When referee Maurice Deegan blew the full time whistle, the normally placid Jim McGuinness momentarily put his head in his hands and shook his head.
In five Ulster finals since 1992 that had all ended in defeat there were plenty of Donegal managers who were left shaking their heads but this was different. After a 1-11 to 0-8 win over Derry, McGuinness’s
Donegal had reached their promised land and he was simply euphoric as he realised the accomplishment of a dream. The thoroughness of McGuinness means he is now only the second Donegal manager ever to lead the side to a provincial crown, after Brian McEniff masterminded the previous five successes in 1972, 1974, 1983, 1990 and, of course, 1992.
And the turnaround in Donegal’s remarkable journey in just seven months was complete, as they became the first team to win the Anglo-Celt Cup from the preliminary round since Armagh in 2005. As they had been all season, Donegal were a united group and as players flittered around the tunnel sharing their opinions on the win over Derry, McGuinness, with the broadest of smiles, understandably was the centre of attention.
“A lot of them have fulfilled a lifetime ambition and that can’t be understated. I’m delighted to be associated with a team that works so hard, for each other and their county,” he said. “It is nice working
with them. When you’re coaching players who are prepared to learn and listen it is enjoyable. That dynamic has been there all year. It has come to this today and it is great.
“It was a long gap to be bridged of 19 years. We’re just delighted that a lot of things we were working on during the week on the training pitch have come off. We played very well and did a professional job and we’re Ulster champions.
“It is a phenomenal lift for the county and it is phenomenal for the players as well. They have put in an awful lot of work since the turn of the year. There were an awful lot of sacrifices made by the players. They hoped this day would come for them and it has. It is fantastic.”
Barring an inconsequential National Football League in Portlaoise against Laois, which was avenged in the Croke Park in the final, McGuinness’s record has been almost perfect. For a team with fragile confidence having not won an Ulster championship outing in three seasons, Donegal’s transformation has turned full-circle.
‘We tried to use the Allianz League this year as a platform to develop players for Championship football,” he continued. “We tried to develop a group of players that can play at that level and our squad was tested today.
“We were very happy with Neil Gallagher’s performance and Mark McElhinney when he came on. They were going very well in training anyway so we knew they were chomping at the bit to get a chance at it.
Thankfully that wee bit of depth stood to us. “We go down to Dublin now as champions and hopefully that gives the lads a lift in terms of confidence. Obviously it will be difficult opponents whoever it is but at the same time it is great to be in the position we’re in now.”
As a player, McGuinness was in the right place at the right time, joining the panel as an 18-year-old in 1992 and being part of the panel for the final against Dublin at Croke Park. Thirteen months ago, as Donegal’s beleaguered and downtrodden players slumped off the field in Crossmaglen, it would be left for McGuinness to pick up the pieces. Certainly not a case of right place and right time as a manager but he now must be lauded for the change.
“I was very, very lucky as a player because I came into the Donegal squad and ended up with an Ulster and an All-Ireland,” he added. “The other achievements never got to that same level but at the same time I was lucky enough to be involved in the first victory. You move on from the pain in the past. It’s nice to put to bridge that gap and go full circle.
“I was also a loser in 1993, 1998, 2002 and 2004 Ulster finals and those dressingrooms are horrible places to be. Everybody who plays sport will understand that. We’re going in there now, and for us to stand and look at that cup standing in the middle of the dressingroom is absolutely brilliant for the players.”