being bandied about as a perspective Donegal senior manager following an Ulster title win and All-Ireland final in his first season with a the U-21 side. But that sunny afternoon in Crossmaglen both were merely disgruntled supporters.
“When Donegal won Ulster, I text Jim to remind him of that day,” Devenney, a columnist with Gaelic Life magazine, recalls. “For him to turn things around from there so fast is remarkable. It’s the same squad who were so devoid of anything. But they were ready for a new approach. Maybe you need something bad to buy into something new. They knew themselves they were so far off.
“He’s surpassed what I thought he might do already. When I looked at the league this year I thought Donegal would do well to hold their own in it. And although I would have faith in Jim, I couldn’t see an Ulster championship in that team so soon. You have to take your hat off to him.”
On Saturday evening, Donegal make their first championship appearance at Croke Park since the insipid 1-27 to 2-10 loss to Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final of two seasons ago. But with he Ulster championship, a competition in which Donegal started as sixth favourites, already sealed as well as the NFL Division Two crown there is an optimistic spring in the step under their new manager.
Ten years ago, Devenney played while McGuinness was injured as a Donegal side undertook their first ever qualifier outside of the province when Kildare provided the opposition one summer’s evening in Newbridge. It was Donegal’s first championship outing against someone other than an Ulster county since the All-Ireland final of 1992. They say familiarity breeds contempt, of course, so the new surroundings provided an air of adventure for both sides, although Devenney had to sleep on it first.
“We were there a bit early and the boys went down the street for a bit of dander to pass the time,” Devenney adds. “I went into the dressing room and I always loved a wee nap. There was nobody in the whole ground. It was a hot evening and I took a quick kip on the physio table before the lads came back an hour-and-a-half before throw-in, which gave me a little buzz of every before the game. I was rearing to go.
“It was the first year of the qualifiers and Kildare had just lost in Leinster. We were a bit fresher having got past Fermanagh and built up a good lead in the first half. I remember there was a big crowd at the game although not a lot of Donegal support. They started popping over points and the crowd got up as they built up some serious momentum to peg us back.
“Tony Blake made one of the best saves I’ve ever seen in my life from Martin Lynch, who was clean through and he absolutely hammered the ball and it was an unbelievable save. But even that didn’t stop them. Kildare were a good team who had been in the All-Ireland final in 1998 and won Leinster the year beforehand.”
Mickey’s Moran’s Donegal, who led 1-5 to 0-0 at a stage, eventually withered in the sunshine. And despite Devenney’s goal and five points, eventually lost a thrilling encounter by the thinnest of margins, 1-17 to 1-16. Ken Doyle, vilified having been sent off in Kildare’s Leinster semi-final loss to Meath, redeemed himself as an unlikely scorer of the winning point, from corner-back. His second cousin John Doyle and Ronan Sweeney are still involved in the current panel, as is Michael Hegarty for Donegal.
“It was gut-wrenching to lose the way we did,” Devenney says. “Looking back, we had our chances and lost by a point and that was a bitter enough blow to take. But I really enjoyed playing the qualifiers as it was a proper, open football match. For Donegal, and for me, the back door was where we got the most enjoyment. Games against Armagh and Tyrone in Ulster were tough with the blanket defences and I know Donegal use that tactic now, but for someone in the full-forward line it was difficult. It was not enjoyable.
“You would get the ball in the channel and guarantee there would be two or three boys already standing there waiting for you. You were almost waiting on a bad day and that’s a terrible frame of mind to be in. But when you went into the back door games, they were made for us. In Newbridge, it was a perfect day and although Brian Lacey was making me, and he was an All-Star, I turned him inside out. I got a lot of ball one-on-one and that’s the sort of thing I used to dream about.”
Devenney is unlikely to go to bed this weekend dreaming of wide open spaces before the contemporary versions of Donegal and Kildare meet at Croke Park. Under two young managers both have improved remarkably. Kieran McGeeney is now in his fourth season in charge and has taken Kildare to a fourth consecutive All-Ireland quarter-final, while McGuinness has fast-tracked Donegal to an Ulster title. It will be, according to Devenney, an interesting tactical battle with a northern edge.
“It’s a case of McGeeney implementing Armagh tactics against McGuinness, who is more like Tyrone,” Devenney says. “Kildare are very powerful and rigid. I see McGeeney was saying he wants more games at inter-county and has elevated the level of training. That’s no surprise. He’s been there a few years now and they’ve played in Croke Park a hell of a lot of times and that might edge it towards Kildare. They’ve had a few ups and downs, which might help them in the battle.
“Donegal, on the other hand, are on the crest of a wave. We’ve got results in every game we had to this year, bar the insignificant one away to Laois in the league. We’ve not set the world alight in some of those games but have got the results. There’s been little spells when we weren’t great, like most of the first half against Tyrone and the latter part of the first half against Derry. But we’ve got by. You would have to think they’ll have to play better for more of the game against Kildare, although they’ve a bit of a reputation of being a second half team. It’s interesting.
“It could be a dour first half. Hopefully then it should open up in the second. As far as tactics go, anyone who is interested in the GAA, whether the football is brilliant or not, will know it’s a fascinating match-up. There will be tactics and counter-ploys as both managers have seriously worked on gameplans. I can’t see us keeping Kildare to as few scores as we did Derry or Tyrone as Croke Park is a scoring patch. It’s intriguing.
“In Letterkenny in the National League, Kildare bossed us but we have come a long way since even then. Because it’s the boys and because it’s Jim I always back Donegal to the hilt. But if I take my Donegal hat off, it’s close. Kevin Rafferty and Rory Kavanagh have done a bit of training and we need those lads against the physical power of Kildare. There won’t be much in it. It will come down to the wire and one thing about Donegal now is they know how to win games. It’ll be a real tough tussle. Let’s face it, it’s been a huge year for Donegal and it was brilliant to get rid of that 19-year hoodoo. Why stop now?”
Indeed. Devenney has known the pain of losing to Kildare and being beaten at Croke Park but in his present guise in the media has the frankest of opinions on the state of the county team, who continue to make strides. Hopefully he’ll be texting McGuinness another congratulatory message come Saturday evening.